An Expanding Global Stage Makes Way for Engineering Diplomacy

Sustainable development goals — from addressing climate change, the state of the oceans, to an equitable distribution of sustainable energy, and more — all point to the vital relationship between science-based disciplines and diplomacy.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

Some of the world’s most noteworthy diplomats continue to light up young women’s imaginations about how they can change the world. The legacies of Eleanor Roosevelt; the late Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (the first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly); Jeanne Martin Cissé (the first female president of the U.N. Security Council); and Madeleine Albright, Ph.D., inspire upcoming civil servants and diplomats.

But what if the next generation of these heroic role models were women engineers? And what if they worked on seemingly intractable, unsoluble issues such as securing cyberspace, reverse-engineering the brain, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and holding it in a solid or liquid form, and making fusion and solar into commercially viable energy alternatives?

That’s the aim of SWE membership committee members Larisa K. Schelkin and Juliana Dagnese, who are working to jumpstart an emerging academic field: science and engineering diplomacy. Dagnese is the FY23 membership committee chair-elect.

The goal is to train engineers how to think through and act on solutions to such global challenges as pandemics, climate change, and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. The objectives stem from the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century, which serve as a call to action and a focal point for society’s attention to opportunities and challenges affecting our quality of life. For more on the Grand Challenges, please see the news story “Collegians Take on Engineering’s Grand Challenges” in the Winter 2020 issue of SWE Magazine. Already, universities are starting to include engineering diplomacy in their coursework.

And the topic of engineering diplomacy was the centerpiece of four sessions that Schelkin, a 23-year SWE member, organized, coordinated, and participated in during the U.N. General Assembly’s Science Summit, held in September 2022 (see sidebar).

SWE member Larisa Schelkin, left, founder, CEO, and president of the Global STEM Education Center, with former secretary of state, the late Madeleine Albright.

A multidisciplinary focus takes top billing

“Engineers more and more work in teams, and that led us to the realization that a multidisciplinary approach benefits everyone,” said Schelkin, who holds master’s degrees in petroleum engineering and computer science.

Schelkin, the founder, CEO, and president of the Global STEM Education Center, became a UNITAR Global Diplomacy Initiative Fellow in 2021. She now teaches science diplomacy, global environmental outlook, NASA GLOBE, and the United Nations’ sustainable development goals for the UNITAR Global Diplomacy Initiative Fellowship program and at the U.N. General Assembly President’s Fellowship HOPE.

She also is a science diplomacy adviser for the National Science Policy Network; a member of the Journal of Science Policy and Governance governing board; and a founding director of the Science Diplomacy Center Inc., together with professors from the Harvard Law School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of the Arctic, and the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway.

“When you work in an engineering team in the United States or overseas, your team members most likely will have diverse backgrounds representing different cultures and countries,” said Schelkin. “This is a great advantage for any engineering team. To solve engineering problems, we need diverse minds.”

This isn’t a new concept for Schelkin. She grew up in a family of scientists and engineers who worked in India, Africa, and throughout Europe and considered interdisciplinary problem-solving the norm. She has worked for more than 20 years in engineering research and development and for 15 years in environmental science and engineering diplomacy through education.

“Growing up, I remember watching scientists and engineers from throughout the world gather in our house and have these discussions [on solving problems by team members with different skills, approaches, and perspectives],” said Schelkin, a native of the Bashkortostan Republic, the Central Asian home of the Indigenous Bashkir people. Her parents and grandparents were petroleum engineers, and her extended family includes biochemists, aviation engineers, and high-pressure physicists.

“Science and engineering diplomacy are part of my DNA,” Schelkin said. “It’s more than a lifelong passion — it’s my true calling.”

Schelkin earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in petroleum engineering from the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, a national research university, and a master’s in computer science from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, often referred to as the Russian equivalent of MIT.

Her students are midlevel professionals looking to contribute more deeply to help solve global problems.

“They are discovering this new path in global diplomacy, including science and engineering diplomacy,” Schelkin said.

The students in both the UNITAR Global Diplomacy Initiative Fellowship program and the U.N. General Assembly President’s Fellowship program HOPE are from countries as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Bhutan, Brazil, Hong Kong, Grenada, Ireland, Norway, Morocco, and the U.S., among others.

Schelkin said she hopes to see her students succeed in rewarding careers in diplomacy while helping people in need and becoming part of a new generation of leaders committed to building a better future for the planet.

Juliana Dagnese, FY23 SWE membership committee chair-elect, and a quality integration engineer at John Deere’s Des Moines Works, at the company's Jensen Test Farm in Bondurant, Iowa. She earned a UNITAR Global Diplomacy Initiative Fellowship in 2022.

