Feature

Last fall, psychologist Audrey Ham, PhD, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, volunteered to use her skills in a new way: conducting a psychological evaluation of a teenage boy who had fled Central America after being abused by one of his relatives — an evaluation that could save his life.

U.S. officials caught the boy trying to sneak into the United States and placed him in a detention center near Los Angeles. In his home country, the boy lived with a gang member. If he were forced to return, he fears his life would be in danger, so he is seeking asylum. Ham’s findings will serve as evidence in his case.

Ham and her client found each other thanks to an initiative called On-call Scientists, part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Human Rights Program. Through the initiative, human rights organizations in need of scientific expertise are matched with researchers of all stripes who donate their time. Although still in its infancy, the program already has 366 volunteers — including 42 psychologists — from more than 20 different countries.

On-call Scientists works much like a Web-based dating service. Scientists interested in volunteering and human rights organizations seeking volunteers sign up via the program’s Web site. Scientists describe their skills, their experience and their willingness to travel. Human rights organizations outline their needs. AAAS serves as the matchmaker, sifting through the database and conducting interviews to find the best fit.

The program already has several successful pairings to its credit. In 2009, for example, On-call Scientists matched a geologist with a human rights organization to investigate the impact of oil extraction on water in the Democratic Republic of Congo and identified a statistician who will help design research methods to document discrimination against people infected with HIV in East Africa.

To date, most of the psychologist volunteers, including Ham, have been matched with Physicians for Human Rights, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that helps refugees obtain physical and psychological evaluations. Volunteers’ time commitment can be substantial, says Jennifer Baldé, director of the Asylum Program at Physicians for Human Rights. Volunteers must conduct a one-on-one interview with the person seeking asylum as well as an assessment that might include a battery of tests. The whole process, including scoring and analyzing the data and writing the affidavit, can take anywhere from five to 20 hours.

Providing assessments isn’t the only contribution psychologists can make through On-call Scientists. Sandra Zakowski, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Argosy University in Chicago, is contributing research expertise. She was matched with Global Rights, a Washington, D.C., human rights capacity-building organization, to consult on a study examining the mental health of children working in diamond mines in the Congo. These mines are notorious for human rights abuses and often employ children as young as age 7.

“One of the things that we would like to do is assess the extent to which the mental health of children is being affected by their work, by their surroundings, and by the fact that they are not able to access education,” says Maria Koulouris of Global Rights. “While interviews will be carried out by our local mental health practitioner, Sandra has been instrumental in advising our team on what to look for and the methods to be used.”

Zakowski will also help analyze the data after the interviews are complete.

Jessica Wyndham, project director for AAAS’s Science and Human Rights Program, hopes to see even more opportunities for psychologists and other scientists open up in the future. For example, she says, social psychologists might be able to help human rights groups determine the most effective way to run their organizations and achieve their goals.

On-call Scientists is just one small piece of AAAS’s Science and Human Rights Program. In January 2009, the program launched a new initiative called the Science and Human Rights Coalition, which is designed to bring together scientific membership organizations to explore the ways in which the scientific community can become more directly engaged in human rights.

APA has been involved since the idea first took shape in 2005. Clinton Anderson, PhD, who directs the association’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns Office, and Sangeeta Panicker, PhD, director of Research Ethics, serve as APA’s representatives on the coalition council. Anderson chairs one of the coalition’s five working groups: Service to the Scientific Community. The group aims to help scientific associations incorporate human rights awareness and advocacy into their work. To that end, Anderson and the other members recently put together a kit designed to help organizations that are interested in exploring human rights figure out where to begin.

On-call Scientists is seeking new volunteers. If you would like to donate your time, visit On-call Scientists and click on “Become a volunteer.”


Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York.