Learning in the guise of adventure
This ADB young professional likes to take on the world, from cycling around South America to addressing hazardous waste in Ghana and integrating education in infrastructure investments across the region.
American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “It’s the inspired student that continues to learn on their own. That’s what separates the real achievers in the world from those who pedal along, finishing assignments.”
Diana Connett, an environmentalist who admires deGrasse Tyson for his ability to communicate science to the masses, may be one of the former. A fellow American, Diana will soon conclude her time as an ADB Young Professional this December. She is one of seven that have remained in her batch, out of the original nine accepted for the Young Professionals Program that sees hundreds of applications from different countries. The standard duration for the program is three years, which includes a rotation among departments. She has been involved with the Southeast Asia Urban Development and Water Division (SEUW), Strategy and Policy Department, and now with the Southeast Asia Energy Division (SEEN).
Diana, who studied environmental studies at the University of Chicago and graduated with honors, has two master’s degrees from Yale under her belt: one in environmental management, and the second on international and development economics. On paper and without meeting her, it would be easy to box her in as a serious savant; however, she is more the token all-around active go-getter. (She was a semi-professional footballer playing in the NCAA or National Collegiate Athletic Association during her undergrad.) So when asked why she took on two graduate courses, she said: “You’re there for one so might as well stay for another! But seriously, it was through that experience in Yale that I was exposed to a global platform for my work that I never had access to before.”
As a result, she ended up working at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the summer of 2011 in Paris, leading the statistical investigation of headline indicators for green growth in the Statistics Directorate. After this she moved to New York, having landed a job in environmental affairs at the international energy firm Hess Corporation. According to Diana, the transition from Yale to Hess brought her closer to international development and getting operational exposure.
In ADB, she has set her eyes on establishing “intersectoral solutions”, such as “those that can accomplish several goals”. An example she shared was a waste-to-energy solution for sanitation for an SEUW project. Quite admirably she admitted that it later proved to be unfeasible.
A true inspired student, after all, is one that is unafraid to make mistakes and sees it as an opportunity for more learning. Diana, in fact, creates opportunities, grabbing a number of life changes through the years, always curiously chasing cultures and worlds to explore, be it a geographic region, or underwater as a diver, or a philosophy of health and wellness different from Western athletics as a yogi. Read more about Diana in this interview excerpt:
“I’ve been afforded these incredible opportunities through education and I think that is the best and most reliable path to equitable, inclusive development.”
What’s your story? Where did you grow up and how did you start your career?
Diana: I’m from the middle of America, in a state called Indiana. I really enjoy working with people in developing countries, and most of my friends are from the developing region. It’s quite fun that I’m coming from the US originally and yet I’m the only one who grew up with a two-seater outhouse and a hand pump sink. You know we used to chop our own wood for fuel. It’s really fun to have that rural background.
As for my studies, I did my undergraduate degree in the University of Chicago and worked for an environmental NGO for a couple of years on energy policy. I really lucked out there. Thanks to the hard work of other people, we were able to pass the only second economy-wide carbon cap in the United States. We passed more incentives for energy efficiency and renewable energy than anywhere in the country at that time. That was a great way to learn from policy-minded environmental advocates. Eventually, I figured out that pounding the steps of the statehouse, lobbying, was not for me.
What did you decide to do after this policy work?
Diana: My friend and I decided we needed a life change so we strapped on some backpacks and bought a one-way ticket to South America. We tried to bike as much as we could. We started out on the cheapest one-way ticket you could buy, which was to Trinidad. It’s just north of Venezuela. We biked around the island and we flew down to Suriname, biked a bit there, and it got a bit hairy at the border with Guyana. We then traveled down – we took a cargo boat down the Amazon right where two rivers come together. They are so strong and so dense that they don’t even combine until miles further. Because they have different densities, nutrient absorption, and concentration, they have different colors and they maintain separate sides all the way down. It’s quite beautiful. [The two rivers run side by side without mixing for six kilometers, a phenomenon called Meeting of Waters—ed.]
We eventually made our way down to Argentina and across we got stuck in a blizzard in the Andes before making it to Chile. Then we decided to start the rest of our lives so I went back to the US and applied to grad school.
Part of the career you’ve then built is three years at Hess Corporation. How do you reconcile being an environmental advocate and working for an oil and gas company?
Diana: People need energy, and historically our infrastructure is based around fossil fuels. I was quite idealistic in wanting to make a change from within, assuming this industry is going to continue to exist for decades and maybe longer. I believe there are definitely ways to do it that’s better for the earth and for humanity. But it’s a very large industry that has existed well before any single, young, female idealist went to work in that industry! I didn’t make much headway, but I learned a lot in the process.