SWE boosts new avenues for career and global growth

Through her role as U.N. Fellow and U.N. teaching faculty, Schelkin wants to encourage women engineers throughout the world to learn more about SWE.

She sees SWE as a leader in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) — efforts that she strongly supports — and therefore a natural vehicle in which to encourage women to explore global diplomacy.

“SWE is a leader in [DEIB] and in democracy in the world,” she said in a separate interview recorded as a SWE podcast in 2021, talking about her experience moving to the U.S. to further her career.

“I want to give back to the global community,” Schelkin said. “Since I was a child, I’ve believed that it’s a beautiful world. It’s not an obstacle if you look to the world with an open heart and mind and enjoy the journey. There are so many beautiful languages, cultures, faces, and stories. I see it as having admiration and respect for differences. Approach it with well wishes. … A great reward will be waiting for diving in with cultural richness.”

“With all our beautiful minds, with all our differences, we can do great things together,” Schelkin said.

Schelkin invited Dagnese, a quality integration engineer at John Deere’s Des Moines (Iowa) Works, to join the Global Diplomacy Initiative. Dagnese, a native of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, earned acceptance and enrolled in the Institute in spring 2022. She graduated in April.

Dagnese is no stranger to advocating women engineers and global issues. She started a SWE local section at the John Deere Factory in Montenegro, Rio Grande do Sul, in 2012, and worked to grow SWE’s membership there.

The Brazil region now counts 12 SWE affiliate groups.

Dagnese, who led the SWE membership committee’s global membership work group during fiscal years 2019, 2020, and 2022, said the Society has seen significant progress in its international membership outreach with the help of global companies that have become members of SWE’s Corporate Partnership Council.

Indeed, SWE’s global membership work group focuses many of its projects and initiatives on giving affiliate groups a voice and recommending help with their struggles and challenges, Dagnese said. For example, Dagnese worked to connect SWE Brazil outreach leaders to the program development grant committee. The outreach leaders learned in more detail how to apply for funds and how to satisfy their understanding of SWE’s requirements.

Dagnese’s background reflects her passion. She worked on research projects in Germany in cooperation with Lehrstuhl für Polymere Werkstoffe at the University of Bayreuth and at the Stiftung Institut für Werkstofftechnik at the University of Bremen. She earned her materials science engineering undergraduate degree and her master’s in materials science and metallurgical engineering from Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

Impressed seeing “so many empowered women in leadership positions” at her first SWE conference, WE11 in Chicago, Dagnese said she felt inspired, proud, and encouraged.

“Watching the incredibly talented women [at the SWE conference] made me proud and keeps me engaged,” she said. “I feel as though I should keep doing more.”

Najmedin Meshkati, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Southern California, was instrumental in developing the engineering innovation for global challenges minor at the university.

A rich global history of sustainability goals

Dagnese’s research for her Global Diplomacy Initiative studies revealed that, in the United States, the U.S. secretary of state has relied on a science adviser’s expertise since the end of World War II in 1945. A more expansive role for scientists and engineers on the global stage emerged only nine years ago, in July 2014, when the U.N. General Assembly’s Open Working Group proposed sustainable development goals such as addressing climate change, the state of the oceans, and an equitable distribution of sustainable energy.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has underscored the growing importance of science diplomacy by declaring “there can be no sustainable development without science” in its 2015 “Science Report: Towards 2030.”

The report said that, in countries’ race against time for smarter development, gender equity in scientific progress also will play a key role.

“And currently, with the [COVID] pandemic affecting the globe, [science and engineering-involved diplomacy] has perhaps never been so relevant,” Dagnese wrote in her research paper titled “Engineering Role in Science Diplomacy.”

In her research, Dagnese observed that during the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda process, non-governmental organizations were recognized as new actors with an emerging role in contributing to identifying needs and working toward the goals’ achievements.

“That is when I realized the impact of SWE on the global communities, as its members are encouraged to play leadership roles in their local community,” Dagnese said. “That is basically a hands-on experience in leading multicultural, multidisciplinary, international teams working on many global collaborative projects, contributing to building bridges among countries. The impact of it is not just in gender equality from a STEM perspective, but also in engaging women in engineering diplomacy.

“With that, we are expecting to engage more members in science diplomacy and increase awareness of the importance of gender mainstreaming,” Dagnese said. Gender mainstreaming refers to a strategy to make women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies and programs in political, economic, and societal spheres.

Dagnese’s research paper also elicited reactions from FY11 SWE President Siddika Demir and SWE board member Semahat Demir, Ph.D., who said, “These grand challenges, to name a few, are in the areas of energy, food, water, climate change, poverty, immigration, emerging diseases, and health care.

