Ticora Jones: The Federal Government’s Scientist for Global Development

By Anh-Thi Le

rsz_ticora_official_headshotDr. Ticora V. Jones is division chief for the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) within USAID’s Global Development Lab. Established in 2012, the Higher Education Solutions Network harnesses the ingenuity and world-class expertise available at universities to develop innovative solutions to global development challenges. The Development Impact Lab at UC Berkeley recently spoke with Dr. Jones to gather her views on universities in development, working in the public sector, and diversity in social impact.

It has been three years since USAID launched the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). What have you learned from HESN and how can USAID best work with universities to further global development?

Ticora Jones: When we first launched HESN, we were excited that universities were already playing innovative and novel roles in international development. For example, we knew about faculty and researchers creating sensors to monitor effectiveness and use of technologies in global development, such as those University of Portland’s at SWEETLab, and we believed that universities were creating innovations that could be radically transformative if they had additional support and partners. Our challenge was to see how university innovations could be made more visible in international development and beyond the immediate academic community.

We’ve learned that HESN can play a role in facilitating connections between emerging university-based innovations and practitioners. Universities are unique places where individuals are encouraged and have the opportunity to explore, evolve, and iterate. This drive, coupled with a strong need from NGOs, development organizations, and implementers to have impact, has the potential for creating many pathways to sustainable socio-economic progress.

We’ve also learned that in facilitating partnerships and bridging the ingenuity of universities with on-the-ground implementation, communication and relationship building are crucial. Creating a bridge between universities and other actors, be they NGOs or community or government organizations,  requires ever-expanding relationship building to introduce new concepts, thoughts, and ideas. We’ve gained valuable lessons from development projects being facilitated by universities in regard to how a university and its partners establish a project and transmit what they’ve learned. In a sense, we have moved beyond the notion of seeing how impactful an innovation is to thinking more critically about the very process of innovation in the context of design thinking for impact in development work. This is the meta issue on which HESN is focused.

Some of the work I saw on my recent trip to India was the Development Impact Lab’s ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation (ECAR) project, which removes arsenic in drinking water. The organizations the research team convened, to successfully test and launch a large-scale technology, were enabled by partnerships built and sustained within communities in India. ECAR’s technology has the potential to be radically transformative for clean water provision and public health. ECAR’s ability to scale is the result of investment from the university, the private sector, and the government. This cross-sector investment and collaboration makes implementation possible. As universities play a role in the international development space, they should continue to engage in strategic partnerships, where they can think and act creatively to have long-term, sustainable impact.

If you look at the various tools coming out of the university – ICT tools that receive and transmit information to rapidly diagnose medical conditions, for example – they are the result of partnership building. But they are also the result of the supportive setting the university provides and the time, expertise, and enthusiasm of its scholars. That setting is fairly unique to universities, which is why some university labs are excelling at development solutions. As USAID continues to play a convening role for universities, the focus will not just be on funding, it will be about how development problems are framed, so that various actors can actively participate in the co-creation of the options, solutions, infrastructure of problem solving.

You have had an interesting career. You received in PhD in polymer science and engineering from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, served as a postdoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and now focus on policy-oriented work at USAID. What have you learned from these transitions?

Ticora Jones: My transition from academic research to science- and policy-oriented work was facilitated by much larger themes in my life. I have always been technically interested and able. My interest in chemistry began when my father bought me a chemistry set at age 10. This was followed by an opportunity to go to summer science program when I was 16.

My passion for science and technology was coupled with my strong desire for service. I volunteered in my community, created an organization as an undergraduate student for black women on MIT’s campus, and organized new spaces for graduate students to facilitate career development. So when I finished my PhD in polymer science and engineering, I was drawn to a career path that would allow me connect my passion in science with public service.

When I moved from the East Coast to California in 2006 to serve as a postdoctoral researcher in a weapons lab at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), I was able to explore larger policy issues. Because LLNL was and continues to be a leader in research and innovation and because it is a government-sponsored laboratory, I was able to dive deep into understanding how science and tech policy can influence the greater good of society.

Following this role, I transitioned to Washington, D.C., where I worked at the U.S. Senate and was introduced to international and foreign policy. I worked for Senator Russell Feingold, who served as the chairman of the Subcommittee of African Affairs on the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations. A benefit of working at the federal level was that I was exposed to foreign policies, priorities, and issues. It was also challenging because it was fast-paced and at times overwhelming. Nevertheless, I decided to apply for a fellowship at USAID, which allowed me to explore how to forge stronger links between the science and technology community and international development issues. This is part of what led to the construction and implementation of HESN. For people like me who are interested in science, community, and service, HESN is an amazing way to bring all of these elements together. My role at HESN has really allowed me to come full circle and engage with all of the elements I’m passionate about.

