Musings on research, international development and other stuff


Nerds without borders – Justin Sandefur

It’s the last in the series of Nerds without Borders but don’t worry, it’s a good one… it’s only the Centre for Global Development’s JUSTIN SANDEFUR! Find him on twitter as @JustinSandefur

I'm not trying to start rumours*, but has anyone ever seen these two men in the same room??

I’m not trying to start rumours*, but has anyone ever seen these two men in the same room??

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist/researcher are you?I”m an economist.  I’m usually reluctant to call myself a scientist, as I have mixed feelings about the physics-envy that infects a lot of the social sciences.  But for the purposes of your blog series on nerds, I’m happy to play the part.  To play up the nerdy part, I guess you could call me an applied micro-econometrician.  I live amongst the sub-species of economists obsessed with teasing out causation from correlations in statistical data.  In the simplest cases (conceptually, not logistically), that means running randomized evaluations of development projects.

By way of education, I spent far too many years studying economics: masters, doctorate, and then the academic purgatory known as a post-doc.  But my training was pretty hands on, which is what made it bearable.  Throughout grad school I worked at Oxford’s Centre for the Study of African Economies, running field projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone on a wide range of topics — from education to land rights to poverty measurement.

 2. What do you do now?

I’m a research fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington, D.C.  CGD is a smallish policy think tank.  If most of development economics can be characterized (perhaps unfairly) as giving poor countries unsolicited and often unwelcome policy advice, CGD tries to turn that lens back around on rich countries and analyze their development policies in areas like trade, climate, immigration, security, and of course aid.

But getting to your question about what I actually do on a day to day basis: a lot of my work looks similar to academic research.  The unofficial CGD slogan on the company t-shirts used to be “ending global poverty, one regression at a time.”  So I still  spend a good chunk of my time in front of Stata running regressions and writing papers.

3. What has research got to do with international development?

That’s a question we spend a lot of time wrestling with at CGD.  Observing my colleagues, I can see a few different models at work, and I’m not sure I’d come down in favor of one over the others.

The first is the “solutionism” model, to use a less-than-charitable name.  I think this is the mental model of how research should inform policy that an increasing number of development economists adhere to.  Researchers come up with new ideas and test promising policy proposals to figure out what will work and what won’t.  Once they have a solution, they disseminate those findings to policymakers who will hopefully adopt their solutions.  Rarely is the world so linear in practice, but it’s a great model in theory.

The second approach is much more indirect, but maybe more plausible.  I’ll call it a framing model for lack of a better term. Research provides the big picture narrative and interpretive framework in which development policymakers make decisions.  Dani Rodrik has a fascinating new paper where he makes the argument that research — “the ideas of some long-dead economist”, as Keynes put it — often trumps vested interests by influencing policymakers’ preferences, shaping their view of how the world works and thus the constraints they feel they face, and altering the set of policy options that their advisers offer them.

My third model of what research has to do with development policymaking is borderline cynical: let’s call it a vetting model.  The result of your narrow little research project rarely provides the answer to any actual policy question.  But research builds expertise, and the peer review publication process establishes the credibility of independent scientific experts in a given field.  And that — rather than specific research results — is often what policymakers are looking for, in development and elsewhere.  Someone who knows what they’re talking about, and is well versed in the literature, and whose credentials are beyond dispute, who can come in and provide expert advice.

I moved to DC as a firm believer in the first model.  CGD gradually pulled me toward the second model.  But when I observe the interface between research and development policymaking in this town, I feel like the third model probably has the most empirical support.

4. What have you been up to recently?

Too many things, but let me pick just one.

This week I’m trying to finally finish up a long overdue paper on the role of development aid during the war in Afghanistan, together with my colleagues Charles Kenny and Sarah Dykstra.  We measure changes over time in aid to various Afghan districts, and look for effects on economic development, public opinion (in favor of the Karzai government and/or the Taliban), and ultimately the level of violence as measured by civilian and military casualties.  To make a long story short: we find some modest bust statistically significant economic return to the billions of dollars spent in aid — even though it was targeted to the most violent, least poor areas.  But we see no effects on either public opinion or violence.

