Courtney Hill has landed her dream job.
Hill, who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2020 with a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering, will be a science and technology fellow at the U.S. State Department’s Office of Japanese Affairs, starting in January, thanks to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“I will be working on U.S.-Japan collaboration focusing on anything involving science, technology, environment and health,” she said. “This is a unique opportunity to expand my understanding of pressing scientific issues and learn about foreign affairs.”
A native of northeastern Arkansas, Hill received her undergraduate degree in civil engineering in 2014 from the University of Arkansas. She chose her major because she had a knack for science and math and because she felt that civil engineers could change people’s lives in the most tangible ways.
Hill, who is the Olive B. and Franklin C. Mac Krell Jefferson Fellow, approached engineering differently from her classmates. While they would focus on specific aspects of the craft, such as building bridges, Hill came to love the underlying principles of civil engineering. And while her peers would take internships designing highways or sewer systems, Hill took in the broader picture.
“I loved the concept of civil engineering, but I wanted more large-scale, complex problems,” she said. “I did things like study abroad and doing research, and that is what led me to do the Ph.D. instead of working for a local firm. I got into policy because I wanted to go bigger and bigger.”
This long-range view of engineering pushed Hill to seek broader opportunities. She became involved with the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. While still a student in Arkansas, she reached out to James A. Smith, UVA’s Henry L. Kinnier Professor of Civil Engineering, who was seeking undergraduate research students for his PureMadi water purification project in South Africa.
“There were eight of us that were selected from around the country to go to rural South Africa and do research with the University of Venda,” Hill said. “It was such a good experience. I asked, ‘Are you taking Ph.D. students?’ Because of that, I applied to UVA and spent the next five years working with that project.”
Hill was also a co-founder of the Science Policy Initiative at UVA, an organization that encourages science and engineering students to be more involved in science policy.
She gained in-person experience teaching English at the Changwon Science High School in South Korea on a Fulbright Scholarship. Hill is most comfortable at the intersection of international science and politics and sees science as a way of bringing adversaries together.
“There was a string of experiences in international science collaboration, and I realized through that how powerful that is,” she said. “Two countries that are at war and science is the only interface; those countries will come together because everyone wants to cure cancer, no matter what your politics are. And seeing the power in that really got me interested in international science and using science as a tool of international diplomacy and peacekeeping.”
Hill is thrilled at the prospect of being with scientists from disparate cultures brought together through scientific research.
“I got to do that a lot during grad school and other experiences,” Hill said. “Right now, my job is about 90% domestic focus and 10% foreign, so it has been a minute since I have been able to be in that room and I am really excited to be able to do that again.”
Once the fellowship is done, Hill hopes to stay with the State Department or another federal agency.
“During the fellowship, I hope to make meaningful connections. This is my dream job, so if I can keep working in this area, that would be wonderful,” she said.