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Discovering a Passion for Change: Jasmin Kaur on Pandemic Prevention, Social Inequality, and Fostering Inclusivity in EA
This post is part of a series of six interviews with members of the effective altruist community. We talk about how they chose what to work on, and how they relate to doing good more generally.
Jasmin Kaur is a scientist and policy entrepreneur. A biochemist by training, she has worked as a researcher in both academia and the pharmaceutical industry. She has participated in international non-profit and UN-led programmes in global health in regions such as Peru; she’s also founded projects addressing social inequality and educational attainment gaps. Last year, she co-founded the Pandemic Prevention Network. She is now leading the UK advocacy strategy for 1Day Sooner. I talked to her in Prague in October 2022. We spoke about:
Jasmin’s work founding the Pandemic Prevention Network
Her earlier organisation that aimed to help youth from disadvantaged backgrounds
Her thoughts on how EA can be more inclusive and become more diverse
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Amber: Tell me a bit about what you’ve been doing recently.
Jasmin: Up until about 3 weeks ago, I was running the Pandemic Prevention Network: that was my core focus for about a year. I’ve been taking some time to decompress and realign myself.
What did the Pandemic Prevention Network do?
We wanted to try out a model of grassroots advocacy that EA hadn’t yet tried in the pandemic prevention space. We focussed on email campaigns to political representatives. We discovered that, although emailing one’s MP is theoretically accessible to anyone, it’s much more popular among the over 50s, people who have enough free time to write such emails, and those who already have a relationship with their MP. The demographics that were suffering the most during the covid pandemic were not engaging with this process. This is understandable: it takes a lot of time to write a well-composed email that actually gets your point across and makes you seem like you know what you’re talking about.
So, we designed a very simple technology: users can answer some multiple-choice questions about why they care about a certain issue, and the technology will automatically generate an email for them. They can edit it if they want, and it’s sent from their personal email to their MP. The whole process takes less than 5 minutes. Every email is personalised and unique, so it doesn’t end up in the MP’s spam folder. Hopefully this will lower the barriers to participation. It’s making democracy more accessible.
That does sound like a clever technology! What were your campaigns actually advocating for?
We wanted to launch a campaign to get MPs to sign a pledge about pandemic prevention. Post-Covid-19, we don’t need to spend too much time convincing people that pandemics are bad; they know that already. We wanted to utilise that momentum and direct it to get some change done. So we designed a pledge for MPs that was very generic, low commitment, and non-partisan. It was a way for them to show their voters ‘I care about this’. And their constituents emailed them and asked them to sign the pledge. After we got some MPs to sign, we planned to choose the 1-2% who seemed most interested in engaging, and we’d work more closely with them to build the first all-party parliamentary group focussed on future pandemic prevention.
What are you doing now?
I’m trying to decide which area of bio to focus on. I miss being passionate about solving a problem. I don’t just want to do a project and be part of a team; I want to find a problem that I can really dig into and, through that, meet sensational people.
You’ve founded other organisations before: tell me about that.
I founded my first project back when I was still a student, and ran it for three years while doing my biochemistry degree. We provided two years of free mentorship for 17-18 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds. We did workshops on how to write a personal statement, interview skills, and interpersonal skills, like how to be more assertive and confident (which women and girls struggle with in particular).
This project was inspired by my personal experiences. I was an immigrant in the UK, the first person in my family to go to university, and English is my third language. So navigating the UK education system was a more difficult process for me than my peers. At that time, I did a lot of free access programs for disadvantaged students. A problem with programs like that, though, is that they only accept students with good grades. That kind of defeats the purpose, because people who are really struggling might not get good grades! My project didn’t have grade requirements for this reason.
Your organisation aimed to help youth from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed at school and get into university. Is there anything that the EA movement could do to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds get more involved in EA?
Some EAs do face limitations due to their background. It would be helpful to have more forms of support, such as personal development grants that people could apply for to upskill, or more access to mentorship opportunities. More advice on how to apply for EA jobs and funding would also be helpful.
I’d like to see more empathy for people’s different contexts, too. EAs are encouraged to be very flexible about switching their career to a different field or quitting their job, but doing that quickly causes financial insecurity, so it’s just not an option for many people. Others have deep family ties and responsibilities, so relocation is not an option.
You said that you’re deciding what to do next. What types of areas are you considering? Will you keep working on pandemic prevention? Or do something else in biosecurity? Or something completely different?
I’m keeping my options broad right now. I trained as a technical biochemist and I ran a policy organisation, but I also seem to be on a serial entrepreneurship route. I’m trying to work out which of those paths I’m on, and whether I can maybe combine them.
I have become more interested in policy recently, so I’m interested to lean into that and work out where my skillset might be best suited to policy. I’ve always enjoyed working in science (though I don’t enjoy lab work). So it’s fairly open, but whatever it is, it’ll be related to biosecurity, global health, or the intersection between the two.
Your background is in biochemistry. How did you become interested in that?
This is an interesting and dramatic journey! I’ve always been interested in science. I found it interesting to figure out biological science questions, so becoming a doctor was an obvious choice, and I was interested in that for quite some time. I did all the entrance exams for medicine, and I volunteered at my local hospital for 7 years. But one day I found this book which changed my life – Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey. It talks about how one compound of carbon and hydrogen – CH3 – can change the entire way DNA expresses itself, which changes how tissues are built, which changes how the human organism looks. This is fascinating to me. That got me really interested in how life is formed: how do we have so many varieties of expression from this one code? So I decided to remove all of my medical applications and changed to biochemistry literally days before I sent off my UCAS application.
My family were initially not convinced by this decision. My parents didn’t go to university, or have the same educational opportunities as I did. To them, medicine is a stable, admirable career, and that feels comforting and secure. They didn’t understand why I’d pass up that opportunity. Medicine also felt comforting to me, because I like planning ahead.
But I was like ‘You know what, I’m going to risk it all, because I’m excited about this’. And I’m so glad I took this decision. I would never have imagined myself doing what I’m doing now.
What do your parents think about your current career path?
It’s still a difficult conversation. I think they trust my capability to do impactful things even if it’s not how they envisioned it, and that’s a good place for us to be.
I mean, despite your unorthodox path you are very successful! Especially since you’re still young.
Thank you! This seems like the right time for me to take risks, so it would be a shame for me not to do that. This will probably always be a difficult conversation though, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person in EA in this situation.
What would you like to see in EA to help people in your situation, where there’s a mismatch between their EA aspirations and the expectations of their culture or family?
I’d be excited to see more women leaders of colour in EA, leading organisations. Generally, if there were more racial, cultural and socioeconomic diversity among EA leaders and grantmakers, this would not only help with thought diversification, it would also better support a larger community of people trying to do good. It would be good to see a self-assessment of whether the EA community has any filters, and if so, how do they affect the make-up of the community.
Is there anything else you want to say?
Although I have some critiques about EA, for every critique I have, there are many positive reasons that keep me coming back and continuing to engage, even if it’s challenging.
The biggest positive is the people: the kindness that people have, to dedicate their lives and careers to solving these problems, is honestly amazing to see, and I don’t see that in many other circles. So we should definitely lean into that, and just make sure we enable more diverse people to also lean into it.