As a young girl, studying was Maria Patricia’s second passion. Her first – the one that led her to study medicine and achieve a doctoral degree at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University – was, and continues to be, supporting her community.
In Colombia, as in most parts of Latin America, equity and access to education are structural problems that governments seek to address, along with other economic and social issues. Their largest population is between the ages of 14 and 18, so keeping just over 11 million adolescents in school can be a major challenge. The problem is exacerbated at the university level and even more so in the research sectors, where resources are scarce.
"I came to science motivated by the community and public health work. From a very young age, I collaborated in community support actions in remote areas of the city of Cali. There, I learned how illnesses like dengue can be devastating for families and it made a big impression on me ... that's why I wanted to study medicine and, 30 years later, what keeps me in the field, now with the World Mosquito Program.”
The doctor speaks slowly and warmly as if she were reading a story where little Maria Patricia grows up to become the first Dean of a very important university in Colombia.
"Access to higher education in our countries is a privilege. When I applied to the university to study medicine, only a third of the group was made up of women, because in the selection process for admission some professors stated that a female doctor will be, at the end, a waste of time, as they eventually leave to take care of their children and husbands.”
However, this has changed over time, she notes: "During my studies, I remember that my teacher was Dr Elena Espinoza Restrepo, who was the first director of the Adult Health Program and of health promotion at the Pan American Health Organisation. For me, she was an example of how a woman can make a difference in specialised education."
Thanks to her interest in epidemiology and with a Master of Public Health degree already in her growing resume, she was invited to take a summer course at John Hopkins University in the United States, where she would later receive a scholarship to accomplish her doctorate in epidemiology.
"When I returned from the United States, I was promoted to a doctoral degree in public health and epidemiology and a research group in epidemiology recognized in the country for its excellence. We achieved both challenges and I became the first Dean in 50 years of the National Faculty of Public Health of Antioquia.”
After 30 years of service at the University, she retired, not to stay at home, but to become an independent consultant in research areas. This is how she came to the World Mosquito Program project in Colombia, to monitor the effectiveness of the Wolbachia Method, from an epidemiological perspective.
“I work very closely with the Data team. It is crucial for the project’s future to determine the presence of our Wolbachia mosquitoes after the releases and keep a scientific track of their presence through the following months. The WMP team is highly engaged with the community and this is a new approach to fight mosquito-borne diseases, a truly out of the box solution.”
"When I found out what WMP was doing, I thought it was something very new: it was a more eco-systemic way of approaching the public health situation. To think that such a big problem in public health in urban centres could be approached from an environmentally friendly, safe, sustainable perspective, acknowledging that man is not the centre of living beings, that we are part of a delicate relationship between all living beings on the planet. It has been innovative and very rewarding for me".
Having inspiring women who make a commitment to society made her ambition to educate herself feel more like a social responsibility due to the exclusionary education system.
"It is going to be 40 years since I finished my medical studies and, for me, being in solidarity with people's pain is not a weakness ... it pushed me to study and seek to learn more to help my community and it is something I always seek to pass on to all my students and future scientists: study hard and take every opportunity to be better citizens of this planet."