You Don’t Know What You Can Contribute – Until You Try

 
Winston Yu at a meeting with the Ministry of Water Resources in China to discuss water security issues. | World Bank

Like most AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, Genevieve Maricle, a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Winston Yu, a senior water resources specialist at the World Bank, went into their fellowship knowing that policymaking is complicated. But they were surprised to learn just how many things affect the process. And this was despite the fact that Maricle had a PhD in environmental science policy, and Yu had worked for a non-governmental research organization on international resource management. 

Maricle, 2009-11 Executive Branch Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), jumped into her fellowship by preparing for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. “I had studied the science policymaking process, and it was supposed to be relatively practical, but it was still very much academic,” Maricle said. “The fellowship program gave me an opportunity to see policymaking from a completely different perspective. It was fascinating to see just how different these concepts are in practice than they are in the theoretical space.”

Yu, a hydrologist and 2003-05 Executive Branch Fellow the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, worked on projects that included using science education to build bridges with Muslim communities, and repairing wetlands in war-torn Iraq. “The biggest takeaway is the nature of politics, and how it plays into development challenges,” Yu said. “All of that has helped inform my work now. It’s one thing to say we want to advocate for policies on water efficiency, for example, but how you implement this on the ground is not so easy. You need to build consensus.”

They also said they learned to keep an open mind about which agency would be the best fit, and about how they could contribute. “In the beginning, I felt my skills better suited to USAID,” Yu said. “I didn’t know what to expect,” about working at the State Department on foreign policy issues, “but knowing what I know now – I’m glad I tried it. I really loved my experience. While it wasn’t the career path for me, having that experience has been invaluable to my work now.”

Maricle, on the other hand, had thought she would like to work at the State Department. But after 17 interviews during the fellowship placement process, found herself drawn to USAID. “About five days into the fellowship, I knew that this is what I wanted: to work in international development for the rest of my life,” because of the questions they were working on and the spirit of the people there, she said. “That’s fascinating because it’s not what I studied or intended. It’s great to have a program where you can find where you fit.” 

While it is valuable for enabling people to “push into new spaces,” like she did, Maricle said she appreciates that the Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program works just as well for people who stay in their previous field of expertise. She also learned that agencies benefit from fellows who have direct experience as well as from those who don’t, she said. 

During one STPF placement interview with someone in global health, Maricle told the interviewer, “I’m really interested in this work, but why are you interested in having me work on it?” He responded, “We want someone who is smart, and who will be a problem-solver. We’re hiring you for the way you think, not for the specific set of knowledge that you have.” 

Yu and Maricle agreed that it’s rare to have an opportunity like the fellowship. Fellows really benefit from the reputation of the program, Yu said, and the connections they make can open doors long after a fellowship ends.