Anjali Kumar’s path to Peru started small—very small: her study of ants on mixed forest farms in Costa Rica couldn’t have happened without the farmers who worked the land. Kumar spent time daily with them, drinking coffee and gleaning knowledge from them. Especially ants, about which they knew more than any scientist.
It confirmed her sense that pure academic research wasn’t the right direction for her career, and that she wanted to work more closely with communities on matters related to conservation and biodiversity. Placed at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) during her AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) in 2015, she says her whole goal was to pursue an STPF overseas fellowship in Peru, which she began in February 2020.
“In conservation and biodiversity, I wanted to understand more about how to get humans more involved,” Kumar says, specifically how to engage with communities throughout the Amazon River basin and support them as drivers of conservation of their natural resources. “And I wanted to do research that would be useful for the country I’m working in.”
Kumar is one of 59 fellows who have been placed in USAID missions abroad as part of the STPF Overseas Fellowship program representing 105 placements since it launched in 1992, with a hiatus from 2004 to 2011. The program has placed fellows in 30 different USAID missions in all regions of the globe. Missions in Armenia, Cambodia, Egypt, El Salvador, Indonesia, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and Uganda and many more have hosted fellows, all of whom are alumni of the STPF program – a requirement of the Overseas Fellowship.
The number of fellowship positions varies in any given year depending on the need from USAID missions, and positions are announced on a rolling basis. The fellowship is an opportunity for participants to gain a new and different perspective on policy work, says STPF Project Director Olivia Monahan, who coordinates the Overseas Fellowship program.
“One thing fellows often do is to focus on innovation, as well as building the concept of partnerships,” Monahan says. “Working at the USAID missions, the fellows are embedded with the individuals they’re seeking to serve.”
What fellows work on while abroad “runs the gamut,” Monahan added: Kumar’s earlier work on gold mining and mercury contamination continues on in her current placement, as well as work related to international wildlife trafficking and other conservation crimes. In Ethiopia, Faith Bartz Tarr worked on supporting community monitoring and response to an infestation of fall armyworm, a serious crop pest that jeopardizes regional food security; in the USAID Regional Development Mission for Asia in Thailand, Kyriacos Koupparis worked with government representatives to promote the use of science, technology and innovation for social impact and sustainability (and organized a three-day conference on blockchain technology for USAID staff); in El Salvador, Jason Landrum served as a science and technology advisor for coordinating regional environmental policy issues.
“Highly qualified scientists and engineers get a deeper experience of what international development and U.S. policy and diplomacy looks like in the field,” Monahan says. “If they have that experience domestically as well, it creates a full and well-rounded experience for our fellows who want to pursue this type of work.”
Emmanuella Delva, who was an STPF Executive Branch Fellow from 2011 to 2013 and went on to serve as an Overseas Fellow in Indonesia from 2013 to 2015, transitioned into policy from an academic research position in biomedical sciences at St. Jude’s Research Hospital. Her initial fellowship in the executive branch, Delva says, was the beginning of a career pivot that blended her love for science and desire to help other people in tangible ways.
But after that fellowship, she says she felt there were some gaps in her understanding of how policies were created and how they actually impacted people’s day-to-day lives. When a position in the USAID Indonesia mission popped up, she says she was eager to see “where the rubber hits the road.”
She points to a project to develop the Indonesian equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation—which ultimately foundered, but that built valuable relationships and lessons learned for future efforts in a similar vein.
“While the science fund ultimately didn’t pan out, what it did was allow for USAID and the Indonesian government to have a really good model of how to engage with one another,” Delva says. “It certainly strengthened our relationship with the ministry of science and technology, and made us want to be more engaged with the Indonesian government.”
Kumar’s Peru placement also has her working with another alum of the STPF program, Thomas Rhodes, who was an Executive Branch Fellow at USAID from 1993 to 1995. He is working with Kumar on policy development and implementation of field projects as the director of the South American Regional Environment Program in Peru. Rhodes’ own work began in coral reef ecology, which evolved into work on sanitation and water, and then to agriculture projects and economic growth before moving into leadership positions in engineering and policy.
Successful policy, Rhodes says – whether it relates to conservation and biodiversity, or education, or gender equality – will always require fundamental and experimental research by scientists. But it also requires the translational flipside of the coin: people who are able to understand that science, then take multiple strands and synthesize it into approaches that are usable by government and laypeople alike.
“An individual’s impact is not easy to pull out,” Rhodes says. “But it’s through the initiative and effort and drive to make the machine work right – to make the team work – that people like Anjali are able to make conservation work better in Peru.”