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Reflections of hope from the 2016 Fellows program

By Polly E. Holmberg

AFS Training Lead, Polly E. Holmberg introducing the 2016 Fellows at Cornell University

On a cool October day, I peer up from my laptop screen at the backs of the heads of the Fellows who fill a room on the Cornell campus. A few Fellows have their hands in the air, eager to grab the attention of that day’s speaker. This post-seminar discussion is getting interesting, and I feel my blood pressure rise slightly as I listen in more closely—I was half-distracted before as I plowed through a morning’s worth of emails. A Fellow in the front row proposes a question with an ethical twist, and suddenly the session’s science focus is turning to the philosophical. I can’t help but want to join in. I want to soak up the expertise of all our brilliant instructors of this 12-week program—we may have several visiting in a given week. So often I wish I could be a Fellow!

This is my 12-week reality: So much to learn and do; so many people to meet; yet the clock will not tick in my favor. Overflowing calendars and competing priorities have become the new standard of our times, and our super-charged 2016 Global Leadership Fellows Program is no exception.

The 28 Fellows of the 2016 cohort represent 13 countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. They are the story of the Alliance. Their powerful personal stories convey a deep well of experience and passion from their respective contexts, and remind us why we need sound science to guide decision-making in this complex world. They share common values: a love for their countries and people; a determination to elevate the impoverished and help amplify muted voices.

They are the truth seekers who want to bring real, positive change to their countries in food security and environmental health, and they are fighting for the importance of science in decision-making around these vital issues. That’s why they are here at Cornell, with the Alliance for Science. That’s what we aim to build together each day in this program. Several of the Fellows know struggle and injustice all too well, yet continue to find ways to rise above. They are the embodiment of the hope that keeps all of us moving forward.

This year’s program paralleled the final months of our country’s surreal 2016 presidential campaign. American decisions, big and small, have a ripple effect around the globe. Unsurprisingly, the November election was a frequent topic of discussion. Whatever the outcome, the Fellows had their work cut out for them. We couldn’t quite imagine the election going one particular way. Then, it did. The stakes just got A LOT higher and it seems we have entered a post-fact world. More than ever before, our voices must band together, unwaveringly, to fight for science and truth as these concepts are put under unprecedented threat. We must seek shared values and respectfully reach across party lines to break down communication barriers.

Though it is not the direct mission of the Alliance for Science, I hope we see art in all forms abound in answer to these times. I hope the exhilaration of imaginative effort informs and revolutionizes our storytelling, inspiring us all to speak out. On this front, I know the 2016 Fellows will not disappoint, as they’ve demonstrated a keen sense of ingenuity in their communications.

We concluded the Fellowship on Nov. 15 with a graduation ceremony in beautiful Willard Straight Hall on Cornell’s campus. Graduation was nothing short of joyous. Though only one week out from the election, the atmosphere was celebratory, loving, often comedic, and brimming with hope. Time slowed; we could reflect on the importance of our shared mission, appreciate one another, and look toward the future with the strength of our growing community. The evening reminded me that together we have hope, humor, and encouragement to get us through the hardest times, and rise above.

Prior to the ceremony I had read a Scientific American article by Dan Rather. His final thoughts summed up the heart of the Global Leadership Fellows Program for me: "In the end, science is about hope; it’s about expanding our horizons, and endeavoring to understand more…The public and the policymakers need to hear this message…I believe the world is ready to listen if we can only find a better way to speak.”

To the Fellows and our entire global alliance: I believe in you. I believe in us. Thank you for believing in me.

Onward!

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