Interestingly, changes over time in public opinion and violence move together quite significantly, in line with some of the basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare.  But as far as we can measure in Afghanistan, development aid has proven fairly ineffective, on average, at affecting those non-economic outcomes.  Even where households are getting richer and are more satisfied with government services, we see no significant change in support for insurgent groups let alone any decline in violence.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

People will tell you to get some practical experience, to broaden your interests, to develop your non-research skill set, and so on.  Ignore all that.  Development doesn’t need more smooth-talking development policy experts; development needs world-class experts in specific and often very technical fields.  Follow your research interests and immerse yourself in the content.  If you know what you’re talking about, the rest will fall into place.

 6. Tell us something to make us smile?

I don’t think I believe the advice I just offered under the previous question.  Nor have I really followed it.  But I want to believe it, so hopefully that counts for something.

Thanks Justin – and indeed all my wonderful nerds. It’s been so interesting to hear about everyone’s different career paths and views on research and international development. See the rest of them here: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

*I am


Nerds without borders – Beth Scott

Today’s nerd is a colleague of mine from the Department of International Development – the most excellent (and only occasionally scary) Beth Scott…

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist are you?

I couldn't persuade Beth to give me a photo of her so I have drawn a beautiful portrait of her!

I couldn’t persuade Beth to give me a photo of her so I have drawn a beautiful portrait of her. Luckily, I think she will agree that it is an excellent likeness.

Just because I’m an anthropologist/behavioural scientist do NOT tell me I am ‘not a proper scientist’…Science A-levels, followed by a BA (Anthropology) and then an MSc (Control of Infectious Diseases) and a long stint as a Research Fellow, I do qual and quant work and am probably best described as a bit of a mixed up scientist, or maybe I’m the equivalent to ambi-dextrous? And confession time…I’m a total monitoring and evaluation geek – don’t design your metrics right and you won’t deliver an effective intervention.

2. What do you do now?
I’m a ‘Health Advisor’ in DFID working in a team that commissions international health research, from the development of new drugs through to systems-based research to improve healthcare delivery in less-developed countries.

3. What has research got to do with international development?
Everything – I mean, do you simply make up your interventions and hope they work? Research is critical to telling us what works, how it works, informing programme design and delivery, measuring impact etc etc. It’s just that people find the word ‘research’ scary (and the words monitoring and evaluation even scarier) and we have to find other ways to describe what we’re doing sometimes.

4. What have you been up to recently?
All sorts. I’ve spent a weekend sitting in a dark hotel room near Chales de Galle airport, at a Research Programme Consortium Partners’ meeting as they bash out a new cross-country research project; there were a couple of days at the Product Development Partnerships Funders Group hearing about all sorts of wonderful advancements in drug and diagnostics discovery for malaria and neglected tropical diseases; and I’ve launched a call for a programme of implementation research to improve the delivery of integrated neglected tropical disease control programmes on the ground.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

You’ve got to spend time overseas and make the time to really understand the reality of people’s lives on the ground. Always remain focussed on the impact you are hoping to having rather than starting with ‘what’ you want to do (outcomes rather than inputs driven).

6. Tell us something to make us smile?
I’m off to scare people for the weekend. Literally. I will don a big black cape and a mask and jump out of the shadows at people as they travel through the ‘Scaresville’ experience at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. A brilliant way to unwind and offload stress at the end of a busy period at work 🙂

Read the other interviews: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.


Nerds without borders – Alex Ademokun

Today’s nerd is my friend and former colleague Alex Ademokun (who can be found on twitter as @AAlex_A)…


Dr Alex Ademokun – attempting to hide his deep nerdiness behind some cool shades

I am an immunologist which means I have an interest in understanding how the body fights infections or other unpleasant surprises.  I have a BSc in Biochemistry, a Masters in Immunology and PhD in Molecular Immunology.

My PhD focused on understanding how the regulation of certain types of genes affects our ability to fight infections.  Basically what determines whether a particular gene is turned on or off during an immune response.

After my PhD I did a postdoc at Kings College London looking at why certain types of vaccines do not protect elderly people as well as we thought. We suggested that changes in the make-up of the immune system with age affect the ability of the elderly to respond to certain vaccines.

2. What do you do now?

I am the Programme Manager, Evidence-Informed Policy Making (EIPM) at INASP and Director of the VakaYiko Consortium.  INASP supports global availability, access, production and use of research for development with a strong emphasis on the global.

The programme I manage, EIPM, is focused very much on the last mile of that process, the use of research by policy makers to achieve development goals.  We do this by providing training to policy makers and their staff in how to understand and use research.  For instance providing the skills needed to know where to get reliable data on malaria prevention options; or to understand the limits of different types of research methods; or the scientific consensus on climate change.

