Science and International Relations


Growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I dreamed of a career in diplomacy or international relations. I was captivated by the excitement of the job and wanted to have the opportunity to travel extensively, be immersed in different cultures, and become knowledgeable about world events. I was awarded a scholarship by the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington for my athletic skills (in tennis) and pursued a dual track in business and geography. These two majors, which appeared to be so divergent, complemented each other in practicality and intellectual stimulation.  

After that, I received a master?s degree in economic development from the Patterson School of Diplomacy, a prestigious internationally focused program also at UK. Like most graduates from the Patterson School, I found my way to the Washington, D.C., area immediately after graduation, where I targeted my job search on governmental, nongovernmental, and multilateral organizations that deal with international issues.

My Career Begins

I worked for a year for The Nature Conservancy assisting in the development of projects for land conservation in Bolivia and Peru. However, my first important job was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Next Wave), as head of the Latin American and Caribbean program.  

Because I was interested in science and technology as a tool for economic and social development, particularly in the Latin American region, I considered the AAAS job a perfect match.  They hired me based on my (albeit limited) environmental and program management experience as well as my cultural and language skills. These skills were important for the following job responsibilities:

    AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering

    One of my favorite initiatives at AAAS was the Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering. This program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), originated from a brainstorming lunch with AAAS and NSF officers. The Lecture Series had two objectives:  

    1. To showcase the achievements of distinguished U.S. women scientists to a wide audience of scientists, educators, students, and policymakers in Latin America.

    2. To promote the participation of women in science in the Latin American region. 

    In 2002 and 2003 AAAS initiated the program by calling for applications from U.S. women scientists with compelling personal stories about overcoming the challenges of pursuing scientific careers. These women would share their experiences with Latin American colleagues. Eighteen applicants were selected on the basis of their outstanding careers.  These women worked in scientific fields traditionally dominated by male scientists, including (but not restricted to) the biological and physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering.  We selected scientists whose careers spanned academia, government research, and industrial sectors.  Because of the nature of the project, 15 of the selected scientists were Latinas.  

    These gifted women scientists and engineers developed lectures and visual materials that were presented at scientific events in Latin American countries, including Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico (see photo below), Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina. They talked about their areas of specialty, their personal experiences as women scientists, opportunities and obstacles in career advancement, strategies used to prevail over such challenges, and the role of women in science and technology. These events also provided the opportunity for interaction with the audience, local women scientists, and the identification and discussion of the major factors that influence pursuing a scientific career and overcoming barriers to professional advancement.   

    Positive Feedback From Lecture Series Participants

    The AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering was a resounding success because it cut across cultural, national, and racial divides. Lourdes Maurice, chief scientific and technical advisor for environment at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says, “the lecture series gave me an uncensored view of how the developing world views environmental issues. I participated in the AAAS series just as I started my new position as chief scientist for environment at the FAA.  The concerns of the Panamanian youth to environmental issues such as climate change gave me a lot of food for thought as I work to provide the best scientific advice possible to balance aviation’s need to grow while protecting our environment.”  

    Gabriela Chavarria, policy director for wildlife conservation at the National Wildlife Federation, also echoes the importance of reaching the youth. “The lecture series allowed me to share my experience with younger generations. Young people in science are eager to learn more about the ?real? world, and they really appreciate hearing from people like me. I want them to know that science training is important and they can apply it to conservation which will benefit us all. Thanks to this experience I have been able to share (and practice) my job and career with students all over the U.S. Since I went to Panama to give my initial lecture series talk, I have been to 15 different colleges and universities in the U.S. I hope to start spreading the word to other countries, but already I can see how these young people are becoming more  interested in conservation.” 

    Professional Gratification

    It has been extremely satisfying to be a part of this Lecture Series and other AAAS international programs. What an honor it was to know each of these amazing women. It takes a special kind of personality to volunteer time and work for the benefit of others, and that is exactly what all these women have done. In addition, they were gracious and grateful for being given the opportunity to think back and reflect about their personal stories in becoming scientists.  They were all extremely enthusiastic about their participation in the program and devoted a significant amount of their time to prepare their presentations. Their inspirational words during roundtable forums, informal discussions, and interactions with various audiences emphasized the importance of perseverance, hard work, self-confidence, ability to change and adapt, and the value of education and knowledge.  

    Given the diversity in their fields and work, some of them were rewarded by their employers for their participation in this project, while others did not publicize their participation for fear it would have negative repercussions. A few employee awards included a promotion and bigger lab facilities, and a nomination for the Presidential Awards for mentoring in science and engineering.  

    I hope my experience with international science relations will provide inspiration to others interested in science to pursue similar activities. Although I do not have a scientific background, I was able to make a contribution to the careers of women scientists by creating a program that provided recognition and the opportunity to interact with colleagues from the U.S. and Latin America.

    Magali Spector (second from left), a physicist at Lucent Technologies, answers questions after her presentation at the 2003 National Congress on Science, Technology and Gender at the National Autonomous University in Mexico.

    Marina Ratchford currently works for the Division of International Conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, Virginia. She may be reached at [email protected]

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