March 19, 2020
Alumni Spotlight: Susanna Seltzer
By Bill Brink
On March 9, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in for his second term as president of Afghanistan. The same day, next door,, Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government’s former chief executive, held his own swearing-in ceremony and began to launch a parallel government.
Afghanistan’s election commission declared Ghani the winner in February, but Abdullah rejected the outcome, calling the results fraudulent. Halfway across the globe, Susanna Seltzer worked to bolster their legitimacy.
Seltzer, who earned a degree in International Relations and Politics from Carnegie Mellon in 2016 and later got a master’s in the same subject, works for Maxar Technologies, a geospatial satellite imaging firm. She and her team assessed the threat of violence at various polling places in Afghanistan and ranked them, then shared that information with US and Afghan security personnel.
“We were able to help the Afghan government ensure better elections,” Seltzer said. “That’s real-world impact. That’s big-picture impact. These are skills, a majority of them I learned at Carnegie Mellon, that I was able to contribute to free and fair elections in a country halfway across the world.”
Seltzer is from Philadelphia and wanted to stay in the northeast for college. She also knew she didn’t want to be the smartest person in the room. She wanted to be challenged. Carnegie Mellon fit the bill, and it wasn’t long after she arrived on campus that she gravitated toward international relations.
“What actually drew me to it was, I did a course freshman year that was technically a history course but exposed me to all of the different conflicts going on in the Middle East and the US’ role over time, over the last two decades and what we’ve been doing there,” Seltzer said. “And I said, ‘Wow, we keep making mistakes. We should stop making so many mistakes. I want to help with that.’”
Seltzer’s experience with the Washington Semester Program in 2014 threw her into Middle East analysis. She interned at the International Center for Terrorism Studies right as ISIS captured large swaths of territory in Iraq.
“A lot of people were like, is it ISIS, is it ISIL, what’s going on, is this a big deal?” she said. “And I could answer that, and that felt very big-picture. I got to understand a lot of great research skills that still apply today.”
Some of her work became part of a book, “The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders.”
“That did a lot of confidence building,” Seltzer said. “OK, I’m not just some kid reading the news. I can contribute to a sophisticated output.”
While Seltzer assisted Institute for Politics and Strategy Director and Taube Professor Kiron Skinner with classes and logistics in the Center for International Relations and Politics lab, Professor Skinner asked Seltzer if she wanted to apply to the Accelerated Master of Science in International Relations and Politics, which allows students to begin graduate courses during their senior undergraduate year. She filled out the application that evening.
“I really valued the accelerated master’s program because it took the quality of my work so much further,” Seltzer said. “You learn how to do real in-depth research on your own, self-directed. So much of what you do in undergrad, you’re kind of given more boundaries to help you develop those initial skills. But then in graduate school they take the boundaries off and it’s like, ‘OK, see what you can figure out, see what you can do.’”
After graduation, Seltzer moved to DC, where, courtesy of her network, she met with a team leader from Maxar. She thought the meeting was an interview, but it quickly became clear that he’d already decided to hire her.
As an all-source analyst, Seltzer blends the data from Maxar’s proprietary satellites with her Middle East expertise and Arabic skills. She helped evaluate water scarcity in Yemen, using social media to prioritize the areas most in need. She worked on the Afghan elections; her office had a timeline on a dry-erase board, writing down the dates at which the election commission said it would announce the results, then crossing them off as the day came and went without a winner.
“In national security, if you’re trying to get something done, you need to know where you’re looking for something, where you need to go,” Seltzer said. “You need that done really specifically, and you can’t use Google Maps. And so that’s where companies like Maxar come in.”
Now, Maxar benefits from what Seltzer learned at Carnegie Mellon.
“The really great thing about IRP, and the rest of Carnegie Mellon, you have engineers, you have the computer scientists, and they’re always looking at the how, the new technology,” she said. “But when you’re doing IRP, when you’re doing politics, you’re looking at the who and the why. You’re learning about the decision-makers and why they make the decisions that they do and what influences those decisions. You learn how to contribute to that process.”