In that way, oil and gas is very interesting, especially when I was working in operations in Ghana. We had one of the first cowboy exploratory funds in the country. It’s quite similar to a lot of development work because we go into a place that doesn’t have the infrastructure that we need, and therefore, if we have to do a large-scale development, we have to secure energy, water, and we have to find a way to responsibly deal with our waste. It’s all on the company doing the initial development to get those logistics in place. For example, they didn’t have a good way to deal with hazardous waste. I worked with a local waste management person to develop their bioremediation. It’s a more environmentally benign way to deal with waste, whereas previously the hazardous waste was simply collected and shipped to another country that had the facilities to deal with it. So while people question an environmentalist in oil and gas, there are so many win-wins internally and that translates directly to development work, which is why I enjoyed learning in the oil and gas industry.
What made you join the Young Professionals Program? And how would you describe your time under this program?
Diana: To be honest, I was about to age out! That was the inducement I needed to apply and then I moved forward in the process so I thought it was a sign—time for a life change.
I started [as a young professional] doing environmental support for the Southeast Asia Urban and Water Division. That was a fantastic way to get broad exposure to a lot of different projects. There had been a gap in the coverage before I joined, so there was a lot to do. I spent probably more than half of my time on the road for my first year. I really got to see an incredible diversity of what we do, and meet all of the different project officers and learn their values, styles, and their approaches. That was great exposure. I then went to the Strategy and Policy Department where I got a lot more insight into the way the bank works: the values, the leadership decisions, how they are formed, and why they are formed. After, I went back to operations to manage projects, so it’s nice to dive deeper and have a more responsibility for the totality of the project.
Is this your first time in Asia? If yes, how does it compare with your expectations?
Diana: Yes, and that’s a big question! There’s a lot to learn, like anywhere, and that’s part of the fun and the challenge, and why I came. It’s to learn new cultures. The only way you can be sure about your value system is if you question it, right? By living in cultures that are different to my value system it allows me to question mine and rethink. In particular, I’ve really enjoyed some of the social dynamics that I encounter. Where I come from people are quite independent, while here there are very strong social support networks, which has been interesting to see and in a way it’s kind of nice. I’ll give you a really simple example. In the US, I would never think to have a friend to go to the grocery store or run a mundane errand; but here, you’re always with friends everywhere. It’s quite nice.
How about in terms of your development work? Have you had to rethink previous assumptions?
Diana: I’d say yes, but in a way I’ve learned to try to not have many expectations in what I’m going to see. In Indonesia, there were people surrounded by raw sewage. They’re living in a flooded area where there is no sanitation infrastructure. It’s difficult to see people living in some of the worst conditions that I previously couldn’t have imagined; then I go back to my hotel where I have clear, running water. It’s jarring in that respect and different than my experience in South America and West Africa. Figuring out a way to deal with that is a credit to my colleagues here.
During my first year I traveled with a social safeguards colleague quite a bit while I did the environment side. Somehow we went to a lot of landfills during our project visits, and these landfills often had children lurking. So my friend and I developed quite a bit of coping humor to adjust with seeing all the children picking through hazardous waste. One time, we were interviewing this woman working in one of these landfills in Myanmar and the guy who runs the landfill sees what’s happening, and he gets very upset. He comes over and he wants to butt in. Through a translator we explained that we want to close the landfill and that we were interviewing people to find out what sort of livelihood programs we should include in the project. Immediately he gets a kind of sniff that there’s some sort of international standard and he might benefit from this and so he then asserts to us very proudly how he runs his landfill, that he uses international standards. He will hire anyone. He doesn’t discriminate, he said. And so we then pointed out this five-year old that’s picking hazardous waste. So you hire children? We asked. Yes, I don’t discriminate, he boasted. It’s horrifying. It was physically the worst situation you can observe. But when you have other people who are experiencing the same disconnect, we find a way to laugh about it. It’s a bit of dark humor.
If you had the chance, what’s one thing you’d like to change to make cities more inclusive?
Diana: I think it has to be an improvement of the educational system. That’s based on my trajectory. I’ve been afforded these incredible opportunities through education and I think that is the best and most reliable path to equitable, inclusive development—odd that I don’t work on that! Education is the key and it’s one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed learning at ADB, that is, how to fold education into our traditional infrastructure projects. For instance, you can do contracting in a different way to ensure international level expertise operates a facility long term. You can train locals to integrate with vocational schools in order to establish a track in a particular area of infrastructure – whether water, sanitation, or energy – where access to that specific education didn’t previously exist. That has been really fun to learn.