Fitting into the Bigger Picture

This week on #MeetAScientist get to know biologist and science diplomat Dr. Clarissa Rios Rojas. With over a decade of biomedical research under her belt, Clarissa has shifted gears, focusing her attention on professional development of Latin American students and young professionals, so they can in turn contribute to the social and economic development of their home countries. Clarissa talks more about founding the nonprofit Ekpa’palek and how she plans on using her scientific training to better the world.

When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your work focus on today?

The first time I really felt as a real scientist was when I published my first scientific article. I was 25 years old and working in Finland at the Biotechnology Center of Turku. It has been long time since then! Now, after finishing my PhD and 14 years of doing laboratory research I decided to take a new path and start working on the interface of science, society, and policy making.

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You have quite a deal of expertise in science diplomacy and development. How did you make your way into the field and what advice do you have to people who would like to take their science careers in that direction?

After working in fundamental research for many years, I realized that I was ready for a new challenge that would allow me to directly have an impact in the social and economic development of our world. My passion for international development, gender equality, and social inclusion was enhanced after I founded my organization, Ekpa’palek, while finishing my PhD. Ekpa’palek is focused on empowering Latin American students and young professionals from vulnerable communities. Encouraged by the impact these programs had in young professionals, I discovered the need for creating new local, regional, and international policies that could help to tackle global issues.

I started to look for opportunities where I could learn about science diplomacy, policymaking, and global governance. I was selected to participate in numerous events in the last year including international conferences, forums, and workshops in Argentina, Jordan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, India, Chile, Germany, and Morocco. Thanks to all these training opportunities, combined with my work at Ekpa’palek, I was given the opportunity to work at the Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) from the Ministry of Environment in Peru. I also got the opportunity to work at the Joint Research Center from the European Commission on a project about the social and ethical aspects of Human Genomics on Policy making, which starts in May.

My advice to all scientists would be to think about how else they can contribute to society with something beyond their scientific research and how their research can influence society or fit in the bigger picture of social/economical development. In the meantime, they can take courses on science diplomacy or policymaking, which may help them make a more clear decision about their future. Also, I would recommend following organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Mitacs, the Joint Research Center, UNESCO, the World Science Forum, and any other institution working in these areas.

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Along those lines, you founded and currently direct a nonprofit called Ekpa'palek. Can you talk more about what the organization does and how our members can support that work?

The lack of money and opportunities for professional development is still a big problem across Latin America. In order to find a solution to this problem, we created a nonprofit called Ekpa'palek in in December 2015. Ekpa'palek is an organization that seeks to empower Latin American students through professional development ( In two years, many professionals from different parts of the world have joined us and we are now an international team of more than 50 professionals working together and giving back to our communities. We have empowered hundreds of students from different countries and backgrounds (to see some of their testimonies please check here).

Ekpa'palek's mission is to empower Latin American students, and in so doing, promote the social and economic development of our respective countries. Ekpa'palek provides opportunities for professional development through free programs: the Professional Mentorship program, the Women's Empowerment program, and the Indigenous communities empowerment program. We complement our programs with a blog that is read in 90 countries and with a YouTube Channel that has more than 40 thousand views, and includes a series of webinars about professional development!

We believe in the academic and professional potential of Latin American students. Therefore, we invest in developing these free programs that can contribute to their professional development. Together, we can create a world where Latinos are also known for their excellent academic skills and become successful professionals! We are always looking for inspirational and motivated people that can help us grow and reach a wider audience of young professionals. You can contact me if you would be interested in collaborating and joining our team (please do so!). Or you could also help us by donating here.

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You started the pod in Lima, Peru. How did you first learn about 500 Women Scientists? What do you hope to bring to the organization and what do you hope to take away from it?

I heard about 500 Women Scientists through LinkedIn, where a colleague working at UN Women posted about it. I decided to take a look and happily found that the initiative was excellent to see and connect with women. 500 Women Scientists' Request a Scientist resource also enables people interested in having more women at panels and on projects to search and find women scientists around the globe! It's fantastic to have this platform to visualize women talent around the world.

What do you do for fun, to relax and regain your energy for all the amazing work you're doing?

I love traveling and interacting with people from different countries, background, and stories. During the last year I have travelled a lot and met amazing people that I probably never would have encountered if I stayed where I am. I also enjoy quiet and “solo” times to read books and watch movies. I think that a book or a movie grants you an invisible ticket to enter the mind and the world of someone else, and discover things you have not thought or imagined — and that makes it an amazing journey. Also, I recently fall in love of biking; so sometimes I take the bike to go for a ride and enjoy the landscapes, the birds, and the skies.

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Dr. Clarissa Rios Rojas is a scientist with experience in the management and planning of scientific and non-scientific multilateral projects. She studied a Bachelor in Biology (Peru), a Master in Biomedicine (Sweden) and a PhD in Molecular Biology (Australia). Currently, she is the founder and director of the organization Ekpa'palek, which is focused on offering professional development programs to young Latin American students and young professionals. All the programs in Ekpa’palek are focused on the Sustainable Development Goals # 4, # 5 and # 10: Education, Gender Equality and Reduction of Inequalities, respectively. Clarissa has been selected as champion of UN Women for the economic empowerment of women, a UNESCO delegate, an emerging leader in the Atlantic Dialogues & also at the Asian Forum on Global Governance, an adviser to the Women Economic Forum and a member of the Global Young Academy. Her work is also related to science diplomacy, the formulation of public policies, economic empowerment of women and global governance.