LASER PULSE: Bugusu provides start-to-finish guidance for the program's vast portfolio

As technical director of LASER PULSE, Betty Bugusu oversees the program’s research portfolio, which means she oversees the whole process of project acquisition, all the way up to implementation and close-out.
Betty Bugusu

As technical director, Betty Bugusu oversees LASER PULSE's research portfolio, which means she oversees the whole process of project acquisition, all the way up to implementation and close-out.

Betty Bugusu’s path to Purdue began in Kenya where, in 1992, she earned her bachelor’s degree in agriculture and home economics. But neither field excited her nor sparked any passion.

“At that time in Kenya, you were assigned a degree by the government, and you couldn’t change anything. You either comply or maybe try again the next year,” said Bugusu, technical director at LASER PULSE (LP).

She was raised on a farm where her father grew coffee, tea, corn and beans, and her upbringing was likely the reason for her unwelcome college degree assignment.

“I wanted to do something more than ag,” she said. “When I was growing up, I could see how wasteful it was on the farm. We would have a bumper harvest and then not have anywhere to store our food. I was always thinking, ‘There must be something that can be done.’”

Following graduation, she went to work as a research associate at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (formerly Kenya Agriculture Research Institute) supporting senior scientists who were breeding and developing new crops. In this role, she learned that the institute was the benefactor of several USAID-funded projects, one of which entailed an opportunity for a visiting scholar to study in Purdue’s Department of Biochemistry.

“I was new. I was enthusiastic. And I was willing to go back to school, so they sent me for about two months,” Bugusu said.

That was more than enough time for her to realize that Purdue was the perfect fit for her. But, because of her limited work visa, she had to wait two years to again be eligible to study and work abroad. Upon her return, she earned her master’s (2000) and PhD (2004), both in food science in the College of Agriculture. Along the way, she worked in Washington, D.C., as a program associate with SUSTAIN and a research scientist with the Institute of Food Technologists.

In 2010, she was thrilled to have the opportunity to return to Purdue to establish the International Food Technology Center (IFTC), overseeing all aspects of the center, including budgets, personnel, projects, communication and identifying funding opportunities by liaising with other partners. Her fundraising efforts resulted in a $5-million award from the USAID-funded Feed the Future program, which led to her next career venture.

In 2014, while still leading IFTC, she assumed the directorship of the Purdue-based Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling, managing and coordinating projects in four countries — Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and the United States.  

“It was a lot of work,” said Bugusu of her dual roles, “but I worked closely with very talented people, so I didn’t have to do it alone.”

A new chapter

In her fourth year with Feed the Future, LASER PULSE, another USAID program, was funded at Purdue.

Betty Bugusu
Bugusu currently balances 40 projects across 16 countries and four continents totaling more than $30 million.

“At that time, I was looking for something different,” she said. “I wanted to explore sectors outside of agriculture and food security.”

Her answer came in the form of a phone call from Arvind Raman, who put a bug in her ear about an opening with LASER PULSE as technical director. Raman, executive associate dean for the College of Engineering and the Robert V. Adams Professor in Mechanical Engineering, successfully spearheaded Purdue’s campaign to land LASER PULSE, an effort that resulted in the university being selected from among more than 100 other applicants.

Bugusu, who has been with LASER since the beginning, oversees the program’s research portfolio, “which means I oversee the whole process of project acquisition, all the way up to implementation and close-out,” she said.

LASER PULSE has two types of funded projects:

  • Core awards acquired though the Request for Applications (RFA) process. Based on identified needs, a collaborative team of researchers and practitioners carry out research in a USAID partner country for one to two years, generating evidence to inform policy or practice, and addressing a global development challenge.
  • Buy-in awards— LP works with USAID missions, bureaus and independent offices on specific research needs with specific timeframes that require a team to come together to address them.

Bugusu currently balances 40 projects — and is about to add five more — across 16 countries and four continents totaling more than $30 million. For context, in her job with Feed the Future, she handled a maximum of five projects at any one time. LP is “sector-agnostic” with focus areas that run the gamut — from private sector engagement, humanitarian assistance, human rights, women’s empowerment and nutrition, to water and sanitation, education, conflict and violence prevention, agriculture and food security, and the environment.