We recognise that policies are made by considering a number of factors but advocate for research evidence to be a key one of those factors.

3. What has research got to do with international development?

From the obvious fact that scientific research can help tackle the biggest global challenges like climate change, pandemics, cybercrime etc. to the fact that there is increasing interest in using scientific methodologies to understand how development programmes work. Research has got everything to do with development.

Finding relevant solutions to the issues I just mentioned requires research into new technologies but research is also important to solve less ‘global’, more ‘local’ issues which do not make mainstream headlines.

For example diarrhoea related deaths are a major problem in India and other countries.  There are many ways to prevent this not least immunisation programmes and water purification programmes.  There are of course many challenges to delivering these solutions in practice including logistics and compliance.  In a recent report, scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras demonstrate the potential for a cheap affordable water filter system that can purify water of the most common bacteria and prevent thousands of bacteria related deaths.  It is estimated that such a device will cost $2.50 a year to run including the cost of the device and the running cost.

From the practical to perhaps the more academic end there is increasing interest in applying rigorous research methodologies to understand which development approaches are more likely to work in a particular context.  However issues arise when we transfer approaches from say the natural sciences to development which as an area has been more comfortable with social science methods.  The approaches are sometimes misunderstood or applied inappropriately leading to a pushback against scientific methods.  But here I think there is an opportunity for scientists with a strong understanding of research methods to play a role by communicating how these methods can be better used and supporting those that want to have more empirical basis for making decisions.

Other ways science impacts on development are by increasing the proportion of the population that are critical and questioning within a society and contributing to economic development by providing new knowledge which can generate new products.

4. What have you been up to recently?

I have been very busy getting a new and exciting project off the ground!  I mentioned earlier that I am Director of the VakaYiko consortium.  VakaYiko is a partnership of five organisations to build the skills needed to use research in Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In Ghana, we work with the Ghana Information Network for Knowledge Sharing (GINKS) to develop a course in Skills for Evidence Informed Policy Making.  In South Africa  the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the ODI work with ministries to systematise the sourcing and use of evidence and the Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZEIPNET) works with departments to implement a professional development course for Civil Servants and start a series of public policy dialogues on the evidence around key policy issues.

I have just returned from visits to the partner organisations and was lucky enough to meet a range of policy makers to hear what they are already doing to improve the use of evidence.  I was amazed by the level of support for EIPM in South Africa and how much has been done in the last five years to systematically look at the evidence around social issues.  There is clearly a lot more to do but seeing the interest from senior policy makers in this area is really encouraging and exciting.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

There are many ways to be involved in development.  The work INASP does providing mentorship for early career researchers in developing countries via AuthorAid is one way to use your skills and knowledge to support development.  Have a look at the website and sign up as a mentor!

Apart from the plug, development is a wide area; it’s a bit like saying you are interested in science or art.  My suggestion is to start by trying to understand what it is about development that interests you.  Is it something specific like availability of clean water, or primary school education?  Is it something geographic like development in Peru? Or is it a combination of both, for example, education outcomes for children in India?

My interest in development started with wanting to support research output from Sub-Saharan Africa and from there grew to become an interest in the role of research in development more broadly.  It will almost certainly evolve again as I am exposed to more challenges.   But at the start it reflected where I am from, what I had experienced, what I did as a scientist and where I felt I could contribute something.  These may not be the same combinations for you but you should start by asking yourselves these why/where types of questions.

More generally, the skills you need as a scientist – critical thinking, a questioning nature, a desire to understand how and why things work are important skills that a have a place in development at all levels.  There are many ways to use these skills from straight forward research into development issues to measuring the impact of programmes or supporting others that want to develop those skills.

Whatever approach you take into development, remember that it will necessarily involve a job change so be prepared learn from others, work your way up and always try to remember why you moved in the first place.

6. Tell us something to make us smile?

If you haven’t seen the ‘No woman, no drive’ video, it combines comedy, a song I love and a serious message about the way women are viewed in society while making you smile.

Check out previous blogs in this series: 1, 2, 3 and 4.


Nerds without borders – Anna Paterson

Today we are moving into political nerdiness with political scientist, Anna Paterson.


