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Special Feature: Careers in Humanitarian Science

One way or the other, most scientists do work that benefits society, even those who don't think about it quite that way. Some direct their efforts toward enriching the bank of knowledge. Others work to make new medicines, or to create technologies that make work more efficient and the economy richer. Some with a medical degree even directly alleviate pain, taking care of one patient after another.

Whichever field of humanitarian work you choose, you should bring a good dose of realism and endurance.

But only a few scientists work directly and explicitly to improve the human condition on a wide scale.

"The first time I really realized how poor my friends in Haiti were was when I was scolded for eating dinner at one of their homes," says Jagger Harvey, a U.S. citizen born in Port-au-Prince who today is a crop research scientist at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa Hub in Nairobi. "I had not thought about the fact that they fed me more than they eat in a day." This "selfless generosity … galvanized my desire to devote my career to helping the citizens of the developing world."

Photo (top), Women and children in the Intifada Camp for internally displaced persons in Darfur, Sudan. Courtesy, USAID.

Lars Bromley, in contrast, got his first exposure to the struggles of the outside world through the books he was reading as a teenager. "I grew up in a very small town in the middle of the United States, so we were as far as you could be from anything related to international affairs," says Bromley, leader of the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Science Careers). But when, after 7 years working on international environmental and developmental policy, he began researching human-rights violations in remote countries, he "was immediately so consumed with the human rights" that no other work seemed more important.

Far from being incorrigible dreamers, Harvey, Bromley, and the other four scientists profiled in this feature are making a real impact on the world, applying their skills on the ground to help curb food shortages and to guarantee other basic needs, including human rights. Click on those links to access our feature profiles--then come back here and read on for more information on careers in what might be called scientific humanitarianism.

As this feature went to press, the winners of the latest MacArthur Foundation "genius awards" had just been announced. The winners included a physician and an economist dedicated to international humanitarian work. Jill Seaman, a physician, is "committed to delivering and improving treatment for infectious diseases endemic to Southern Sudan, one of the most remote, impoverished, and war-torn regions of the world," writes the MacArthur Foundation on its Web site. Seaman spends her off-season in Bethel, Alaska, "providing health services to Yup'ik Eskimo communities," the Web site article continues. Economist Esther Duflo combines "innovative field experiments with rigorous empirical analysis" to identify "linkages and causal relationships between policy, poverty, behavior, and socioeconomic status" in the developing world, focusing on the well-being of women and children.

Humanitarian work requires a particular blend of skills and personal qualities. Not least is a certain kind of endurance. Staring down the world's ills--starving children, epidemic outbreaks in hard-to-serve areas, human-rights violations--is not easy. "We don't want to know how bad the world is, especially here in the United States. It's a very comfortable life and we like to assume that everyone has a comfortable life, and so there are a lot of people that simply could not do this job."

Stacy McCoy, agro-enterprise program manager for Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan, has made peace with rarely seeing her husband, who lives in the United States. Instead, she spends her mornings visiting Afghani women and farmers, offering scientific assistance that will help them improve their agricultural techniques.

Rebecca Nelson, scientific director of the McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program, does her work from the comfort of Ithaca, New York, but "in the big picture, I don't care where I am," she says. Nelson has worked all over the world including Africa, the Philippines, and Peru. "Wherever I am, I just see a billion hungry people as a moral imperative to get to work," she says.

Jobs like these are "best suited for individuals who are comfortable working outside of what would be [a] conventional research environment," says Rebecca Freeman Grais, who coordinates a team of epidemiologists in Paris and at a field base in Niger for Epicentre, a nonprofit research center that guides the health-care interventions of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in developing countries. "Every day, it's a challenge, so it's important to be open and try to understand the many issues" at hand, agrees Leonardo Menchini, a researcher at the United Nations Children's Fund's (UNICEF)Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy. You need to "engage with different actors, try to understand different languages and approaches to the problem," Menchini adds.

You also need to be flexible and resilient so that you can move projects forward in the face of failure. "In my job and what I do, the only thing which is constant is change--the countries change, the subjects change, the people change. … That is something that needs to be integrated into your thought process," Grais says.

The need for people to take part in humanitarian activities is apparent, but careers in humanitarian work are uncertain. "Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of employment," says AAAS's human-rights researcher Bromley. "Getting a career in international development is difficult, and getting that first job in the field is challenging," agrees McCoy. Yet, there's reason to believe that opportunities are expanding, in both human rights-related and agricultural work.

So how do you get in?

"A fellowship program is great. It gives you a chance to get that field experience," says McCoy, who leveraged a Catholic Relief Services International Development Fellowship to get established in the field. "My fellowship helped me get the program management position I have now" at Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan.

Sometimes, Bromley says, some initiative may be all that's needed. "An entry point for everybody is that human-rights violations take place everywhere," he says. "Scientific methods especially [in] social science … are very highly advanced, but at the same time so poorly applied in our everyday life that you can take these advanced scientific concepts and start applying them to your local life." Students in particular should "have a lot of freedom to explore those issues."

Whichever humanitarian field you choose, be realistic. International affairs are hard to influence, and most events have more than one cause. Since Bromley and his team started doing research on eastern Burma 2 years ago, the number of villages burnt and destroyed has "fallen quite significantly. Now, whether that was our actions or just another thing that happened in the world, I can't really tell," he says. But "we've … had several instances--on Burma, Darfur, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan--where our work has been included in official investigations by the U.N., the U.S. government, and the International Criminal Court," Bromley adds. "So we do have policy impact, but the idea of immediately saving lives in remote areas is more elusive."

In jobs like these, "the most important skill is lots of patience," MSF's Grais says. As with any research project, progress is incremental. "We are working on small steps towards a large change."

With reporting from Sharon McLoone.


A nonexhaustive list of humanitarian-minded organizations to get you started on training, funding, and job opportunities.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offers internships, fellowships, and jobs in international development.

The National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation together launched the new Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development program to support innovative science designed to address key constraints to smallholder agriculture in the developing world.

The McKnight Foundation has a remit to improve the quality of life in the world, promoting food security and funding a crop research program.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights are some of the major advocacy organizations researching and promoting human rights in the world.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Program engages scientists in human-rights efforts and provides scientific and technical assistance to human-rights work.

The U.S. Department of State Humanitarian Information Unit collects and analyzes data to inform policymaking in humanitarian emergency response.

The Genocide Studies Program at Yale University conducts research in interdisciplinary and policy issues related to genocide events.

Part of the United Nations, the World Health Organization contributes to setting the research agenda in global health and promoting evidence-based policy.

The UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Firenze, Italy, investigates child poverty in all regions of the world to inform policy changes.

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at Harvard University gathers disciplines such as public health, medicine, social science, and management to promote evidence-based approaches to humanitarian assistance.

Physicians and scientists at the Global Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine together look into evidence-based solutions to global health problems.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health John E. Fogarty International Center for advanced study in the health sciences supports global health research projects and the training of scientists in the United States and in developing countries.

The European RESPOND Consortium helps the human-rights community access maps, satellite imagery, and geographic information.

The health-care initiatives deployed by MSF in developing countries are informed by the Paris-based, nonprofit health and epidemiology research center Epicentre.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.