What Studying Primates Taught Alex Dehgan About The Wilds Of Washington

For field biologist-turned-international development expert Alex Dehgan, the chaotic landscapes of nations (and organizations) in flux offer unprecedented opportunities for innovation and lasting transformation.

As the first full-time Science and Technology Adviser to the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in 20 years, Alex Dehgan looks for opportunities to deploy U.S. scientific and technological can-do types to help solve address persistent issues of global concern. Dehgan, who holds a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Chicago and law degree from Hastings College, likes a challenge. And while he’s ensconced these days in Washington, he brings with him skills in observation and survival learned from fieldwork in environments as diverse as Madagascar and Afghanistan. In his previous job at the Department of State, he focused on science-policy issues in the Muslim work, including Iran, and assisted in the development of an Afghan national park system. Here, he discusses why he’s drawn to chaotic environments, why studying primates is good practice for working in Washington, and why there should be more field biologists in corner offices.

FAST COMPANY: What’s the role of science and technology in the United States’ development efforts abroad?

ALEX DEHGAN: The projects we are working on are really cool. The agency is taking principles from DARPA and shifting a portion of the agency’s investments from incremental human capacity building into revolutionary and unconventional approaches to solving development problems. We are crowd-sourcing the world to get the best ideas through a new open innovation program called Grand Challenges for Development. As many problems are too big for any individual country to solve, we partner with bilateral donors, multilateral institutions, private companies, and foundations to source creative ideas and apply them against these big, hairy, audacious development problems and to catalyze global action.

The first Grand Challenge for Development the agency launched was Saving Lives at Birth, which funds creative approaches to provide better access to medical care for women and their children from the onset of labor to the 48 hours after childbirth. Its goal was to save lives of mothers and children by developing frugal innovations to eliminate the distinction of where the childbirth took place, whether a hospital and a hut. We have another Grand Challenge for Development around creating on-demand education materials to get all children reading. We just launched a third challenge called Powering Agriculture--how do you provide power to people in off-grid settings in a way that generates local revenue at the energy/agriculture nexus and makes the supply of power more sustainable?

One of the best things about the Grand Challenges has been the exceptional response--we get 500 to 600 applicants per round, compared to about 10 to 20 applications to our usual requests for proposals. And the applications are coming from sectors and individuals who have never been engaged in development or USAID, but have some insights that are applicable to a perplexing problem. Nearly 50 percent of applications are coming from the developing world--that’s what you want to see, and what we haven’t seen before.

We are also looking into prizes as a tool. The President recently launched a Tech Challenge on Atrocity Prevention. How do you use technology to detect and better prevent mass atrocities from breaking out? How do we understand what are the preconditions for the occurrence of an atrocity outbreak and deliver sufficient warning to people on the ground so they can protect themselves? In partnership with NASA and the National Science Foundation, we’re building collaborations between American scientists and engineers, and scientists in the developing world to address critical development barriers. The agency is moving towards massively open and collaborative approaches to critical research questions like the development of new drugs for neglected tropical diseases, or new ways to improve on agricultural productivity. We need to take on high-risk, high-reward research that could, for instance, could double production of food without the need for doubling consumption of nitrogen, phosphorus, and water to grow more plants.

Do these projects serve a diplomatic purpose, too?

If you think about it, a lot of what USAID does is science diplomacy. When we build long-term partnerships between developing-country scientists and American scientists, we engage with the common language and culture of science, and we create a firm foundation for our official relationships. Even where people don’t have high approval of the United States politically, there is a respect for American scientific and technological innovation. Many of these scientists that we train in agriculture or health become the next generation of leaders. Also, the problems we’re trying to solve aren’t restricted to developing countries. Disease, climate change, environmental degradation--these things frequently don’t respect political boundaries. We want to find ways to address collaboration across borders to address national security challenges that affect developing countries, but that also potentially threaten the US as well.

You started your scientific career doing biological fieldwork, right?

Right. When I was based at the Field Museum in Chicago, I was a conservation biologist studying the behavior of extinction in lemurs in Madagascar. I spent two and half years living in a tent in the southeastern Madagascar rainforests and filled thousands of pages of data books during the project.

Do you get to spend much time in the field now? Do you miss that?

At the moment, the place I see the opportunity to bring real change is at USAID, to make an enormous difference in what we’re trying to do in development. This administration has made more resources available for science than ever before. We are rebuilding our technical expertise, because if you don’t have technical expertise, how do you recognize success or failure? The travel I’m doing now is to Boston and Silicon Valley and, when I can, to places like India. India is a paradox--they have 51 billionaires, 117,000 millionaires, world-class universities, and yet at the same time, there are 700 million people living on less than $2 a day. How do you leverage the expertise and creativity of the first group to help the second? Places like this, and others in the Muslim world, are going through great change. They’re in a state of flux. Those are the places that really interest me.

Before joining USAID, you did a lot of work in the Muslim world--can you tell me about that?

