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Emerging Economies Get Career Help

State Department program brings ACS career development training to Malaysia and Indonesia

by Sophie L. Rovner , Jean-François Tremblay
May 13, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 19


Credit: Jodi Wesemann/ACS
BOOST attendees register at a hotel in Balikpapan, an Indonesian city on Borneo’s coast.
Local volunteers register attendees at an ACS BOOST event held in February 2013 at a hotel in Balikpapan, an Indonesian city on Borneo’s coast.
Credit: Jodi Wesemann/ACS
BOOST attendees register at a hotel in Balikpapan, an Indonesian city on Borneo’s coast.

It’s depressingly common that when a speaker makes a presentation at a conference, several attendees chitchat or fiddle with their smartphones. But when an American Chemical Society team presented a career development workshop at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, in late February, they faced a dream crowd: a roomful of attentive participants who asked thoughtful questions at the end of every panel.

ACS was in town thanks to a $198,000 grant from the U.S. State Department’s Building Opportunity Out of Science & Technology program. The department has funded four other BOOST projects that are being spearheaded by U.S. universities.All of the projects are based in Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Tunisia, or Turkey.

BOOST “fits into the broader State Department mission to use science as one of our tools for diplomacy,” according to Samuel B. Howerton, a chemist and the deputy director of the department’s Office of Science & Technology Cooperation (see page 34). The idea is to provide skills and training to young men and women who are interested in science and technology and who are likely to contribute to their nations’ economic growth. “That serves the U.S. interest as well, because economic growth leads to economic stability, which leads to regional stability,” Howerton explained to C&EN, which is published by ACS. “People who have jobs are less likely to want to use their skills and intellect for nefarious purposes.”

By the time the ACS team of trainers reached the University of Malaya, they had already been on the road for 18 days, presenting their one-day program at universities throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. ACS worked closely with the Indonesian and Malaysian chemical societies and their regional branches to design the program, which was presented at eight events across the two countries. The two Southeast Asian societies also provided local organization such as finding facilities, arranging catering, and helping promote the program.

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Emerging Economies Get Career Help

In each of eight cities selected with the help of the Southeast Asian societies as well as U.S. embassy and consular staff, ACS International Activities Committee Chair H. N. Cheng and ACS staff members gave workshops on four topics: publishing research, communicating science to the general public, mapping out career pathways, and developing research proposals. At the end of the day in each city, the attendees gathered for a session on mentoring the next generation.

The timing of the event at the University of Malaya was fortuitous. The Malaysian government has increased funding for scientific research at the university, but graduate students and lecturers there are not familiar with international journals or with communicating their work to the public. Moreover, the University of Malaya hasn’t yet developed many exchange programs with schools abroad, but the researchers there are already eager to interact with foreign scientists.

“ACS is a good partner for us because they have quite a few high-impact journals,” said Sithi V. Muniandy, deputy dean of the faculty of science. “This program helps us to improve our outreach, to help us start to collaborate on research projects with scientists abroad.”

The ACS seminar addressed issues that are relevant to young faculty in Malaysia, said Ramili Ismail, a lecturer at the University of Technology, Malaysia, who attended a talk on how to submit papers to international journals. The talk, given by Steven Meyers, ACS manager for international activities, included tips on how to write an abstract and a discussion of the inner workings of the journal peer review process.

Credit: Jodi Wesemann/ACS
Local volunteers prepare for a BOOST event at the University of Indonesia, in Depok.
Five women smile for a photo around a table near the entrance to a building.
Credit: Jodi Wesemann/ACS
Local volunteers prepare for a BOOST event at the University of Indonesia, in Depok.

“People are really keen to publish in high-impact journals because it’s an important part of our assessment and salary level,” Ismail told C&EN. “This seminar helps me to understand how a reviewer thinks.”

Bradley Miller, head of international activities at ACS, supported the ACS team in Malaysia by presenting a panel on how to communicate with the public about science. The seminars have been helpful within the country as well as beyond its borders, he noted.

“We’re helping Malaysian scholars to be more effective scientists, which is good not only for them but also for global science,” Miller said. In fact, one goal of the training is to help the attendees build networks so they can collaborate with each other on future projects.

Cheng, who spent eight years as a youth in Malaysia and Brunei, also presented some of the workshops on communicating science to the public. The Department of Agriculture chemist urged the participants to use informal encounters—at a barbeque or a barbershop, for instance—to briefly and simply explain to the public what they do for a living. In that kind of setting, a researcher could say, “I’m a chemist, and I’m trying to develop a drug to cure a disease.” Alternatively, a chemist could write a letter for a newspaper’s op-ed page about a topic such as climate change or clean water.

The attendees hadn’t previously given much thought to this type of outreach, Cheng noted, but they responded enthusiastically. “Scientists don’t make the most money in the world. Many of us become scientists because we enjoy science, we believe it is important for society, and we would like other people to respect us,” he said. “But if we don’t say good things about science, who is going to do that for us? If all of us can do this, and do it effectively, we can change the general public’s image of scientists.”

All together, the eight events drew some 750 attendees from more than 100 universities, companies, and other places of employment. About half were students; the rest were faculty members or government or company employees. More than half were women. Two-thirds were chemists or chemical engineers. And some attendees traveled significant distances to participate in the events.

ACS was careful to design a program that would be relevant, Meyers noted. For instance, the career path workshops included appearances by local experts who have jobs in government, industry, academe, or entrepreneurial endeavors. And before heading to the region, ACS hosted focus groups with international students in the U.S. to test out some of the workshop material. It also consulted with the chemical societies in Indonesia and Malaysia “to make sure the materials we were bringing were general enough and weren’t focused on a U.S. audience,” Meyers said.

The ACS team and the State Department hope that now that the attendees have returned home, they will spread the word about the concepts they learned.

To encourage that diffusion, the State Department grant includes funds for ACS to host a “train the trainer” session in August. Attendees from the first batch of workshops will compete for a chance to go to Thailand and learn additional leadership skills, including how to present the program themselves. ACS will work with them to tailor the materials for their local markets, including the use of translation services, if desired.

“I’ve been an ACS member for a long time—31 years—and there are only a few programs where I can see the immediate impact of what we do,” Cheng said. “But this is definitely a case where you get an instant reaction, and the reaction is overwhelmingly positive.”


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