LASER PULSE: Gupta leads team in managing global research projects
Since becoming the program director of LASER PULSE (LP) in April 2021, Pallavi Gupta has gotten a crash course not only on the endless challenges faced by developing countries but also what it takes to build a winning partnership and manage complex multi-stakeholder relationships.
Whether supporting her project management team, working on difficult topics like human trafficking or conflict and violence prevention, or figuring out creative ways to manage partnerships across the world, Gupta’s job is not an easy one.
LP research projects are generated through the request of USAID missions, bureaus and independent offices (M/B/IOs) in USAID partner countries that work with university-based research teams to achieve goals through innovation and evidence-based solutions. Often, project team members, including researchers and practitioners from the local region, must work under less-than-ideal conditions.
“They are not always in safe places or even a place where a road exists or somewhere that has the internet. Their commitment is admirable, and so is their innovation in terms of thinking of different ways of conducting work in difficult conditions,” Gupta said.
In addition to technical obstacles, the content of their work can take a toll.
“I can only imagine the type of mental pressure they experience,” she said. “Sometimes, there is trauma that is being shared with them by the community, and it must be hard for them not to take it home, not to internalize it.”
For Gupta, the last year and a half has been primarily about learning the LP ropes and processing a slew of eye-opening realizations.
How it all works
Funded through USAID’s Innovation, Technology, and Research (ITR) Hub, LP provides access to a strong network of researchers and practitioners across the world to help refine and solve development challenges.
Before joining Purdue in 2019 as program director of the Shah Family Global Innovation Lab, Gupta hadn’t worked in academia. Her previous positions included management consultant with PwC in London and engineer with IBM and Autodesk in India and Singapore, respectively. She also was the founder and managing director of FifthEstate Trust, an NGO that reached half a million people in partnership with 17 departments of the government of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India. In 2015, she was nominated to be a member of the UP State Innovation Council, an advisory committee that contributed to the formation of state policies promoting social entrepreneurship and corporate engagement for social impact.
“Shah Lab was my first experience in seeing academic research getting translated into innovative solutions that have the potential for large-scale impact,” she said. “The thing that sets academia apart is the use of rigorous research and evidence creation. The challenge, however, is making this research and evidence available to people who can utilize it for impact.”
LP creates frameworks of conducting development research, as opposed to traditional research “that has a tendency of not being sensitive to the contextual, cultural and behavioral realities, making it hard to adopt and scale,” Gupta said.
Over the course of four years, LP has awarded approximately 40 grants, with each award ranging from $50,000 to $5 million, depending on the complexity of the research question and duration of the proposed research. The process starts with discussions with USAID M/B/IOs, after which LP places a call for concept notes to its network of researchers and practitioners. Each entry is evaluated and selected for its quality and potential impact, and successful teams are invited to co-create with the M/B/IOs.
Eligibility is restricted to research teams consisting of universities in the United States and developing countries partnered with a field-level development practitioner, private sector actor or a local government entity.
LP consortium partners include Catholic Relief Services, Indiana University, University of Notre Dame and Makerere University, Uganda.
“LASER PULSE has created a methodology of thinking through critical aspects like who the stakeholders are and how to bring important contextual information into the fold of research design, which we believe needs to be done with a goal in mind via a set of processes,” Gupta said. “This methodology, which we call Embedded Research Translation, or ERT, is an iterative co-design process among academics, practitioners, and other stakeholders in which research is intentionally applied to a development challenge.”
A project team consists of four main stakeholder groups:
- Research team (PI, co-PIs, and partner institution (researchers and practitioners) who bring in technical and contextual expertise)
- USAID M/B/IOs (Parties who request work and provide technical expertise and guidance)
- USAID ITR activity manager (Act as liaisons between LASER PULSE staff and M/B/IOs)
- LASER PULSE Research Management Team (Manage and lead all aspects of project execution and high-quality deliverables on time and within budget)
Gupta characterizes the LP team’s role as “backstage management.” Their names usually aren't the ones the public sees when a project receives publicity or recognition, but their work has been a crucial part of each project’s success.
LP is “massive,” Gupta emphasized.
“As with any large program, things are rarely straightforward or simple,” she said. “During the initial phase, we ran into a lot of organizational, personnel and procedural challenges. But with each bottleneck, we learned, pivoted and improved.”
Why does the world need LASER PULSE?
“Unlike traditional lab-based research, in the development sector, the implications of failure can be high. These are real-world, critical situations, and failure can equate to catastrophes, including loss of life. That should give everyone pause,” Gupta said.
Through its collaboration with stakeholders to identify research needs for critical development challenges, LP awards funding and strengthens the capacity of researcher-practitioner teams to co-design solutions that translate into policy and practice.
“LASER PULSE’s system-level approach has immense potential to improve the efficacy of proposed solutions and activities. We are creating partnerships between researchers and practitioners from the U.S. and developing countries. It's an immense opportunity to learn from each other and build long-term fruitful relationships,” Gupta said.
“An example of large-scale impact is an evidence-based policy recommendation to the government of the partner country where we are conducting research. The right policies can affect millions of people for generations, and local leadership and knowledge are critical.”
LP believes engagement of communities is crucial and that partnerships should be mutually beneficial, bi-directional, sustainable and reflective of local knowledge. Public participation can come in the form of problem identification, active research, data collection and analysis, and developing tools that make sense for the region.
“By incorporating local, cultural and historical context, people are more likely to accept and assume ownership of new policies and practices,” Gupta said.
In her role, Gupta keeps the LASER PULSE ship “afloat and moving in the right direction” through constant relationship management, risk mitigation and strategic planning.
As one of the newest members of the LP staff, she is reluctant to claim any personal victories, saying “nothing happens in one year, and no one does anything alone.”
Rather, Gupta is quick to give credit to the team’s overall accomplishments, which are at the core of LASER’s key components:
- Managing, executing, and completing 40+ projects in 16 countries
- Developing the Embedded Research Translation (ERT) model, which bridges researchers, thought leaders, innovators, and scientists with on-the-ground practitioners to address development challenges with solutions that are more readily adapted and applied.
- Implementing capacity strengthening by working directly with research teams and development actors to improve the long-term impact of projects.
- Building a large network of 3,000+ researcher and practitioner members in 62 countries.
- Positioning Purdue and LASER’s consortium partners as thought leaders in evidence-based research for development
Gupta’s learning curve is still in progress. She knows there will be both mistakes and triumphs.
“There are lessons here that are not only applicable to my work and my career, but also relevant to my personal life,” she said. “Working with a diverse team and with projects across the world has given me an opportunity to learn and practice empathy, which has been of immense value to me.”
About LASER PULSE
In 2018, Purdue University was selected by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to co-create research-driven solutions for - USAID partner countries via LASER PULSE — the Long-term Assistance and SErvices for Research (LASER) Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine (PULSE). This $70M program, funded by USAID’s Innovation, Technology, and Research Hub, is one of the largest single research awards to the Purdue College of Engineering. Purdue leads a global consortium of university and nongovernmental partners to support USAID as it navigates developmental changes, ultimately leading to societal, environmental, educational, and agricultural improvements in partner countries around the world.
Editor’s note: As Purdue enters the fifth year of its leadership role with LASER PULSE, the College of Engineering is publishing a series of stories highlighting the program’s global impact and the team behind it.