Alyssa is an economist working as a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute. After stints at the Treasury and the Reserve Bank of Australia, Alyssa produces important research that has shaped the understanding of Australia’s region using data. As a result, she has been recognised as one of 2021’s Young Women to Watch in International Affairs.
What got you interested in politics and international relations? Is this what got you started and led to your current job as a Research Associate with one of Australia’s most prestigious think tanks?
I spent a lot of time when I was younger reading, thinking and talking about politics, particularly in Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia. So that interest in what was happening in different parts of the world has been fundamental for a long time. At the same time, I was also finding economics and the frameworks within it super interesting throughout high school and university. That meant that I started off with three initial goals for my career: to work on 1) economics, 2) Asia and 3) data. The opportunity to work at the Lowy Institute was a great one in light of this, because I now work on all three of those areas everyday! Being one of the researchers behind the Asia Power Index, writing about geo-economics and studying Malaysia’s economy and politics is very rewarding as a result.
Today, having a mix of soft and hard skills is seen as desirable by employers. For example, your quantitative background has allowed you to contribute to a field dominated by qualitative research. What do you think are some of the skills that are essential for any student looking to work in the field of politics and policy?
There are two elements to this: subject-specific skills and more general ones. As an economist, working with data and writing clearly are really important - in the international relations space, those skills also allow me to contribute a different perspective. Excellent communication skills in terms of speaking well, understanding stakeholders’ interests and being able to work with people from a variety of backgrounds are key for working in policy. More broadly, you should be willing to learn and listen. Hard work, confidence in your own abilities and contributions while also being mindful of your limits and being willing to accept feedback are all important too. Developing these skills can be done in many ways, whether it’s involvement with university clubs, pitching and writing pieces or doing internships. You also can and should use these experiences to showcase your specific skills and interests when you’re looking for a job, whether it’s data, a language, a particular policy issue or anything else.
Your work with the Lowy Institute’s Power and Diplomacy Program has produced plenty of valuable research like the Asia Power Index and the Covid Performance Index. Not too long ago, you got the opportunity to share your findings with a range of key stakeholders and experienced policymakers in Canberra. What was that like?
Nerve-wracking but exciting! Late last year, my colleagues and I spoke to policymakers and other stakeholders across several departments in Canberra about some of our findings from the 2020 Asia Power Index. It was really rewarding to share some of my work on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on geo-economics and countries’ international reputations, and the broader implications these changes have had for the region. Though it can definitely be daunting to present to people with a lot of experience in their field, having great colleagues around me definitely eased the pressure and made it a great learning experience.
How has your experience as a female Asian-Australian shaped the work you do at the intersection of foreign policy, economics, and international relations?
Being half-Malaysian and half-Indonesian has definitely helped inform some of the work I’ve done around the politics and economics in those countries. For me, there’s a degree of understanding that lived experience provides which often complements reading and other research. On a more day-to-day basis as an Asian-Australian woman, I haven’t suffered much discrimination. But there are still times when I realise there just isn’t anyone else who looks like me in the room at either a junior or senior level. And finding role models from a similar background to me both within the industry and beyond can be challenging.
That said, I’m deeply grateful to the wonderful colleagues who have mentored me along the way. It can be difficult to be what you can’t see, so even seeing the careers of people from a similar background to me was initially a great help in demonstrating what’s possible. Getting advice on big decisions as well as on setting and achieving my own goals has been a great help. Encouragement to push myself a little further or to clarify my thinking has been invaluable too.
What would be your most important piece of advice for young women who want to make an impact in politics or international relations?
Put in the time, effort and thinking to find the area(s) that you’re interested in. And then work hard at it! Alongside this, seek out mentors - they can really help expand your horizons, channel your hard work in the right directions and empower you to take things on that you otherwise may not have. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with people who have worked on or achieved things that resonate with you. People are more willing than you think to help others or reflect on their experiences, and the worst they can say is no. And finally, trust that your hard work will pay off, and have confidence that you have something to say and contribute as a result of it.