What unique skills do STEM-trained people contribute to international development?

Ticora Jones: Commitment to rigor and contact with complex systems and ambiguity is something that STEM-trained students bring, and it’s a trait that I would say is shared with international development practitioners. Individuals in this space are curious about how technology is implemented in appropriate contexts, in appropriate ways, with appropriate partnerships. The ways in which STEM-trained students can deconstruct problems from a wide range of angles and then find solutions is unique.

But I also have to say that there are four assets that I believe STEM-trained individuals could be better at:

1. Empathy: A broader sense of empathy and compassion toward those they are partnering with and or serving in a development context is key, as are developing appropriate relationships with partners. The development sphere is complex, and it’s important to navigate it with compassion.

2. Trust: Building and maintaining trust is also key. The development context is sensitive and the ability to build trust and maintain relationships is especially critical.

3. Openness and curiosity: Being open to new opportunities, solutions, and ideas is a must.

4. Humility: How you engage a local community and engage any organization you have interest in is important. Another piece is to reconcile and learn about your privileges, in order to engage in the world without arrogance. Everyone around you can be a teacher.

These skills can be learned without going around the world. They can be learned where you live by working directly with communities in your backyard. The Big Ideas@Berkeley competition is incredibly unique in that it includes projects around the world and in the United States. It encourages progression from ideation to implementation and includes wider notions of development.

At UC Berkeley and within the Development Impact Lab, we have noticed an increase in women engineers when academic programs focus on societal impact. What are your thoughts on this and diversity in STEM more broadly?

Ticora Jones: I love the op-ed that was recently featured in the New York Times, as it is something I’ve been saying for a while. One way to increase diversity in STEM is to create clearer connections to societal value. A certain immediacy is tied to social impact- and social entrepreneurship-related work. The people you are engaging with and the time you spend with them and the way you see yourself and the environment starts to change and evolve, often in a positive direction. Technical and scientific work becomes more immediate and attractive when improved livelihoods are the goal.

I think the Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering at UC Berkeley is a great example of this. I would have enrolled in the program, if it had been available when I was a graduate student. It is a unique program that serves a broader need to society while providing top engineering skills. In my opinion, this pedagogical movement is about three elements: humanity, our intentions, and the connections we make between the work we do and the communities we hope to engage. Solutions that lack those elements I call “Here’s my hammer, I’m here to save you” solutions. We do a disservice if we don’t forge connections between technical expertise and these social impact and humanitarian elements.

In addition to developing disciplines that have a strong focus on societal impact and promoting connections between traditional engineering and research and its role in humanity, it’s important to intentionally promote inclusiveness for underrepresented groups. It’s easy to say the right buzzwords, but the ways in which programs are inclusive and encourage participation helps validate (or invalidate) those who are participating and those who want to participate.

At the end of the day, it’s about intentions, humanity, and being inclusive. To reiterate, we do a disservice to many people, if we think those things don’t matter.

What opportunities can attract a more diverse population into international development?

Ticora Jones: To create a diversified global development landscape, one that includes a wide array of talents and perspectives, economically viable pathways to build careers in fields like social entrepreneurship and innovation must continue to evolve. There are a few key issues – awareness, action, and deep engagement. Social media has done a tremendous job to build awareness for the challenges faced by individuals, communities, and countries around the world. Campaigns like the Girl Effect and Let Girls Learn have opened the eyes of many to how critical it is to empower women and girls. But awareness does not simply translate to action and deep engagement, nor are either of these things undertaken without financial and intellectual investment.

Until fairly recently, the Peace Corps was one of the primary ways for an American students to get deep engagement and an extended on-the-ground experience in the developing world. This is a remarkable opportunity, but one that is limited to individuals able to navigate the familial and financial dynamics of leaving their homes and cultures. It’s more than going away to college (which is also expensive) and the opportunity cost can be very high, even for people who would appreciate the transformative power of the experience.

Outside of the Peace Corps model, more people are working on global development challenges through international organizations, faith-based organizations, or programs that provide immersive experiences. There has also been an increase in the number of internships and study and research abroad opportunities in developing countries. Unfortunately, broader validation or financial support for this work isn’t necessarily spread evenly. For example, incubator and accelerator programs to advance a social entrepreneurship or innovation are evolving, but the investment landscape is not always spread so that a diverse array of actors can be engaged. One way to potentially target this gap is through engaging dynamic diaspora groups eager to remain intellectually involved in the opportunities and challenges in their ancestral homes. This diversifies the perspective and expands the reach of the global development enterprise. There are always more ways to be inclusive, but we must first identify unconscious bias to this diversity and find ways to spread opportunity so that it taps into the talents of our global citizenry.