“They are all of global interest, not only of national interest,” they said. “Thus we need the multinational power of science diplomacy and the international collaborations of diverse engineers and scientists to solve global challenges. Thus the role and the contribution of women engineers in science diplomacy globally become more critical to make it a better world for all of us.”

Schelkin believes that, within three years, many universities worldwide will offer an accredited degree in science and engineering diplomacy as a major or as a minor.

That’s already happening at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles.

Independent consultant Ghena Alhanaee, Ph.D., created a linked emergency response plan so that leaders of the Gulf countries and their energy and desalination industries could react quickly and cooperatively in case of a nuclear meltdown — and have longer-term backup water resources. CREDIT: Christina Boemia for USC Viterbi School of Engineering

A pioneer in engineering diplomacy coursework

The University of Southern California at Los Angeles has offered courses in engineering diplomacy for the past six years, and it’s now offering a minor in engineering innovation for global challenges. The program began in January 2023 with the spring semester.

One of the four required courses for the minor, designed by Najmedin Meshkati, Ph.D., a professor who teaches in the departments of international relations, civil and environmental engineering, and industrial systems engineering, asks students to analyze global challenges such as climate change and environmental refugees’ issues, as well as transnational threats such as pandemics, nuclear accidents, technological risks, and automation-induced systems failures.

Dr. Meshkati will be teaching a course called “Human-Systems Integration for Global Engineering.” Ethics, storytelling, and engineering innovation round out the classwork required for the engineering innovation for global challenges minor. The breakthrough comes five years after the university’s Viterbi School of Engineering was chosen as a partner institution in the U.S. State Department’s Diplomacy Lab, a program designed to provide students and faculty hands-on experience on global policy challenges.

Dr. Meshkati, a longtime observer of influential women diplomats, said his motivation for spending two years working on the engineering diplomacy coursework stems from his philosophy that, “because engineers are hands-on oriented, I would like to see them be global engineers rather than cubicle engineers.”

His own experience underlies his philosophy. Dr. Meshkati, at the urging of his father, Nosratollah Meshkati, a widely respected archaeologist and historian, left his native Iran in 1976, three years before the Shah was overthrown.

The younger Meshkati held degrees in both industrial engineering and international relations and political science when he enrolled as an engineering graduate student at USC. He had simultaneously received a B.S. in industrial engineering and a B.A. in political science with an emphasis in international relations from the prestigious Sharif (formerly Arya-Mehr) University of Technology, known as “Iran’s MIT,” and the Shahid Beheshti University (formerly the National University of Iran), respectively.

Dr. Meshkati was particularly influenced by a course taught by Iran’s legendary diplomat and part-time professor, the late Ahmad Mirfendereski, who became Iran’s last foreign minister under the Shah.

“When you work in an engineering team in the United States or overseas, your team members most likely will have diverse backgrounds representing different cultures and countries. This is a great advantage for any engineering team. To solve engineering problems, we need diverse minds.”

Larisa K. Schelkin, founder, CEO, and president, Global STEM Education Center

Mirfendereski “was an embodiment of a first-class gentleman and world-class diplomate, par excellence, who became my role model,” Dr. Meshkati said. “[Mirfendereski] encouraged me to ‘look at the big picture’ and to bring the systems-orientation and analytical mindset to foreign policy analysis.”

Dr. Meshkati has taught and conducted research for 36 years on ergonomics, safety culture, and risk reduction of complex, large-scale technological systems, and, as such, he has investigated the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 — the largest marine oil spill in history — and the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. An earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima power plant damage, which led to the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

He also has served as a Jefferson Science Fellow and a senior science and engineering adviser to the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser of the U.S. Secretary of State during Hillary Clinton’s tenure. The experience enabled him to design a new, unique course at USC titled “Engineering Diplomacy: Fusing Engineering with Foreign Policy and International Development.” He started teaching the class in 2016.

He said his upbringing in Iran and his cultural background have given him a unique understanding that USC’s women engineering graduates, including those who take the diplomacy coursework, are uniquely positioned to play influential roles in the Middle East. That’s not only because of their capabilities, but also the prestige in which engineering professionals are held in the Middle East, he said.

Dr. Meshkati also credits his colleagues at the Viterbi School of Engineering and their long-held global orientation and involvement in the NAE’s Grand Challenges initiatives for spurring on the engineering diplomacy courses. For example, he credits Yannis Yortsos, Ph.D., the engineering school dean, a founding father of the Grand Challenges Scholars program who recently was awarded the NAE’s Gordon Prize; chair of the civil and environmental engineering department Burçin Becerik-Gerber, DDes., who taught “Engineering Design and Innovation for Global Crises” and then spearheaded the new minor; and Daniel Druhora, a lecturer who directed an award-winning PBS documentary, “Lives, Not Grades.” The film, which was recognized with a 2022 Los Angeles Area Emmy Award in the best independent program category, was inspired by two of Dr. Meshkati’s former students’ work to improve living conditions in refugee camps.