Dr Paterson – a political scientist who believes in getting her hands dirty

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist/researcher are you?I’m a political scientist who has ended up with a focus on fragile and conflict-affected countries. I’m mostly involved in applied research so I do feel that I’m often on the more ‘quick and dirty’ end of the nerd spectrum. I’ve worked in political research for almost my whole career, first in the private sector then as a Research Analyst in the Foreign Office and then for nearly two years as a field researcher for an NGO in Afghanistan.  After that I did a PhD looking at Russian approaches to, and the regional dimensions of, security and development in Afghanistan. I got to know a lot of former Soviet ‘technical experts’ who had worked in Afghanistan in the 70s and 80s and became interested in the role political ‘experts’ have played in aid, development and security then and now.

More recently I worked for DFID as part of its evidence-based agenda, first as an ‘Evidence Broker’ in Research and Evidence Division and then as an Evaluation Adviser in Nigeria.

2. What do you do now?

I’m now an independent consultant, for my sins! I wanted to get back to the actual ‘doing’ of research and evaluation. I have worked and am working on a number of projects. Some of these are evaluations of programmes, including a Human Rights grantmaking programme in Nigeria, a programme that trains African Police to participate in African peacekeeping missions and a thematic evaluation of a donor country programme in Yemen. Some are more ‘researchy’ for example I’m just starting work on a research project on conflict and security in communities on the Afghan-Tajik border.

The job involves designing the research with the client, carrying out or overseeing data collection, analysing the data and producing reports. In some projects I’m part of a big team, in others it’s just me and another researcher. Juggling timings is a big issue and what I’ve realised is that in the types of countries I’m going to, everything tends to get delayed.

3. What has research got to do with international development?

I think where political science literature on conflict and fragility is concerned a lot of the research that’s being used in development is at the macro and theoretical level. So we have a lot of really good research and lots of debates about state-building, for example on ‘political settlements’ that are really important and that policymakers and practitioners are engaged with.

What we have less of is the data and research that helps us to understand what’s going on, and what will happen when we try to intervene, on the ground in conflict-affected countries. Often programmes in conflict-affected countries are working with bad or near-absent data and without evidence of what types of interventions work in what circumstances.  A lot of this is about supporting country systems for collecting data but if we’re going to intervene in conflict-affected countries we also need to do robust research at the intervention level not just in health in governance and peacebuilding interventions. In DFID I became really interested in rigorous Impact Evaluations, including Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs), especially in my field – political science – where they are relatively new. I’m not saying that rigorous Impact Evaluations can or should be used for all intervention but I think we need more of them in conflict-affected contexts where it’s really important that we understand more about the impacts of interventions.

4. What have you been up to recently?

I’ve been on a feasibility study for a potential RCT of a community peacebuilding programme in Somalia . If it goes ahead I’ll be leading on the process evaluation and qualitative component of the evaluation, which is a really exciting role for a qualitative researcher. Good RCTs take qualitative research very seriously and are pretty good at mixing methods purposively. It’s been fascinating and challenging. There has been a lot of intense debate and we have had to take on board and deal with many very reasonable concerns. This is a real-world intervention which is similar to other types of interventions that are increasingly conducted at the community level aimed at armed violence reduction. It’s much harder to design an impact evaluation for a real world intervention that to design an intervention just for the purposes of an impact evaluation, which is the way some impact evaluations work. It requires more compromise and accommodation on the part of the implementers and the evaluators. But I would argue we need more of these types of evaluations. I know the debate about RCTs is very polarised. But if you think that we do need more of them, as I do, the steps that follow on from that are not straightforward. These evaluations are difficult to get off the ground. Some of them won’t work in the field. Those that do need to be very carefully designed and implemented especially in the context of conflict.  I hope this evaluation gets off the  ground and if it doesn’t I hope to have other opportunities to work on this kind of study.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

I’ve always liked the kind of research that gets you out into the field. I remember someone in my department when I did my PhD telling me that ‘political scientists don’t tend to go to the field that much.’ I think political scientists should get their hands dirty – especially when they’re young (which I’m not anymore!).

6. Tell us something to make us smile

I like the feminist social scientist Ann Oakley. She reminds us that robust data and evaluations are needed by women, vulnerable and marginalised groups more than anyone precisely because of power dynamics – to arm themselves against the arrogance of those in power who ‘are so prone to launch interventions without knowing their effects.’[1] I also like her because she said: ‘housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualization.’

