A Career in Global Development: Catalyzing Innovations to Help People

May 1, 2019

Dr. Ankunda Kariisa is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an organization that saves lives, reduces poverty, strengthens democratic governance and helps people progress beyond assistance. As early as graduate school, Kariisa was passionate about global health issues and equity. She describes how staying true to her interests and being open to opportunities led her to an unexpected and fulfilling career in digital technologies and global development.

From the Bench to Global Development

Being born and raised in West Africa, Kariisa always knew she wanted to improve public health issues in developing countries. Her interests led her to do research on Vibrio cholerae pathogenesis during her graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then on antimicrobial resistance during her postdoctoral training at the University of Washington Medical Center. 

Although her research experiences were very enjoyable and rewarding, she wanted to be involved in multidisciplinary conversations related to global health. Also, the demands of academic life was not compatible with her expectation of a good work-life balance. “I reached a point where I had done a lot of science-related work, but I wanted to branch out,” Kariisa recalls. This decision was a turning point in her career and led her to connect with like-minded people. She applied and received the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. “I didn’t know that I was going to end up here. I stayed true to my interests, kept exploring career options, asked questions and was open to pursuing different opportunities, and that led me to work in global development,” she points out.    

Helping People with Digital Technologies 

Currently, as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Kariisa works at the Center for Digital Development at USAID. She manages several projects on digital technologies to improve the quality of life in developing countries. Specifically, Kariisa is involved in digitalizing and improving financial services. Her work is highly multidisciplinary because it requires collaborations with university researchers who conduct studies to inform her decisions. Also, it involves working with government agencies in different countries to implement a wide range of programs. “During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, health-care workers were on strike because of delays in salary payments. We collaborated with the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leon to digitize, and thus expedite payments for health-care workers using cell phone technology. This solution cut the striking hours, which contributed to saving lives. This is how digital financial services help streamline payments, which has a huge impact on people’s lives in developing countries,” she states enthusiastically. 

The Value of Transferable Skills 

Completing a doctoral degree was essential for Kariisa’s career transition since it was a requirement to apply for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship. Her graduate training also taught her to think critically, ask relevant questions and work independently – skills that she uses daily. “As a graduate student, I had to become independent to move my projects forward. If I hadn’t learned how to do that, I wouldn’t have the confidence I need to do my current job now,” she highlights. 

A Job that Aligns with Personal Core Values 

The most rewarding aspect of Kariisa’s job is the multiple opportunities to collaborate and get involved in many different projects. Also, as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, she values the variety of professional development opportunities available to her. “As part of my professional development, I will be an Embassy Science Fellow at the Embassy in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire supporting off-grid energy programs, agriculture programs and STEM education platforms,” she says. 

Tips for Career Transitions

Kariisa’s advice for microbiologists looking for a career shift is to research different avenues through informational interviewing, extracurricular activities and online courses. Additionally, she thinks it is essential to connect and build relationships with people who have career trajectories that match your interests. 

She strongly recommends applying to high visibility fellowships like the AAAS Science & Technology Policy and Gates Foundation Fellowships. “It is important to understand that your career path will not be laid out for you. You have to know what you want, be able to convey it with a well-crafted resume and cover letter, and be open to new opportunities,” she emphasizes. 

Author: Natalia Martin

Natalia Martin
Natalia Martin is a trained microbiologist turned project manager for the American Chemical Society in the Graduate Students & Postdoctoral Scholars Office.