The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship gives scientists and engineers an opportunity to gain policy making experience while contributing their expertise and analytical skills to the federal government. In this Q&A series, we profile AAAS fellows at USAID.
USAID has been hiring AAAS fellows since 1982, and lately has been taking more advantage of the program — increasing the number of fellows from about 10 to 60 in the past five years.
Cameron Bess is a senior research advisor for the U.S. Global Development Lab. He works on a competitive grants program called Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER), inviting scientists in developing countries to apply for funds to support research addressing challenges in international development.
What led you to become a scientist?
Growing up in San Jose, California, my parents would only let me watch PBS. My favorite show was Marty Stouffer’s “Wild America.” The show was a documentary exploring wildlife, plants and animals throughout the United States. I was amazed by the diversity and complexity of life, and developed a passion for understanding the earth. That is when I decided to study biology as a way to travel and study the world.
Why did you focus on development issues?
I earned my Ph.D. at Rockefeller University, the first institution in the United States devoted solely to biomedical research. Because the program gave me the flexibility to rotate through different labs and take classes at any university in New York City, I charted my own path and became my own researcher.
I didn’t quite know what subject I wanted to specialize in; I just knew that I wanted to work on something important. I explored work in HIV/AIDs, malaria and cancer. While the underlying science of these labs was intriguing, I found myself drawn to issues that disproportionately affect low-income people. I focused my dissertation on diseases of the developing world and was dedicated to research with an impact.
How did you hear about the AAAS fellowship program and what led you to apply to USAID?
In graduate school, I started a chapter for Student Pugwash USA, an organization to promote the socially responsible use of science and technology. For our speaker series, we invited Alex Dehgan, USAID’s then chief scientist, who gave an inspiring talk about the impact of science in the government and he encouraged us to apply for the AAAS fellowship.
After earning my degree, I embarked on a four-year postdoctoral fellowship researching how red blood cell mutations, such as sickle cell trait, protect some people from dying of malaria. Every year, I traveled to West Africa for six months during the rainy season to stand up a cutting-edge research lab and collaborate with local researchers. After the rainy season, we packed up the lab and came back to Washington, D.C. to finish our testing and draft manuscripts.
I noticed our local colleagues depended on our resources to to continue their work. Instead of tackling local research problems during their down time, they spent the dry season waiting for our return. This experience highlighted the importance of supporting and funding local capacity and research. So when I was offered an opportunity in USAID’s Office of Science and Technology to set up the PEER health program, I jumped at the chance because I knew it would help solve this problem.
Working on the PEER program as an AAAS fellow reinforced one of the most important things I learned while studying malaria: Great ideas are everywhere, but access to resources is not. I have seen this resource disparity across all sectors. Everywhere we work, there is amazing talent but without appropriate resources, it is hard for that talent to flourish.
Why did you decide to stay after your fellowship?
The end of my fellowship coincided with the creation of the U.S. Global Development Lab in 2014. The Lab — designed to apply science, technology, innovation and partnerships to accelerate development — aligned perfectly with my interests. It’s rare that one gets the opportunity be in on the beginning of something so exciting. I didn’t hesitate to stay!
What is the value of hiring AAAS fellows in USAID?
AAAS fellows bring a wealth of experience and training. Their analytical skills and evidence-based approach to problem solving, informed by the scientific method, is well suited to development program design, execution and evaluation. In the Lab we have a myriad of scientific disciplines represented — psychology, anthropology, dark matter physics, chemistry and rocket science. I am proud to have been a AAAS fellow and continue to be a huge champion of the program.