[1] Oakley, Ann ‘Paradigm Wars: Some Thoughts on a Personal and Public Trajectory’ INT. J. SOCIAL RESEARCH METHODOLOGY, 1999, VOL. 2, NO. 3, 247 ± 254

Why not also check out episodes 1, 2 and 3?


Nerds without borders – Nhan Tran

Today’s nerd without borders is Nhan Tran of the World Health Organization. Take a look at
posts 1 and 2 as well.

Nhan Tran photo

Dr Nhan Tran – the best dressed man in global health?

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist are you?
My training is in health systems research and a lot of my academic work previously focused on understanding how policy and decision-making processes are influenced and/or informed, how research can be used to inform the scale up of interventions, as well as how to establish and use surveillance systems and the data generated by those systems.

2. What do you do now?
I am Manager of the Implementation Research Platform, that is led by the Alliance for Health Policy & Systems Research within WHO.    Through the IRP, we are trying to support research that can help inform the implementation of effective health interventions—particularly those that can prevent maternal and child mortality.  In addition to supporting direct research, the IRP is also exploring innovative ways to strengthen the capacities of individuals such as programme managers who are directly responsible for implementation, to use data and evidence in their daily work.

One of the interesting things that we are doing is to try to facilitate greater engagement between those who conduct research, and those who can benefit from the knowledge and insights generated by the research.   This is especially important for implementation research as the work of the researchers is directly tied to the problems faced by implementers and there is thus a need to bring the two groups together.

As the Manager of the IRP, I oversee the implementation of the portfolio of activities carried out by partners.   As a platform that engages with global actors, I also have the task of establishing and maintaining linkages with a wide range of stakeholders including donor organizations, multi-lateral organizations, as well as local governments, to help coordinate and align priorities and approaches so that we as a global community can be more effective our efforts to improve health.

3. What has research got to do with international development?
I think research has a huge role in international development—though that role is changing.   Early on, there was a need for research to shed light on the disease burden and to identify trends to help inform where investments were needed.  Research was also needed to develop and test interventions that could be used in diverse contexts.   As a result of this work, we now have a good understanding of the health burden and equally important, we have among our arsenal of tools, evidence on numerous interventions that can help to prevent deaths and improve health, which is critical to development efforts.

While intervention research is still important, the more needed research is research that can help inform the implementation and scale up of these effective interventions and the strengthening of health systems.  This is why investments in health policy and systems research, including implementation research, is so important.  Without this research, we will not be able to optimize that benefits of the interventions and technologies that have been developed and tested.

What is important to note however, is that, unlike burden of disease studies or intervention research, the conduct of health policy and systems research must take place within real-world contexts and linked to policy and programme decision-making.  As research that is more oriented towards problem solving than the testing of a hypothesis, it must be linked to implementation processes and very importantly, it must engage implementers and other decision-makers.    It is only through a collaborative approach to research and decision-making that the challenges of implementation will be overcome.

4. What have you been up to recently?
We recently launched a guide to implementation research – Implementation Research for Health: A Practical Guide that is aimed at bridging the divide between researchers and decision-makers (including practitioners and implementers).  The guide speaks to the value of collaboration and provides framework for implementation research as a collaborative endeavour.

The Guide is available at: (

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?
Development is an evolving field and in order to succeed one has to be willing to evolve and change in order to be responsive to the needs of the field.  While having career targets and goals are important motivators and allow us to measure our own progress, its equally important to recognize that these targets and goals often change. Opportunities often arise when they are least expected and benefiting from such opportunities requires a willingness to sometimes deviate from the path that one has set.

6. Tell us something to make us smile?
A husband feared his wife wasn’t hearing as well as she used to, and he thought she might need a hearing aid. Not quite sure how to approach her, he called the family doctor to discuss the problem. The doctor told him there is a simple informal test the husband could perform to give the doctor a better idea about her hearing loss.

“Here’s what you do,” said the Doctor. “Stand about 40 feet away from her and in a normal conversational speaking tone, see if she hears you. If not, go to 30 feet, then 20 feet, and so on until you get a response.”

That evening, the wife is in the kitchen cooking dinner, and the husband was in the den. He says to himself, “I’m about 40 feet away, let’s see what happens.” Then in a normal tone he asks, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

No response.

So the husband moves closer to the kitchen, about 30 feet from his wife and repeats, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Still no response.

Next he moves into the dining room where he is about 20 feet from his wife and asks, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Again he gets no response.

So, he walks up to the kitchen door, about 10 feet away. “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Again there is no response.

