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Developing projects for Iraqi scientists and engineers

By Ben Brodsky PhD, Chemistry, Stanford University 2008-10 AAAS Fellow at the Department of State, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction

Perhaps the most apparent lesson I have learned in the course of my first fellowship year is simply this: expect the unexpected. As an incoming Science & Technology Policy Fellow, a common piece of advice I received was to keep an open mind and be prepared to work on unforeseen requirements, issues and problems, including many that my technical background would not necessarily prepare me for. At the time, this guidance seemed straightforward and obvious. I did not expect to utilize my knowledge of chemistry on a daily basis when I began my fellowship at the Department of State, and sure enough, I don’t. Yet, I have been surprised by just how distinct the demands of the fellowship are, and the skills required to address them, when compared to those of my prior experiences.

I first became aware of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships several years ago when I began to explore the intersection of science and policymaking, and specifically the impact of science on national security policy. I had been devoting time to the study of nonproliferation at a nongovernmental organization following the receipt of my doctorate, so as a fellowship finalist I was naturally drawn to the activities of the Department of State’s Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR). Its work with scientists globally to promote nonproliferation can be considered a form of “science diplomacy,” and seemed a perfect fit given my interests and experience. I gladly accepted a fellowship placement there.

It is difficult to describe a typical day in my life as a STPF Fellow. I have spent most of my time supporting CTR’s efforts with scientists in Iraq. My main focus is on coordination with my team at State, and with our numerous partners both within and outside the federal government, to help implement our office’s programs. Together, we develop scientific conferences, seminars, workshops, research grant competitions, and other projects designed for Iraqi scientists.

To help take these activities from conceptual ideas outlined on paper to actual events, I have worked on many major and minor tasks, both scientific and non-scientific, ranging from the development of long-term program plans to determining lunch buffet selections with event caterers in Baghdad. The sheer quantity of information to absorb, interpret, and act upon every day is enormous, and new twists emerge constantly. I have been fortunate to work with a truly dedicated and dynamic team of professionals, which has underscored that strong teamwork and open communication are absolute prerequisites for achieving anything at the Department of State.

In early 2009, I spent nearly two months at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This opportunity, unforeseen when I began my fellowship, enabled me to help implement our work on the ground, interact directly with our Iraqi counterparts, and, for a brief time, experience life at an embassy overseas. The work was intense, continuous, and never boring. I especially enjoyed interacting with Iraqi scientists, many of whom are striving daily to rebuild scientific and technical infrastructure and research activities in the face of enormous challenges. CTR sponsored a seminar and a training workshop related to water resources for several dozen Iraqi scientists and engineers while I was in the country. I hope that our work will prove to have a durable, positive result for the participants, and perhaps someday contribute to solutions to water resource challenges.

Like everything in life, the fellowship experience is not without obstacles and frustrations. Miscommunication, cancellations, missed deadlines, conflicting priorities, and bad weather (notably sandstorms) frequently complicated an already complex program and added to my own stress level. And, I have certainly made my share of mistakes. Learning to overcome these challenges is an integral, if not always enjoyable, part of the fellowship experience. The lessons learned have been invaluable, and they will prove useful well beyond the end of my fellowship.

December 2009: Benjamin Brodsky, PhD, is a second-year AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of State.

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the U.S. Department of State.