Perspectives from 2012-13 Fulbright NEXUS Grantees

Interviewees, Dr. Sharon Gourdji and Mr. Mathias Craig, highlight their Fulbright experience emphasizing the innovative and collaborative nature of the Fulbright Regional Network for Applied Research (NEXUS) Program.   

Dr. Sharon Gourdji is a postdoctoral scholar working in the Center for Food Security and the Environment and the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford University. She received a combined Master’s Degree in Applied Economics and Natural Resources and Environment, and a PhD in Environmental Engineering, from the University of Michigan.

Mr. Mathias Craig is the Executive Director of blueEnergy, a social impact organization that connects the poorest, most isolated communities to energy, clean water and other essential services, and trains leaders to work globally for a more sustainable, equitable world. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and a Master of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The two scholars collaborated with five other NEXUS grantees on the group research project titled: Sustainable Development Opportunities at the Climate, Land, Energy and Water Nexus in Nicaragua. They recently published their research results at the University of California, Berkley’s Center for Latin American Studies.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, including your background and why you applied to the Fulbright NEXUS program?

SG: I have a broad environmental science background, and I’m familiar with the interdisciplinary approaches required to solve environmental problems, many of which are rooted in specific socioeconomic contexts.  I have worked on projects related to large-scale water infrastructure development in India, atmospheric monitoring of carbon emissions and the biospheric carbon cycle, and most recently, the impacts of climate change on global agriculture.  The Fulbright NEXUS program gave me the opportunity to return to my primary interest in agriculture, specifically water and food security in the developing world, in a region close to home and where I speak the language!  I am also convinced that the NEXUS model is the best way forward for using the power of science to address complex social and environmental problems.


Photo courtesy of Mary Evans

MC: I have always had an interest in Latin America.  My mother is a linguist specializing in indigenous languages of the Americas and through her work I had the opportunity to travel extensively in Latin America as a child.   In school I studied civil and environmental engineering and became very interested in water and energy development.  My current work on energy, water and climate change in Nicaragua with blueEnergy grew out of these experiences and interests.  The NEXUS program was a natural fit for me given the 2013 focus areas of renewable energy, entrepreneurship and climate change.  I was excited to have the opportunity to take a step back from my operational work, think about the big picture of energy service provision in isolated places and to network with accomplished colleagues throughout the hemisphere.  I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to look at old issues from new perspectives and to see how the different sectors I am interested in connect.

 

Q: In your own words, what is Fulbright NEXUS?  What is its significance for the Western Hemisphere? 

SG: Fulbright NEXUS is an academic exchange program that differs from the traditional Fulbright model, in that it is trying to build collaborative networks dedicated towards solving social and environmental problems in the Western Hemisphere.  The strength of the program is that it builds networks in two ways: 1) by promoting collaboration through group work among scientists that come from different Western Hemisphere countries and different disciplinary backgrounds, and 2) by developing relationships between scientists and stakeholder organizations in specific regions that are the focus of the research.  Both of these types of networks are critical for harnessing the human capital and ingenuity required to solve complex social and environmental problems that cut across sectors and borders.  The Western Hemisphere is lucky to be the pilot region of the world for this program!

MC: The Fulbright NEXUS Program is a collaboration and innovation model for the 21st Century. It is about inter-disciplinary teams doing inter-disciplinary research that will directly inform decision-making to improve lives in the Western Hemisphere and globally. It addresses the complexity of our times head-on and delivers concrete results.  By engaging mid-career professionals who are already having important impact in their own fields, NEXUS provides them with a platform to greatly expand their reach and impact. Furthermore, the scholars act as catalysts, drawing in colleagues, students and other institutions into their research, leading to long-standing, deep relationships that stretch beyond the time horizon of the program itself.

 

Q: How does the NEXUS program respond to and/or fit in with current global realities, thinking in terms of both science and diplomacy?

SG: For issues like ensuring food and water security in the face of a changing climate, transitioning to low-carbon energy sources, arresting deforestation or even confronting social problems like inequality and violence, there is a need for both technical solutions, as well as inclusive, fair and democratic political processes that are capable of using scientific information that is constantly being updated as the world evolves.  The Fulbright NEXUS program makes an initial step towards helping to re-orient scientific endeavors in the region towards applied work, in concert with stakeholders having decision-making authority.  These cross-border relationships can help to keep open lines of communication when politics starts pitting different countries, interest groups and sectors of society against one another.  Scientists also tend to have a relatively in-depth understanding of the societies where they come from, and can help to explain these cultural nuances to their fellow scientists in other countries, in order to help find fair and functional solutions.

In terms of global realities, our world is increasingly interconnected, making it hard to isolate most social problems in a geographical sense.  Many of the complex environmental and social problems tackled in NEXUS, even if rooted in a particular place, require at least an awareness of the regional and global context.


Photo courtesy of Mary Evans

MC: The Fulbright NEXUS program is the right model for our times.  Many of the problems we face are complex, trans-national, and inter-sector and solving them will require us to step out of our sector silos and to learn to work in teams, often with flexible control structures.  This is not easy; in fact, it is quite hard.  But that's why programs like NEXUS are needed, to train the next generation of leaders who can bring their sector expertise to the table and learn to work in dynamic teams to create real solutions to today's challenges.  The Fulbright NEXUS program is also vital because it goes beyond connecting scientists in different scientific disciplines to connecting scientists with policy-makers.  This encourages the scholars to think about how their work can see the light of day, something that is in much need.

 

Q: What advice would you give others if they are considering applying for the Fulbright NEXUS program?

SG: I would advise anyone interested in applying for the Fulbright NEXUS program that they should have a sincere interest in and commitment towards doing collaborative research with other scientists, and in connection with local stakeholders, which can make an actual dent in solving complex social and environmental problems in the Western Hemisphere.  None of these are easy tasks, and therefore, this is where the motivation, sincerity and hard work come in!

MC: The NEXUS program is an amazing opportunity to learn how to work effectively in teams.  This is hard work and you should come prepared to do as much work on team building and team dynamics as you will on the actual research.  But I think this a plus.  Learning to work in dynamic, cross-sector teams with flexible control structures is one of the most valuable skills you can build for the world we live in.  Finally, it is a great opportunity to expand your global network outside of your silo and outside your country.  Take full advantage of this by spending the time to get to know your colleagues and paying close attention to them when they are presenting on the phone and when you have opportunities to meet in person.  Even those working on things seemingly unrelated to your work can spark creative ideas in you and the dots may connect sometime down the road.

To hear more from the 2012-13 cohort, watch Fulbright NEXUS: Scholarship Informing Policy.

The 2014 Fulbright NEXUS Program competition is currently underway. For more information on eligibility requirements or how to apply, please visit http://www.cies.org/NEXUS or email FulbrightNEXUS@iie.org. Deadline: April 1, 2014.