Monday, 12 May 2014 12:29

Scientist in the Diplomatic Corps: Economy Class Seats to World Class Events

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3-2 Organizing an S&T conference in Islamabad
in February 2013 was a crash course in diplomacy
under difficult conditions. Carrero-Martínez
addresses the U.S.-Pakistan workshop.
Photo by NUST (National University
of Science and Technology)
The first line of Franklin Carrero-Martínez's CV is a showstopper—"Scientist, Diplomat and Educator with a Ph.D. in Neurobiology." But he comes by all of it honestly. As of this writing, Carrero-Martínez, who is in his second year as a AAAS Science & Technology (S&T) Policy Fellow, is in Mexico City. He has been officially posted for two months to the U.S. Embassy there by the U.S. State Department to advise on Environment, Science, Technology and Health (ESTH) issues, including working on a Mexican version of our Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) technology transfer program. It's a policy level program to encourage Mexican researchers to bring new ideas out of their academic laboratories and into real world applications. U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto agreed on sharing this and other technology ideas in talks last May. As a Senior Science Policy Advisor in the Office of the Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary (STAS for those keeping acronym score), Carrero- Martínez is in Mexico City to make it happen.
Before that, Carrero-Martínez held the Pakistan S&T portfolio at both the U.S State Department and the U.S. National Academies of Science. That was during his first year in Washington as a Roger Revelle Fellow in Global Stewardship, a special AAAS policy fellowship program for early career faculty. As a Revelle Fellow, Carrero-Martínez was free to find his own placements. He ended up with two and with two offices—one at the State Department and one at the U.S. National Academy of Science (NAS). In both places, Carrero-Martínez picked up the Pakistan S&T portfolio, which was an orphan. "I guess no one wanted Pakistan because it was so hard. But I found it not to be too difficult. I guess I enjoy the higher adrenalin of dealing with complex issues and walking that line."

As a Revelle Fellow, he served as the State Department's Grants Officer for the U.S.-Pakistan S&T Cooperation Fund, managed grant reviews for the NAS, and organized two S&T conferences in Islamabad, one of which was postponed at the last moment because nationwide street protests had broken out and then quickly resurrected during a brief window of calm. As a regular AAAS Fellow this year, he's holding S&T portfolios throughout the Western Hemisphere, which drew him into some tentative S&T dialog with his counterparts in Cuba. Carrero-Martínez jokes that he has a knack for working with "countries where our diplomatic relationships are a bit difficult."

Before all this, Carrero-Martínez had a neurobiology lab and was an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Mayagüez. He's always had a strong interest in STEM education, particularly for underrepresented minorities, and was involved in such programs as a member of ASCB's Minorities Affairs Committee (MAC). But his current diplomatic life is a far cry from his UPR lab where he was working on nanoparticle tagging for in vivo tracking of synaptogenesis in Drosophila. Yet Carrero-Martínez believes that the core skills in science and in diplomacy are not all that far apart. "It's exactly the same once you figure out the names of things," he explains. In science, you write 300-word abstracts. "Here (in the State Department), it's just called a memo. It requires the same part of your brain to do that. You just use a different vocabulary." In teaching, you translate technical ideas into basic concepts students can grasp. In scientific diplomacy, you translate technical issues into practical terms that government officials can grasp. "Once I figured that out, I realized I could draw on the same skills."

His practical experience as a working researcher was also a great help in scientific diplomacy. In his technology transfer projects, Carrero-Martínez isn't called on to demonstrate complex neuroimaging protocols but the fact that he's done them and knows the daily lab life is a bridge to foreign scientists. "You can have substantive conversations because you're not only talking with them about technology from a theoretical standpoint but from a practical one."

A native of Puerto Rico, Carrero-Martínez grew up on the island and took his BS in Biology from UPR, Rio Pedras. His taste for world science came from summer research programs on the U.S. mainland and in Edinburgh, Scotland. "I think that's when my passion for international science started," he says. For his PhD, he went to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Then came a short postdoc in Japan, a tenure track appointment at UPR, Mayagüez, and research stints at Duke and MIT through the ASCB's Visiting Professor Program.

