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From the Bench to a Broader Impact: Traveling a Non-Traditional Path for Science to Benefit the World

VIRCA Plus meeting group

In November 2019, Shavonn R. Whiten, Ph.D. (front row, far left), traveled to the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) Plus meeting in Mombasa, Kenya, to serve as USAID Donor Representative.

By Shavonn R. Whiten, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This post is the first installment the Professional Advancement Career Training (PACT) series on Entomology Today, featuring entomologists working in career roles outside academic settings. Learn more about the ESA’s PACT Initiative and read other posts in the PACT series.

Shavonn R. Whiten, Ph.D.

Shavonn R. Whiten, Ph.D.

On Day 7 of my first job in public policy, I boarded a flight to Kigali, Rwanda, as a brand-new agricultural biotechnology international research advisor with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). While in Kigali, I attended several international meetings for public- and private-sector developers, partners, and stakeholders on capacity development and provided technical guidance during meetings with implementing partners for USAID-funded programs. This “temporary duty yonder” (TDY), as it’s called, was proving to be the beginning of a transformative fellowship experience—if I could just shake my intense jet lag.

Placed via the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program, I sought out this career advancement opportunity after earning my Ph.D. in entomology from Texas A&M University and completing a temporary postdoctoral position with my Ph.D. laboratory. While I really enjoyed conducting basic, hypothesis-driven research, I always felt something was missing. I am an extrovert who enjoys daily communication, travel, and exploration and someone who wants to use science, technology, and innovation to improve the world. This incredible opportunity checked all those boxes.

About a month later, in mid-October of 2019, I returned to the States. Just as I was settling into my role at USAID in Washington, DC, I embarked on my second journey, but this time I was flying solo. As the activity manager for three USAID-funded agricultural biotechnology projects, this TDY to Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya, allowed me to visit the research laboratories and meet the scientists I otherwise would only have managed from DC. The opportunity to tour the laboratories and greenhouses, seeing firsthand the research I was responsible for as a manager, was a uniquely rewarding and inspiring experience.

VIRCA Plus field trial site visit

During her travels in 2019, Shavonn R. Whiten, Ph.D., visited a confined field-trial site for the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) Plus program in Mtwapa, Kenya.

While in Nairobi, I briefed my USAID Kenya/East Africa Mission and U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service biotech colleagues about ongoing USAID Washington-funded ag biotech activities in Kenya. I then immediately hopped on a plane to Mombasa. (Was I getting the hang of this new lifestyle and career?) In Mombasa, I served as USAID donor representative, providing technical advice and guidance for the USAID-funded Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) Plus activity, along with other representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Bayer Crop Science. These experiences set the tone for my return to Washington, DC, shortly before the close of 2019, as I began assisting with the design for next-generation agricultural biotechnology programming.

While my Ph.D. bench training on novel gene-editing technologies positioned me to effectively serve as an activity manager for USAID agricultural biotechnology programming, my entomology background also positioned me to serve as a key technical advisor to USAID’s chief scientist and other global partners. This role has included helping to provide guidance on best practices for management of fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), a native pest in the Americas that has invaded Africa and Asia, causing significant losses in several important food-security crops. Likewise, as a result of the desert locust outbreak across East Africa, Pakistan, and India, I work with a team of technical experts to explore control methods for this emerging pest. In this role, I honed my skills in drafting one-pagers and informational memos to inform and provide updates to RFS leadership regarding this migratory pest. To monitor, mitigate, and manage the locust, I have worked closely with scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USAID Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, USAID Office of Food for Peace, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

At the interagency level, I worked closely with a core group of colleagues to develop a charter setting up a dedicated team of technical experts to address plant and animal pests and diseases. This team of specialists is positioned to serve as a key point for current and emerging agricultural threats. During Year 1 of my fellowship, I was also fortunate to take a lead role in developing a framework that provides a more structured and coordinated system regarding research prioritization across USAID’s research portfolio, a challenging project when operating within a fixed budget.

Though no longer at a bench in my role with USAID, I continually draw on my scientific training. I routinely apply my technical knowledge to many insect pests, but this fellowship has broadened my ability to think more globally about capacity development and creating an enabling environment in many of the developing countries where I oversee programming. Additionally, this experience has allowed me to draw on many of the soft skills I developed during my graduate and postdoctoral training, including effective science communication, curriculum building, time management, organizational skills, and the ability to work across multiple projects, often with short deadlines. We often take for granted these skills, which span tasks like creating informative presentations; organizing and leading a team; developing protocols and procedures for programs; working with budgets; and managing tasks to make sure all are completed by a specific deadline. However, none of us would have made it through graduate school without many of these abilities, and each of us is therefore uniquely positioned to explore non-traditional ways to put our scientific training to use.

capacity development meeting group

In October 2019, Shavonn R. Whiten, Ph.D. (front row, far left), represented USAID at an international meeting for public- and private-sector developers, partners, and stakeholders on capacity development in Kigali, Rwanda.

As you can tell, I gained so much more than I could have ever imagined through my fellowship. I traveled to remarkable parts of the world, engaged with individuals from diverse cultures and backgrounds, and utilized my scientific knowledge in a manner that has truly been rewarding and fulfilling. Most importantly, I have conducted meaningful work that allows for significant global improvements through science. My current work has pushed me to view things through the lens of development pipelines and goal-setting, so I have become accustomed to speaking in terms of programming and technologies moving from the discovery and research phase to uptake and sustainability. Each of these phases is categorized by certain milestones that serve as checkpoints, and I would argue this is also the case when discovering your life’s work and passion. Certainly, my fellowship placement with USAID has allowed me to identify the next phase of my own development pipeline, with specific focus on building a better tomorrow where fewer individuals, especially women and youth, suffer from poverty, malnutrition, and hunger across developing parts of the world. Although my mission continues, the AAAS STPF has allowed me to stand at the front line, bridging the global gap for science, technology, and innovation to benefit the world.

As you navigate your personal pipeline to discovering your life’s work, I encourage you to consider the AAAS STP fellowship opportunity.  Furthermore, regardless of your career stage, as we begin 2021 and reflect on the unpreceded role science will play in shaping the future of the world, I ask each of you reading this article to consider the various ways your scientific knowledge and skills can be utilized to improve the various challenges of global food security, global health, conflict resolution, and other areas of international importance. As a scientist, you possess all of the tools and analytical skills needed to inform and improve science access and diplomacy.

Shavonn R. Whiten, Ph.D., is an agricultural biotechnology international research advisor with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and a 2019–2021 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. Whiten is an entomologist with training in vector and vector-borne disease control using gene-editing techniques, biological risk assessment, and insecticide toxicology. Please feel free to contact the author should you have any questions or if you would like further information at swhiten@usaid.gov.

All photos courtesy of Shavonn R. Whiten, Ph.D.

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