During my time at the State Department working on the creative application of science and technology to diplomacy, I served as a Senior Science Adviser to Ambassador Dennis Ross, developing strategies to use science diplomacy to engage Iran. I worked on implementing the science and technology portions of the President’s Cairo speech. As the Special Adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority for Nonproliferation, with my colleague, Dr. Carl Phillips, a mammalogy professor from Texas Tech, we helped redirect former weapons scientists in Iraq back into civilian science to assist in the rebuilding of the country. “Redirection” necessitated having a scientific community to redirect people into, and we created a center to help do this.

In Afghanistan, I was the founding country director the Wildlife Conservation Society’s country program in Afghanistan, which undertook the first wildlife surveys there in 30 years, and worked with Afghans to create the country’s first national park. Afghanistan is a biological silk road as much as a cultural one, connecting fauna that represented three different ecoregions of the world--the Paleoarctic, representing Europe and north Asia, the Indomalayan, and the Afrotropic. Within a single country, you have black bears, grizzly bears, hyenas, many cat species--from snow leopards to caracals, including at one time, tigers and cheetahs--and Marco Polo sheep, gigantic mountain sheep whose spiraling horns make them look like Princess Leia, and are six feet long if you measure them along their curve.

However, the ongoing conflict there also led to an enormous trade in illegal furs, which WCS started working with the Department of Defense to help shut down. Some of this was military personnel, but the bigger problem was NGO staff buying furs without understanding that some of what they were buying were endangered species. These furs were sold in Afghan street markets--the Chicken Street market in Kabul was particularly notorious--and on the military bases. One of the most significant moments for me was when we started to shut down the illegal fur markets, the Afghan traders themselves came to us and asked for training to understand what species were endangered, and which ones were okay to sell. My last day in Afghanistan was providing that training to the fur traders. The Afghan people have a very close connection to their wildlife--it was tied to their identity--and they were very enthusiastic about the idea of protecting their land. In a lot of ways it was the easiest place to do conservation.

You’ve worked in some pretty dangerous environments--what role has risk-taking played in your career?

I wouldn’t say I’m a risk taker. One of the most interesting places I’ve been was the Soviet Union right after its dissolution, helping Russia rewrite its environmental laws. There was 30 percent inflation per month--it was chaos. But what was incredible about Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union--and about Madagascar and Iraq and Afghanistan--wasn’t the risk, but the opportunity that massive change brings to do things in a novel way. The changing nature of those places means your effort can be magnified many times over, potentially for generations. These are the places I want to be.

Has your training as a biologist come in handy working in Washington and the world of international diplomacy?

Yes. Lemurs and humans are both primates, and I spend a lot of time watching friends, colleagues, and partners as primates. Studying behavioral adaptation in lemurs gave me a lot of insight into human behavior, for example. Ecology and economics are also very similar in that they’re both about the competition for resources--what insights can we gain from understanding that competition within natural systems? The history of national states and of biological and physical systems both constrain the present. Species create an incredible range of strategies to survive, to adapt to change; some species fail to adapt, and some of those lessons provide great insights for our own species.

Tropical field biologists are some of the most adaptable people you will meet. In the rainforests of Madagascar, we were frequently an entire day’s walk from the nearest road, and two days from the capital. We had at our peak, a group of 22 people with 50 porters, tracking 12 species of lemurs, in addition to surveying aerial and terrestrial predators, measuring botanical diversity through tree transects, and understanding predation from human hunters. There was no electricity, and no running water. Although there’s a whole bunch of advanced planning, and backup systems if you can’t figure out how to adapt one thing to use it for something else that has broken, you can’t survive in the field. Things break all the time because of the extreme conditions of the environment. We worked through the cyclone season, which could be highly disruptive--I lost a motorcycle in quicksand once. There are challenges with the governments and understanding the culture, and people get sick. I managed to get cerebral malaria, regular malaria, schistosomiasis, giardia--you name it. How do you set up a system that’s resilient to those kind of disruptions? That’s something field biologists have to do really well--particularly those working in tropical environments – in order to succeed. I’m always surprised there aren’t more field biologists starting up companies.

Biology also teaches a respect for evidence and discipline--do you have the data to say something is true or not true? You want to do everything possible to test alternative causalities. In Madagascar, I got cerebral malaria. If you make it through you’re lucky; you tend only get it once. You can distinguish it from regular malaria because of its regularity of its patterns. During the day, your body temperature would be 98.6 degrees. At 6 p.m., then your temperature starts climbing upwards, reaching 104 or 105 by midnight when you hit the peak. Then from midnight to 12:30, your temperature drops from 105 down to 98.6 degrees again. During that half an hour, you’ve never been so cold in your life—which is ironic in this really hot tropical environment. You will have to change your clothing two or three times in that half hour because of the amount of sweat you use to cool down. You become highly dehydrated. When I first got sick, I was taking data on my own body temperature to plot out the data to determine what type of malaria I had. The parasite that causes cerebral malaria--plasmodium falciparum--is so awesome in its regularity and its ability to transform the body for its own means. To me, observing that pattern, which repeated itself perfectly over multiple nights, was one of the most amazing things in my life.

[Top Image: Flickr user Duke University; Headshot: Flickr user CSIS]

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  • Richard H

    Although not edited grammatically (much like the rest of the Web), this is or is closest to the most informative story on fastcompany that I've read.  Applies to all walks of life.