Jumping from the campus to embassy compound was exciting although Carrero-Martínez says that he has never felt threatened during any of his diplomatic travels. "You hear all of these thing about how dangerous it is and you see the news." But on the ground, even in a high-tension country like Pakistan, everything is well thought out. In Islamabad, the S&T group had a Control Officer who made sure that they got to the right place for the scheduled meeting with the correct people. Ground transportation was in secure convoys. Accommodations were inside the secured Embassy compound. "They know how to take care of their people."

So does he always travel with security, VIP treatment, and armored limousines? "I wish," he says. Travel to non-crisis countries by State Department employees is strictly economy class. "I remember I went to a meeting in Bali and I'm checking in at the Washington airport (with a diplomatic passport). And the lady says, 'Oh, good, you're Government. You're going to Bali first class. That's my tax money.' Then she checks my ticket and says, 'Oh, you're sitting in Row 72C." And I said, "Exactly." And she says, "Oh, I am sorry." And I say, 'Yeah, well, you can't make any assumptions." Carrero-Martínez points out that for about 1% of the federal budget, the State Department works to provide security, stability, and prosperity in the the face of complex challenges. It's also, he says, a long way to Bali in Row 72C.

Traveling for the State Department, Carrero-Martínez says he has discovered new things about himself. Such as? He laughs. "I look a little like a Pakistani. In Islamabad, people would stop me and address me in Urdu and I had no idea. I grabbed a colleague from the (U.S.) Embassy and I said, 'This gentleman is talking to me and I don't understand what he is saying.' She addressed him and I could hear her saying, 'Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico,' and they started laughing. The gentleman turns around and says, in broken English, "You look like my cousin even if you're not from Pakistan.' I'm half Puerto Rican and half Dominican and I swear that's it."

Martinez2It's different speaking for your country instead of
just yourself, says Carrero-Martínez.
The APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation)
Forum, PPSTI (Policy Partnership in Science, Technology and
Innovation). Photo by APEC Secretariat
Probably the hardest thing for Carrero-Martínez was learning to speak as an official U.S. representative. That means sticking to prepared talking points and staying on message. "This was a little stressful at the beginning because as an academic I was used to voicing my opinions and being a bit controversial. But then as a diplomat I had to understand the sensitivities of diplomatic relationships." You don't want to say things that might offend, he explains, or make promises you are not entitled to make. "You cannot be as brash, harsh, or abrasive as you can be or are sometimes expected to be in an academic environment. In my lab, we used to have big discussions and arguments and that was okay. But imagine, now you're meeting with foreign delegations. It's a little bit different."

As part of his AAAS Fellowship, Carrero- Martínez gives Career Day talks for science graduate and undergraduate students all over the country. He tells them how to get into a career like this and what it's like. "I tell them that it's definitely not for everyone. I have a new uniform—a suit with a tie. I no longer have my crazy hair or my three earrings or wear jeans and sandals as I used to wear when I taught at the UPR. You need to adapt to a new environment."

Once he finishes his posting in Mexico, Carrero-Martínez will only have a month and a half in DC until the end of the fellowship. That's when he must decide whether to return to academia or seek a continuing position in international science. He admits he's torn. "As a professor, I reach 30 students at a time. Here I am having global impact and I can see it. For my work on the MAC, I did work for minorities here in the U.S. In this job, I do things for minorities on a global scale. In some countries, that means women. In other places, it's ethnic or religious minorities. So I am taking what I did in academia to a global scale."

Going into science policy, he was warned of another danger—frustration at never seeing anything come to fruition. "Everyone told me that I wouldn't be able to see results. Everything would be too long term." That hasn't always been the case. "In Mexico, we gave a S&T entrepreneurship workshop in Chiapas, which is one of the poorest regions in Mexico. In the middle of the workshop, we had a blackout but participants worked right through the blackout on their laptops. They wouldn't move. I think that says something about having an impact," says Carrero-Martínez.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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