NAME: Melody Brown Burkins
CURRENT TITLES: Associate Director at John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding and Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies, Dartmouth College; Chair, United States National Committee to the International Union of Geological Sciences (USNC-IUGS) and Member, Board on International Scientific Organizations (BISO), The National Academies
AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Emerging interests in science policy and diplomacy; strategic management and leadership of higher education initiatives; supervision of international program management teams; development of opportunities for innovative public-private collaboration and partnerships; fundraising and sustainable budget development; mentorship for women’s leadership and student success
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: Over 20 years working in higher education leadership, research and policy development, and government service.
EDUCATION: PhD in Earth, Ecosystem, and Ecological Sciences; Dartmouth College [McMurdo Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) – study of carbon and nitrogen cycling in Antarctic soil ecosystems]; MS in Earth Sciences (genesis of Irish ore deposit), Dartmouth College; BS in Geology, Yale University
What’s your job like?
I recently made a significant career shift from senior administration of research strategies at a public university to the small leadership team of an innovative – and rapidly growing – international center at Dartmouth College. Drawn to the opportunity both as a career challenge and to develop (and teach) emerging ideas in science policy and diplomacy, I jumped in with both feet early last year. Science diplomacy is an issue I prioritized in my role as Chair of the United States National Committee to the International Union of Geological Sciences (USNC-IUGS). I also serve on the governing council of the Science Policy Exchange, a consortium dedicated to advancing the best science into environmental policy decisions.
Much of what I do day-to-day at Dartmouth continues to be strategic management of higher education priorities: I work to advance the global engagement mission of Dartmouth College through Center activities, from globally-engaged, policy-relevant scholarship to supporting international experiential education opportunities for our students. I spend time developing sustainable annual budgets, supervising a (wonderful!) team of international program staff and student service professionals, strategizing about fundraising, and engaging with a diversity of excellent faculty, staff, and administrators across campus to achieve common goals. I also represent the Center at alumni events and international conferences.
In addition, and through my appointment as Adjunct Professor in Environmental Studies, I have the opportunity to pursue new scholarship ideas, teach new courses, and advise students about their course work and future careers. My focus is on developing a new understanding of the exciting potential for science policy and diplomacy activities and international engagement in the Academy and beyond.
What’s a typical day like?
A typical day includes coming to the office and checking in with everyone working on student programs. We send over 80 students around the world on self-directed, experiential international programs each year and provide a diverse, on-campus program on international issues, so I look for common threads and ideas to share and ensure the team has the resources they need for success. I also work to find ways our Center can develop new levels of visibility in its successful work, including touting its accomplishments by looking over our social media presence, communications, and common themes we can amplify with external partners. I look at the progress on new scholarship initiatives as well as maintaining our distinctive niche on current programs and trouble-shoot high level administrative challenges. There are lots of emails, meetings, outreach, and promotion of Center work with Dartmouth alumni relations, admissions, research interests, and student organizations. I have meetings with new people on campus (often in administration) or lead a student group to talk with them and introduce them to our programs, from research grants to classroom enhancement funding to reviews of early manuscripts. I set aside time to meet with individual students, graduate students, postdocs, and even faculty who want to talk more about how they can engage in science policy. Last but not least, I take some time to think about how I will develop programs to advance science policy and diplomacy programs, especially in coordination with our internationally-recognized programs in Arctic studies and growing Global Health Initiative. I also tweet, think about international network opportunities, and seek out fundraising opportunities with foundations, federal agencies, and alumni focused on international engagement.
For at least a few hours a week, I also make sure I put on my geologist hat to advance the United States National Committee to the International Union of Geological Science (USNC-IUGS) issues with my program officer at The National Academies from science diplomacy to global geoheritage efforts. My role as Chair is also to work with others in the United States geoscience leadership including The Geological Society of America (GSA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the American Geosciences Institute (AGI) to move nominations forward for United States geologists to international leadership positions, engage young geoscientists in international scientific organizations, and think about the role of geoscience information in foreign policy and diplomacy activities. In my spare time, I also think about the role – and critical perspective – of powerful women leaders in science, science diplomacy, and foreign policy.
Everything. I love working with fascinating and innovative faculty and students who want to engage in programs that may inform and influence policy and diplomacy activities. I also love connecting with key decision-makers in science policy areas from the Arctic to security to global health, gender, and development, and seeing where Dartmouth may have unique scholarship that can inform the future of the practice. And I love working with an incredible professional team. All are individuals with a keen depth of knowledge around student success and research administration, and we work together to make our Center a hub for connecting ideas, advancing international engagement, and supporting the elevation of voices from indigenous communities as well as youth voices in international policy development. I also love that my core training is in the geosciences, which is a very “systems focused” field of study, where we must be both creative storytellers about the history of the earth but also rigorous in our development of field evidence and lab-based data to support those stories. This underpins my perspective in approaching the importance of having informed earth and ecosystem science research voices at the table during global discussions of sustainability and socially-equitable economic progress.
The most challenging work is integrating diverse and exciting programmatic activities into a coherent story of the mission of our Center, showcasing our distinctive suite of programs and accomplishments and how they might showcase a new model for academic leadership in both experiential education and faculty engagement. My international center is also situated in a small New England town with a small population, far from major metropolitan centers where many international and innovation ideas are actively developed. So, I spend time thinking of how to best leverage our unique strengths in new ways to have international visibility, both for our Center and for Dartmouth College. It is also a constant challenge to develop the opportunities for our excellent scholars in which they may think of themselves as knowledge diplomats and international ambassadors in their field work and research programs. Geoscientists, for example, are understandably focused on basic research or specific programs in collaboration with major industry in mining, energy, and natural disaster relief. Yet, I like to show my colleagues how those efforts can be intentionally framed as core knowledge-informing activities aligned with the recently adopted Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In fact, this was the focus of my invited GSA talk in Baltimore this past November. There’s just too much to do in far too little time. I am also a wife, mother of two wonderful sons, knitter, and avid runner who also loves to tune out the world and read terrible political mystery novels whenever possible. So, finding time for it all can be overwhelming!
What’s your advice to students?
My advice to students is to not be discouraged about the challenges of marrying their interests in science (including the geosciences) with their interests in social justice, responsible and informed advocacy, and global impact. I think this is the future of new scholarship, rife with new challenges, but vast opportunities. I talk with them about a bright line between scientific activities and research that needs to be clearly separated (and disclosed) from their activities in social activism, but that there are ways to navigate and connect the two worlds to ensure that their scientific voices are heard by decision-makers in international policy and diplomacy. I also argue that we need more science at the table (not just as advisory groups) in international negotiations around sustainable energy economies, international security, gender empowerment, access to resources, global health, and the future of our planet. I want my students to believe this, to develop the ideas, and to be the next generation of leaders in this emerging connection of science, policy, and diplomacy for the United States and the world.