The engineering students — Stefani Mikov and Emir Ucer — designed and built innovations to improve the lives of refugees from their native Turkey who fled wars and natural disasters. Their project was chosen as one of three finalists in the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Diplomacy Wonk Tank competition.

Dr. Meshkati takes a philosophical view about the vital role engineers play in the world’s most consequential issues.

“To paraphrase Plato’s famous saying in The Republic, [“philosophers (must) become kings … or those now called kings (must) … genuinely and adequately philosophize”], engineers (must) become diplomats … or those now called diplomats (must) … genuinely and adequately systematize (like engineers),” he said.

Engineering diplomacy at the U.N. General Assembly’s Science Summit

SWE member Larissa Schelkin conducted four sessions focused on engineering diplomacy during the fall U.N. General Assembly’s Science Summit. The sessions were:

  • Taking the Leap: How to Transition from Research into Science Policy and Diplomacy Careers as an Early Career Professional
  • Creating Science-based Climate Change Policy Scenarios for Success on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and Science Diplomacy
  • The GLOBE Program — an International Science and Education Program that Fosters the Next Generation of STEM Professionals and Science Diplomacy
  • Empowering Young Professionals to Become Global Leaders Attaining the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Convened by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Global Diplomacy Initiative and the U.N. President of the General Assembly HOPE Fellows

Schelkin invited Juliana Dagnese, a United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Global Diplomacy Initiative Fellow and SWE member, to talk about her experiences at the Empowering Young Professionals session. Dagnese focused on how the private sector and organizations such as SWE are considered key actors in attaining the U.N.’s sustainable development goals.

“I shared my thoughts on the role and contribution of businesses by implementing a circular economy; the importance of engineering to science diplomacy, as well as the gender lens perspective on science diplomacy,” she said.

Engineering diplomacy paves the way for emergency response solution

A USC engineering school alum, Ghena Alhanaee, Ph.D., who grew up in Abu Dhabi, studied engineering for her undergraduate and master’s degrees, but she wanted to delve into new topics that intrigued her. She followed her older sister, who earned her degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, to the U.S. to study.

Dr. Alhanaee earned her master’s in energy resources engineering from Stanford University and her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi. Prior to her graduate work, she served as a research fellow at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, where she researched robots and took part in educational programs to help schoolchildren learn about robotics.

On a visit to USC, Dr. Alhanaee saw that students could research a wide variety of topics. She chose the university to do her doctoral work in civil engineering so that, in her words, she could develop broader experience and do more creative research.

Dr. Alhanaee had become interested in her home country’s development of nuclear reactors — a new energy source in the Persian Gulf. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster had just happened in Japan, and Dr. Alhanaee wondered about the technology’s risks.

“We didn’t grow up with [nuclear energy]. It was not a topic of discussion [in the UAE],” she said.

Dr. Alhanaee started delving into hard-to-find information, including unpublished data, and concluded that, with nearly 13% of the world’s oil production in Saudi Arabia, if a Deepwater Horizon-like spill were to happen, nearby desalination plants would likely shut down. The entire region — the Arabian-Persian Gulf countries — depends on desalination for their drinking water. In fact, Dr. Alhanaee found that no backup plans existed at that time to supply drinking water if a nuclear accident were to occur. The maximum backup water would last only 48 to 72 hours.

So Dr. Alhanaee, who now works as an independent consultant, created a linked emergency response plan so that leaders of the Gulf countries and their energy and desalination industries could react quickly and cooperatively in case of a nuclear meltdown — and have longer-term backup water resources.

Hers is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. Last fall, France shut down 26 of its 56 nuclear reactors after inspectors found cracks and corrosion in pipes used to cool reactor cores. France generates about 70% of its electricity from nuclear reactors.

As with many top-sensitive diplomatic issues, Dr. Alhanaee may never know whether her response plan becomes reality, but she has been able to present her proposal to top energy and regulatory officials in the Persian Gulf. And Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi have recently built underground reservoirs to store a month’s water supply for their residents in case of an emergency.

Her work also earned Dr. Alhanaee recognition as one of the top 20 innovators among scholars younger than 35 by the magazine MIT Technology Review.

Dr. Alhanaee said she believes more than ever that engineering and diplomacy should be inextricably linked.

“[Engineering diplomacy] is a really important field to be in, especially as we advance more with technology and large-scale industry,” she said. “We need to bridge that gap to make sure nuclear and other technologies operate as safely and efficiently as possible.”