Dr. Vaughan Turekian Advises Secretary of State on Science


Dr. Vaughan Turekian

Dr. Vaughan Turekian

By Florence Avakian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — Dr. Vaughan Turekian, science and technology advisor to US Secretary of State John Kerry, attended an all-day forum at the United Nations on Monday June 6, on “Science, Technology and Development for Sustainable Development Goals.” The focus of the event was to discuss the ways these goals can be made available to the millions around the world who are in desperate need of these resources.

In an interview following a UN press conference, Turekian, 44, explained that his father, Dr. Karl Turekian, an eminent and well-known professor of geochemistry for 57 years at Yale University, and a member of the US Academy of Sciences, instilled in him as a youngster that science was “part of the global enterprise. My father studied things like the processes that led to the transport of air from one place to another. Science was his laboratory. And that was part of my academic background.”

Growing up, Vaughan Turekian saw prominent names that came from all over the world. “I thought Turekian was a normal name. I would go to my father’s laboratory and see that science was something that brought people together. The laboratory was a microcosm of a global community and that was very important to me as I grew up. When you understand what’s going on in the world, you have a better understanding of who you are in the world.

Before achieving this covetous position, Turekian, who graduated from Yale University (1993) with a BS in geology and earth science, and from the University of Virginia (2000) with a PhD in philosophy, was the Chief International Officer for the American Association for Advancement of Science, and the director of its Center for Scientific Diplomacy from 2006 to 2015, publishing several articles on international scientific policy.

Following his studies, he worked as the program director for the Committee on Global Change Research at the National Academy of Sciences from 2000 to 2002, and at the State Department as the special assistant and advisor to the under-secretary for global affairs from 2002-2006.

The position of the science and technology advisor to the US Secretary of State has existed for 16 years, he explained. It was created when the US National Academy of Sciences provided a report to the State Department to then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright. At the time, he said Albright had asked a “very simple question. How did the State Department prepare itself for the challenges of the 21st century given the central role that science, technology and innovation will play?”

Turekian, in 2015, became the fifth Advisor in this prestigious position. He was chosen through a vetting process in which the U.S. Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations identify a roster of people who are good candidates. It then goes through another process until a final candidate is chosen.

The reason for his interest in this position, he said, is that the job was a combination of “science and foreign policy,” he states. “My own academic background was interested in things like how aerosols and dust get transported around the world. Another part was being around academic backgrounds, and seeing the important mixtures of cultures and knowledge that came from those environments. And another part was interest in climate change. Science can help inform policy. You not only need excellent scientists, but you need those people who are able to translate the science into the policy they can communicate. He gives credit to the “great teachers who inspired me and kept me on the straight and narrow.”

Turekian could have made big money in the science business world, but he emphasized that he was interested in applying science to things outside of the laboratory. He had many opportunities in the academic community but he wanted to be a scientist “in a different community.”

He still has one month and four months left in his current post, he relates with laughter. And what will he do after his position ends. “I think if I could answer that, my mother would be happy,” he responds with a round of chuckles.

Turekian visited Armenia for the second time a month ago. In 2000, he was a guest professor at the American University of Armenia working in the Environmental Chemistry Department. What was striking to him on this visit was that in the 16 years since his first trip, “there has been so much growth in certain areas, especially in the IT (information, technology and computer) fields. “Despite other things, he saw optimism in those important areas, especially among the young people using their vitality to connect to the world, in things like programming, computing, design and a whole range of issues.”

The most important goal he hopes to achieve during his tenure in this position is “to do my little part to insure that I’m doing what I can do to demonstrate the value of having someone of my background, working with an amazing team of eight to ten incredibly talented scientists and engineers (out of 300 working in the State Department) and apply them to the issues the State Department has to deal with, and all foreign ministries have to deal with.”

Great-Grandson of Genocide Survivors

Turekian, an engaging, affable individual with a warm quick smile, was born in New Haven, Conn. to Armenian parents born in the US. His father passed away three years ago, and his mother, originally a schoolteacher, continues to work as an assistant headmaster in a small day school in New Haven.

His grandfather was the only child of Armenian parents who were survivors of the Armenian Genocides of 1896, and 1915. (When I asked his thoughts on the continued non-acceptance of the Armenian Genocide by the American government, understandably, because of his position, he chose not to answer.)

Growing up, Vaughan and his sister used to hear their parents speaking Armenian “to make sure my sister and I couldn’t understand them. By their tone we knew certain words were not so good.” Though Turekian didn’t speak Armenian growing up, he is now interested in learning the language. When he was in Armenia in 2000, he picked up some words to make sure he got the food he ordered, “especially kufte.”

He added, in a serious vein, “I think growing up in a place like New Haven with an academic background, you saw people of all these different traditions, and thought about how much their experiences were shaped at home and how they could interact with each other. From both his parents, he received the “value of education, and engaging with people of all ages.”

Turekian and his wife have two children. He adds that it is important for them in this country to recognize that on one side their grandparents are from one part of the world, and their other grandparents came from another, a special enrichment.”