Thursday, June 03, 2010

Brief Interview with Gretchen Kalonji in Science magazine

Last month, materials scientist Gretchen Kalonji of the University of California, Santa Cruz, was picked to head the Natural Sciences Sector of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Kalonji has taught in France, Germany, China, and Japan and has worked on international strategy development for the University of California. Her term starts in July.

Q: How did you become fluent in two African languages, Swahili and Lingala?

From the ages of 7 to 23, I was outside the United States. Both my parents were journalists, and we lived in India, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Kenya. So I come to the international stuff kind of naturally. ... I lived in Kenya for 6 years starting as a teenager, and my ex- and late husband was Congolese, which explains the Lingala.

Q: What ideas do you have for the job?

It's a little bit premature to say, but I will ... [try to] leverage other strengths within UNESCO. One of their jewels is the network of World Heritage sites, [which could be] utilized to a greater degree by having teams of faculty and students work together on projects sited there.

Q: Where is there room for improvement?

Our greatest source of unleashed, insufficiently tapped capacity is the creativity of our youth around the world. ... Most of their time in educational institutions is spent sitting and learning facts. ... Having the students engage more directly in science and engineering research projects that are linked to the common needs in our society ... could have an enormous impact.

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