So he walks right up behind her. “Honey, what’s for dinner? ”

“Ralph, for the FIFTH time, CHICKEN!”

Hope you enjoyed the post – tune in again tomorrow for another nerdy interview!


Nerds without borders – Juliette Mutheu

In part 2 of my series on scientists/researchers who work in international development (read part 1 here), I’d like to introduce you to Kenya’s First Lady of Science Communication (and closet science fiction fan), Juliette Mutheu…


Juliette has never allowed the extra thumb growing behind her left ear get in the way of her glamorous lifestyle.

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist are you?
I am a biomedical-flavoured scientist, with sprinkles of epidemiology and population health ingredients. During my honours degree I carried out research on a Melbourne cohort examining the risk factors linked to developing osteoarthritis in people over 40 years of age. After my honours, I moved back to my country of origin, Kenya, and did some research investigating malaria admission of children under the ages of 14. This research involved visits to several district hospitals around Kenya to collect 20 years worth of inpatient malaria admission data and also visits to the local meteorological stations to collect data that would be used to investigate the relationship between weather patterns and malarial cases in young children. Further on we would look at various government interventions like introducing bed nets in communities and how this impacted on the admissions numbers, was this beneficial or not. I could go on but I will stop. Research can be very exciting and I love to talk about it.

2. What do you do now?
Currently I work at the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) as the Science Communications and Policy Specialist. My job involves translating research evidence into easily comprehensible materials. I.e. take a paper or report and turn it around into a 2-page fact sheet or 4 page policy brief, contributing to the design and implementation of a communication and policy dialogue programme as well as managing the Institute’s website and social media platforms… twitter, facebook etc…

3. What has research got to do with international development?
Research for me is all about data and how we use that data. Data can be used to tell us a lot or provide a lot of information about a particular situation and how if we wanted to move from situation A (crappy health care, funds not being used strategically etc) to situation B (great health care for all, funds used to promote disease prevention or public health etc) we need to know what is the current situation. Research not only tells you where you are coming from… background of that situation, it also provides you with the current situation and further offers recommendations of how to tackle the problem and hopefully solve it and find yourself at Situation B. Development cannot happen without research really. If research was a person… I see it as an old (old here can be relative) wise man, experienced in the ways of the world and quite knowledgeable. Research is knowledge, it takes time to collect this knowledge and further takes time to be able to think about how this knowledge can be applied into existing contexts or situations. There are times in our personal lives that we go through this process of collecting information, thinking about it and then applying it… – you didn’t need to be a genius to do that?!

4. What have you been up to recently?
I recently moderated a session by HIVOS on the use of health data to inform policy and planning. I was seated with a panel of speakers, representatives from the Kenya Medical practitioners union; people with disabilities network, youth and development organisation and a patients’ rights activists foundation. These panellists just amazed me. I love great minds and problem solvers or people who just get on with solving problems. The thing that struck me the most was how quickly as a panel there seemed to be consensus that responsibilities should not only lie on governments or policymakers but also citizens. This was not at all surprising to me, working at AFIDEP, I quickly learnt how Kenya for example has some really good policy documents the problem is in implementing or putting into practice these policies. If you know Kenya well or have lived in Kenya for a while you will be familiar with the Swahili phrase: ‘Haki Yetu’ (Our Rights). An expression the public will chant when the government goes off the rails and it seems as though our rights are suddenly at peril. But to be honest do we really know our rights? Are we aware that we have good policies that are just waiting to be implemented and that we cannot rely on the government to do it all, i.e. we all demand for affordable and accessible health services for all… but am I at my specific locality finding out what needs to be done, how to facilitate/contribute to improvements and doing something about it?

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?
There is a very good reason why you are doing/did research. Simplistically put it’s for progress for growth, success, understanding and gaining a deeper knowledge of an issue. All these contribute to development. I personally, treasure communication, making connections and creating/exchanging ideas because I want to see progress happen. In development I find that it’s a lot of dialogue, communication, talking to people about the evidence; problems and solutions; what’s the latest data on a given situation and what do you need to do about it. Scientists already have some, if not most of these attributes so focus on the dialogue, being supportive and learning from best practices.

6. Tell us something to make us smile?
I don’t know if this will make you smile… but I saw it on an organisation’s page and I just love it because I feel this should be the principles by which scientists and indeed development experts live by!

