By Kate Hebel, RD, LDN
Chris Hillbruner graduated in 2007 from the Friedman School with a master’s degree in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition (FPAN) with a concentration in food economics. Currently, he is the decision dupport advisor for Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) based in Washington, DC. He has nine years of experience in analysis, technical advising, and decision support in urban and rural areas of Asia and Africa. He spent three and a half years living and working in the Philippines, Mongolia, and Malawi. I had the opportunity to speak with him over the phone to learn more about his experiences at Friedman and how they have impacted his career to date.
Can you tell me about your background before attending Friedman?
I spent the first two years after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a volunteer for the Peace Corps in the Philippines. My work was focused on water and sanitation. Following that I worked for a year and half for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Baltimore, focusing again on water and sanitation and also the HIV and AIDS technical units. My work in those two sectors was related to multi-sectoral food security programming, so I was pulled into that work. I found this new area of food security very interesting and I was attracted to the fact that it pulled together a bunch of areas such as health, nutrition, water, etc. – all related to food security. The FPAN program was a good fit for my interests.
I was very interested in international food security and at that time there was a strong group of students who shared similar interests attending Friedman. They all had a variety of backgrounds and experiences and we formed a strong community. I also had some really great professors.
Over the summer between my two years in the FPAN program I interned with the CRS in Malawi. My work involved returning to communities where food aid programs had been administered a few years previously and evaluating their exit strategies. We also looked at how elements of the programs were continued after the original food aid programs left.
The 7th Annual Future of Food and Nutrition Student Research Conference is taking place this month. I’ve heard you were one of the founders when you were a student at Tufts. Can you tell me a bit more about how it was started?
The initial idea occurred to me while in Malawi on my summer internship. I knew that my fellow Friedman students were doing interesting research and thought it would be nice to have a venue where this work could be shared. By opening it up to students from other schools we also hoped to facilitate networking among future food and nutrition professionals. Christine McDonald, a fellow FPAN student, was the co-chair of this first conference.
How has your Friedman education helped you to get where you are today? Which classes were of the most benefit to you?
Immediately after graduation I worked for Mercy Corps in Mongolia as an urban food and security assessment consultant. I was designing and running a big household survey looking at urban food security. I felt very prepared for that job based on the methods courses I took at Tufts. The classes that I benefited most from were three classes in the statistics and quantitative methods sequence – Statistical Methods in Nutrition Research, Regression Analysis for Nutrition Policy, and Nutrition Data Analysis. I enjoyed Parke Wilde’s class so much that I was his TA my second year. In terms of content courses, one of my favorite classes was a food policy course taught by Bea Rogers. I also benefitted from International Nutrition Programs and Nutrition in Complex Emergencies.
What drew you to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network?
My position with Mercy Corps was a perfect transition job after graduation. I was in Mongolia because my girlfriend (now my wife) was also a Friedman student and completing her Fellowship there. When we relocated to Washington DC, I applied for a job at FEWS NET. I’m glad it worked out because it’s a perfect fit for me.
What is your current role at FEWS NET? What does a typical day look like?
My current role is as a decision support advisor. FEWS NET is a USAID-funded project that started in 1985. The primary purpose is to provide early warning and food security guidance for the US government and FEWS NET partners. The headquarters are based in DC and there are 25 field offices that cover 36 countries. We work on projected analysis, six months in advance, to predict what will happen with food securities in those countries.
I have many responsibilities. I supervise the group of food security analysts in the DC office; their work is regionally focused. I oversee all of the analysis and reporting the FEWS NET project produces. I also provide high-level decision support for the project. For example if there is a briefing for Food for Peace, the US Department of State, or the national security staff, I do the briefing. I also work with the different sectoral advisors (market and trade advisor, nutrition advisor, etc.) to develop an approach for an integrated analysis. For example, we work to develop guidance based on scenario building, which is the approach we use to project what will happen with food security.
I helped develop the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC is a tool developed as a multi-agency initiative, one of which is FEWS NET, to create a common language for discussing the severity of acute food insecurity. Previously, different agencies would describe acute food insecurity as crises or as an emergency, without a clear scale for severity. IPC launched last fall with the goal that the same approach and classification system will be used globally.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
As someone who is interested in food security and interested in the multi-sectoral nature of food security, I don’t think there’s a better place in the world to work than FEWS NET. We’re connecting with a really interesting range of partners like NASA, USGS, USAID, NGOs and others. This gives us the ability to not only be exposed to different fields but also integrate all of these sectors into our analysis. If there’s research that may make it easier to do our jobs or do it more effectively, there’s flexibility to have that research done. My job is very intellectually stimulating. Most importantly, though, is when our analysis is done well and communicated effectively, there’s the possibility for a great impact on people’s lives.
What advice do you have for current Friedman students, both those graduating this spring and those gearing up for summer internships?
My advice for students looking for internships is try to get a paid internship, even if it isn’t very much, because when you have a paid internship the organization will be more invested in making sure your internship is a success. Make sure you are communicating with your internship director and create a work plan before the internship starts. You want to be able to hit the ground running. If you show up on the first day without a plan it will be harder to get up-to-speed and the internship isn’t very long.
In general, my advice to students is to take advantage of the community of people at Friedman. There are a lot of students and staff members working on very interesting projects, even in other departments of Tufts. Explore your interests. I took classes at the School of Public Health, Fletcher, and through the Feinstein International Center.
*This interview has been edited and condensed
Kate Hebel is a second year Nutrition Communication student and registered dietitian. She enjoys exploring new places in the city and experimenting with new recipes to share with her friends.