Fellowship Reveals Lessons for Alumni in the Nonprofit Sector

Sometimes the value of a new experience is that it teaches you what you don’t like. While Yolanda Comedy and Jean-Gaël (J.G.) Collomb both said they benefited greatly from their AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF), that was one insight they also gained.

Comedy, who is now the director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at AAAS, earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1993. At the time, she was interested in working on international public policy and politics, she said. She pursued a fellowship and was placed at the U.S. Agency for International Development from 1994-1996.

Comedy was tasked with supporting a new effort USAID had created to help countries use their civil servants more effectively and improve their democracies, she said. She traveled around the world to places including Eritrea and the Philippines. One of her projects was to help non-governmental organizations develop strategies hold their governments accountable. Progress was slow, Comedy said.

Afterwards, “I completely changed direction. …I didn’t like international work as much as I thought I would, but I loved science policy,” she said. Comedy had learned about science policy during the STPF orientation and fellowship, which includes invitations to policy forums, professional meetings and social events. “During our fellowship, you hear from so many different kinds of people and hear so many speakers that if you follow up with people, you really have a great network,” she said.

She learned of a science analyst opening through STPF at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She was hired to help teams of experts from industry, academia and non-governmental organizations advise the president. After working as a consultant to IBM and others, Comedy returned to AAAS and her science policy origins in 2012. She now works to increase diversity in science and technology. Comedy also manages the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Fellowship Program, which seeks to influence, inspire and inform people in the role that invention plays in innovation and economic development.

J.G. Collomb, executive director at the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), had a similar epiphany. After earning a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary ecology focusing on tourism and conservation in Namibia, Collomb became a fellow and was placed at the National Science Foundation. From 2010-12, he contributed to the evaluation process for research proposals.

Although he did not find that he wanted a career in government, he valued learning to write in a much shorter and succinct style than his academic writing and, like Comedy,  benefited from STPF professional development trainings. They taught him how to recognize people’s personalities and skills, and organize teams with complementary skills, he said. He also learned about communicating with different audiences, a skill he uses now to inspire people to take action in his work at WCN. The nonprofit invests in small conservation organizations that help people and wildlife coexist. WCN helps those organizations scale up by providing business support, strategic planning and donor outreach—skills that many scientist-run organizations lack, he said. 

WCN and Save the Elephants also created the Elephant Crisis Fund to address a sharp rise in poaching. It has now raised $12 million for efforts by more than 75 organizations that reduce poaching and the demand for ivory. While it will take time, Collomb said, they are starting to see some signs of improvement.

While their careers may not have taken the paths they expected, both nonprofit leaders credit the fellowship with their current success. “My AAAS fellowship exposed me to some of those skills that are not available to many conservationists,” Collomb said. “They have really benefited me as a leader.”