Go to the People
Live with them
Love them
Learn from them
Start with what they have
Build on what they know
But of the best leaders
When their task is accomplished
the work is done
The people will say
We have done it ourselves

– Lao Tzu

Hope you liked the interview – watch out for more nerds without borders coming soon!


Nerds without borders!

Me in a lab starting the process of extracting NK cells from someone I had persuaded to give me their blood!

Me in a lab starting the process of extracting NK cells from the blood of some poor soul who I had accosted with a needle and an ethics form earlier that day.

This is the first in a series of blogs: each day this week, I will profile a scientist/researcher who works in the international development sector. And first up… it’s me!I started my career as a full-blown, lab-based, nerdy scientist. My PhD looked at how genetic variation in HIV affects which cells it can infect. I spent years of my life cutting up bits of tissue from people who had died while HIV-infected, extracting DNA from the cells and then figuring out what bits of HIV’s genetic code were associated with what cell types. After my PhD, I moved to working on immune response to Malaria. In this case, I worked on one particular cell – the sinisterly-named ‘Natural Killer Cells’ (NK cells for short). I looked at how different people’s NK cells responded to Malaria parasites. I became a real expert in this – I started being able to recognise people just by looking at a chart showing the distribution of proteins on the surface of their NK cells. I was briefly one of the world experts in the response of NK cells to pathogens. I even managed to sneak amusing (to nerds) sexual innuendos into journal articles on this topic.


This is a picture of one of my actual cells – not an NK cell but a Neutrophil in this case. l think it’s kind of cool to get the chance to see one of my own cells up-close and personal – and I also like the fact that it looks a bit like a baby elephant.

I really loved the challenge of scientific research. But I started to get a bit worried that I was not really doing anything to help people. I mean, I had gone into medical research because I thought it would be a way to improve the world. But as I continued to write grant applications making the case that NK cells might potentially play a role in responses to as-yet undiscovered vaccines, I started to feel increasingly frustrated with being so removed from helping actual people with actual problems.* This became particularly apparent when I got more and more into lecturing and mentoring students. I realised that I loved teaching and that being able to help someone – even if it was just to pass their immunology exams – was really important to me.

My career had always focussed on diseases of the developing world (before my PhD I had also done some work on tuberculosis so I had managed to dabble in all of the Big Three infectious diseases) and my work on malaria had also given me the chance to spend some time doing research in Africa. I started to feel more and more that rather than doing research to try to come up with answers which might potentially help people in the future, I wanted to support researchers in developing countries so that they would have the capacity to do the research and make use of the results themselves.

There has been some excellent blog-based advice for those who want to get into international development careers – see for example the series starting here from @rachelstrohm. But when I was an academic scientist who wanted to break into the development field, I felt there was very little specific guidance on potential career paths for me. I had some relevant skills – the ability to problem solve, an understanding of research, the ability to plan and implement projects – but I didn’t have the specific skills that were needed in the development field… and I didn’t know how to acquire them.

Luckily for me, around about the same time as I was thinking about moving fields, there seems to have been an increase in interest in the intersection between research and international development. I have been incredibly lucky to have been able to pursue a career in this ‘micro-genre’. I first got a job working on research capacity building at the Wellcome Trust. From there, I moved to a job working with the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology supporting a capacity building scheme for scientific advice in the Ugandan parliament. From there I moved to INASP to head up a programme on Evidence-Informed Policy Making. And from that I moved to my current job leading the Evidence into Action team at the UK Department for International Development.

Now that I am working in this field, I come across loads of nerdy researchers like me. Some are still doing research (on topics more directly-related to development than mine had been); others work for development research funders; provide scientific advice to decision makers; or work to build research capacity in developing countries.

So, I decided I would carry out interviews with a few of the nerdy science/research types who have ended up working in international development to find out what their backgrounds are and how they ended up working where they do now. Starting on Monday, I will feature a new friend, colleague or maybe even frolleagues each day this week.

You can sign up for email updates on the top right of this page if you would like to get an email with each new post. I hope you enjoy them- and do please let me know via the comments if you are a fellow Nerd Without Borders!

*This by the way is not a criticism of lab-based scientists – it is probably more a reflection of my own short attention span. In fact, I met my supervisor from my malaria research days the other day and was delighted to hear that some of the work I had started has now developed into a stream of research directly looking at the role of NK cells in vaccines – so it wasn’t so implausible after all!


Take a look at parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.