When Alexandra Conliffe (W. Garfield Weston Loran Scholar ’99) first applied for a Loran Award, she saw it as a source of much-needed funds for her undergraduate education. But her conception of the award changed when she came to Toronto for national interviews. That weekend was, she says, transformative: “The money became secondary and I realized that I wanted the award because of the amazing community that I could be part of.”
The Loran Scholar community is, in her words, “a massive support network,” and she has appreciated that support as she has changed directions and faced new challenges in her academic career. In high school, Alexandra had her sights set on a career in medicine—but just before applying to university, she realized that medicine wasn’t for her and switched her focus to mechanical engineering.
At McGill, Alexandra took an active role in Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Feeling an affinity with the group’s mission, she started up the McGill chapter, co-chaired their first annual conference, worked in the national office, and volunteered overseas. In the summer before fourth year, she worked on an EWB water desalinization project in Uzbekistan. She credits this experience with helping her discover the links between engineering, health, and the environment; her interest in these links led her to change fields from engineering to geography.
The decision was the right one: Alexandra completed her PhD in geography at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Her thesis explored the impact of political and environmental change in developing countries. “I am interested to see whether global attempts to address global problems help, hinder, or lack impact at local scales,” she explains.
Alexandra also spent an undergraduate summer working with the Canadian-Palestine Educational Exchange. Through this group, she ended up spending two months in Beirut, teaching English and sports to children in refugee camps. This proved an invaluable experience: “I learned more about the complexities of poverty, conflict, human nature and human strength than at any other time,” she says.
Her passion for exploring the impact of development and environmental policy on rural people has led her well beyond the classroom. In pursuit of answers at the local level, she has conducted research for her thesis in Uzbekistan and Iran. And through her involvement with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), she was able to get a front-row view of policy making in action. In her role with IISD’s reporting services, Alexandra sat in on closed-doors UN negotiations on climate change, desertification, and other issues.
After serving as Vice-President of Operations for EWB for several years, Alexandra joined The Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship in 2016 as Director, Policy Innovation Platform. In her new role, she is building out an initiative to help policy professionals use innovative approaches to design better policy outcomes.
In the community, Alexandra is a board director of the Institute on Governance, a member of the McGill Engineering Faculty Advisory Board and a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
She helps assess Loran candidates, mentors 2013 KPMG Loran Scholar Quinn Conlon at the University of Toronto and gives back to the foundation as a monthly donor.