I am fortunate: I was raised in Ethiopia, and I have exceptional parents who are passionate about their science. From an early age I was aware that applying scientific skills for practical benefit is an important and worthwhile calling. Growing up in a developing country engendered a desire to find innovative and relevant scientific solutions to development problems. But finding a job that allowed me to combine science and problem solving in the real world took a little time.
I studied agricultural botany at Reading University, and after a year at the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics in India, I took an M.Sc. in plant biotechnology at Wye College. I really enjoyed this experience and was fortunate to be able to write a Ph.D. proposal with my supervisor, to characterise a viral disease that was a severe constraint for rice production in West Africa.
My research was carried out both at Wye College and at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre. On completion of my Ph.D. I managed to secure a grant from the Department for International Development to continue this work into a second phase, which involved developing rice varieties that resisted the virus through a novel mechanism and thereby provided a potential solution for the problem in Africa.
It was not easy being an applied research scientist in a laboratory famous for its fundamental science. I often challenged my colleagues as to the use of their discoveries and soon earned a reputation for being quite outspoken and not fitting the conventional profile of a laboratory research scientist. Nonetheless, I established my own networks of both applied and fundamental scientists, who helped further the innovative rice development. Much international travel and communication of the science followed and helped boost my confidence.
However, I was increasingly aware that my long-term career objectives were wildly different from those of my colleagues, among whom I observed acute fears regarding personal promotion. They believed their reputations to be based solely on the number and quality of their publications. I had watched too many superbly successful scientists find themselves in positions where they could not progress or make decisions, due to the inherent nature of their short-term contracts. My enjoyment of bench science was beginning to wane, and I wanted to make a contribution by working on many applied projects simultaneously. Project management became an attractive option.
I made a decision that the public sector, where I could best fulfill my interests and have a degree of intellectual freedom, was where I wanted to be. I desperately wanted to get out of the ivory tower and interact with people, conveying the passion I felt about science. The public perception of science, science communication, the development of successful working models, the transfer of technology from developed to developing countries, the improvement of scientific education, and a measurable contribution were all things that inspired me. Once I was able to identify what made me tick, it was easy to list the establishments where I felt I could contribute.
I applied to work for the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the largest of the Sainsbury family charitable trusts. I had applied to many international donor agencies but found Gatsby's combination of interests particularly appealing. Its work includes giving support to highly technical, social, and developmental initiatives by providing grants to develop new and innovative problem-solving approaches. Many of the successful projects have gone on to become self-standing or independent. I knew of the foundation's work through people who worked there and through awareness of their initiatives promoting science nationally and internationally. The trustees wished to see research results from advanced institutions translated into practical solutions for those less fortunate. This was an area in which I felt I could be immediately useful to them. After a few informal chats in which I voiced my interest and then a formal interview, I started working for them in August 1999.
I soon found that the learning curve was steep, as I moved from specialized research into a much broader job covering projects in technical education, cognitive neuroscience, and agricultural development in Africa. For example, I work on the Gatsby Teacher Fellows Programme. I decide which teachers get fellowships, help them get the necessary support to do their projects effectively, assist them by providing them with potential mentors, and guide them in disseminating their projects, which make a contribution to their disciplines' curricula. Many of these inspirational teachers of math, design and technology, and science win national awards for their contributions, and each one helps raise awareness of the substantial contribution a good teacher makes to all of us.
Another example of the foundation's work is the Hotels Housing Assistance Trust in South Africa. This organisation raises money for a governmental fund, the U'Tshani Fund, which makes loans to people who are settling on land they have reclaimed through the legal system. The loans enable them to build homes for themselves, and subsequently they often start up small businesses, such as selling fruits and vegetables. This raises their income levels and gives them a livelihood.
These are just two initiatives developed by Gatsby. Often the foundation's consultants are given a blank slate with a brief that the trustees would like to provide support in a particular way. It is up to the consultants to develop projects that are likely to fulfill the trustees' expectations and also make value-enhancing and sustainable use of the grant.
Much of the work involves travelling, talking to people about the practicality of a new initiative, using the knowledge of experts who might give it a very clever twist, and learning from locals who provide essential regional experience, especially in international initiatives. Once grants are made, it is the consultant's responsibility to see that the initiative is implemented and then to report on, monitor, and evaluate the contribution that the particular initiative makes. The programme may involve a second phase, starting up the initiative in a new location once it has been piloted elsewhere, or adapting it. Everything is a learning process, and this makes it fun.
The launch of successful initiatives depends on the development of an effective partnership. Our hands-on approach relies on teamwork, honesty, and active interaction with our partners. Coming up with the best ideas and the most effective 'recipes' for success often requires new thinking''. These recipes, otherwise known as models, are very valuable in allowing us to learn about the implementation of the initiatives. They may be successful enough to warrant use by another organisation or even the government. As time goes on and we learn more, they can be continually improved.
My job satisfies my desire for personal growth and development alongside my need for professional achievement. It allows me to continue with my existing networks and develop new ones. I continue to be involved with research, and indeed, it is beneficial to me to keep up-to-date with developments in my field. But I can now get involved in areas that were previously outside my narrow research focus, such as biosafety for capacity development--bringing into the public domain information and recent developments that allow developing countries access to advanced technology so that they can evaluate its effectiveness in a safe and sustainable way. I can use my analytical and problem-solving skills in a capacity better suited to me and can progress personally by improving my communication, interpersonal, and people-management skills. I learn something new every day, and I look forward to improving my knowledge of many varied areas. I am fortunate to interact with a host of mentors and natural self-starters, who continuously inspire me. And if I have learnt one thing above all else, it is that it is more satisfying and effective to create your own opportunities than to wait for others to make them for you.