“We do a little bit of everything, except mainstream global health projects, such as maternal and child health and HIV-AIDS,” she said. “I’m not a subject matter expert in all of these areas, but what I like is that I am exposed to all of these projects, and I get to learn how all of these sectors function and the good work the distinguished researchers do. For me, it is a high learning curve to understand what the research is about so that I can support them.”

She hires, trains and mentors research project managers and support staff and provides oversight for staff members working in partner organizations. In addition, she leads the process of award acquisition, contributes to the development and implementation of project strategy and priorities, and presents each project’s vision, activities and achievements during meetings.

“It’s a lot of projects and a lot of moving parts,” she said. “I need to know almost everything that is happening in those projects from the technical side of things.”

Reaching its fifth year, LP’s processes have been refined and perfected, making the organization run like a well-oiled machine.

“We incorporate lessons learned into our programs as we go along,” Bugusu said.

She recounted how the application process has evolved. What used to be a two-step process — a call for concept notes and a call for the full application — has turned into just one. The change was necessitated by the need to improve the procurement timeline and to streamline the review process.

“We had some challenges in finding reviewers for proposals because it was done pro bono. We had to adapt into one step and find a way to pay the reviewers so we could get experts to review our proposals,” Bugusu said.

Her team also pivoted to incorporate a consensus panel step, bringing all reviewers together to deliberate, much like a jury, to choose proposals to fund.

“After we make our selections, we have to get approval from USAID. We take the best ones to them for funding. Then they do their own review and approval,” Bugusu said. “It’s a delicate process communicating with the researchers, making sure we don’t give empty promises.”

Outreach defined

One of the projects closest to Bugusu’s heart originated in her home country of Kenya. 

“We did a case study to gauge the success of a previously USAID-funded integrated early education project that introduced social emotional learning in schools,” she said.

Having grown up in that educational system, she explained that the majority of instruction is phonetics-based. There aren’t any group activities that help with social capabilities, she said.

Betty Bugusu
Bugusu said she's been challenged in ways she'd never been challenged before working with LP.

LP’s research showed that the project had been quite successful and that the schools already were incorporating new practices into their curriculums.

“In fact, the project helped the Kenya government to overhaul the education system to integrated learning, and it’s still going on as we speak,” Bugusu said. “I think it’s going to help the kids be good all-around students.”

Another project that just concluded involved addressing human trafficking in South Africa, which, Bugusu shared, had been on the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report in 2018 and 2019. The report names countries that fail to address this troubling problem and serves as a valuable tool in understanding how countries respond to trafficking, identifying existing gaps and providing recommendations to address those gaps.

“They fall to a lower tier if government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” Bugusu said.

In June 2020, a team of researchers from South Africa and the United States began a study to provide evidence for the South African government and USAID on the nature and scope of TIP.

“This is something that for the most part is hidden and subversive. It’s something that happens behind the scenes, and it’s very hard to quantify. Unfortunately, as soon as we started this project, COVID-19 hit,” Bugusu said. “The government declared lockdowns and restrictions on activities. Hospitals and shelters were closed. A lot of places where victims go for help were closed.”

LP researchers were forced to be adaptive and flexible in their protocols.

“They were able to obtain data using remote collection methods. Some of them used their own personal connections. I really like what came out of that research,” Bugusu said. “They produced reports, evidence, and policy briefs that we believe the South African government is going to find very useful.

“Overall, we had to evolve in our techniques and introduce different methodologies to keep the projects moving forward.”

The growth factor

In a position such as this, where the stakes are high and obstacles are everyday occurrences, Bugusu has a few battle scars, but she wears them like a badge of honor.

“I’ve learned to be adaptive because LASER is a large project. This job has brought multi-tasking to a new level and also has sharpened my memory. You have to develop some sense of resilience and learn how to recover quickly from difficult situations,” she said.

But Bugusu wouldn’t change a thing.

“I’ve been challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before,” she said. “I’ve toughened up, matured. And I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”

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: Purdue is in 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.