Networking to Nurture and Support Outstanding Youths in Latin America

Meet Dr. Edna Patricia Matta-Camacho—Chemist, Networker, and Global Talent Mentoring Partner, Setting an Inspiring Example for Young People in Colombia and Everywhere

By Ildikó Győryné Csomó

Dr. Edna Patri­cia Mat­ta-Cama­cho has come a long way. The lit­tle girl who pas­sion­ate­ly dis­man­tled the fam­i­ly radio in the old days in Colom­bia is now a leader at Health Cana­da, over­see­ing Cana­di­an drug autho­riza­tion pro­ce­dures. In addi­tion to her every­day work, Dr. Mat­ta-Cama­cho is the founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing part­ner Fun­dación STEM sin Fron­teras; and since 2022, she has been a mem­ber of the jury for the UNESCO Al Fozan Inter­na­tion­al Prize for the Pro­mo­tion of Young Sci­en­tists in Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, Engi­neer­ing, and Math­e­mat­ics. Through­out her remark­able sci­en­tif­ic career, Dr. Mat­ta-Cama­cho has relied on the good advice and valu­able expe­ri­ences that were shared with her by peers, men­tors, and super­vi­sors. Now she is using her resources to orga­nize net­works that can offer assis­tance to oth­ers on their own jour­neys. Recent­ly, I had the priv­i­lege of hav­ing an extend­ed con­ver­sa­tion with Dr. Mat­ta-Cama­cho. She revealed what moti­vat­ed her to fol­low this amaz­ing­ly col­or­ful and excit­ing career path.
Dr. Edna Patricia Matta-Camacho, Founder and Executive Director of Fundación STEM sin Fronteras
You are a sci­en­tist. What inspired you to choose this career path in the first place? For one, I was always very, very curi­ous from an ear­ly age. My mom was very frus­trat­ed with me, because I was always dis­man­tling our elec­tron­ic devices. I want­ed to see how they worked! For exam­ple, I com­plete­ly took apart the radio we used to lis­ten to the news. In some cas­es, I actu­al­ly destroyed them by acci­dent! I was also very good at math­e­mat­ics, and I received a lot of praise for that. So, nat­u­ral­ly, that moti­vat­ed me to keep learn­ing until this became a pas­sion. Lat­er, in high school, when chem­istry was intro­duced, I was enthralled by the idea of how chem­istry explains the behav­ior of the mol­e­cules and their inter­ac­tions and, by exten­sion, life itself. So, in hind­sight, I think it was the fris­son of dis­cov­er­ing why things work that real­ly moti­vat­ed me to study chem­istry in col­lege. My curios­i­ty and pas­sion for chem­istry have remained ever since. As I always say, if I had to choose again, I would choose chem­istry again! If I had to put every­thing that got me into sci­ence into one word, it would be curios­i­ty, which I think is a, per­haps even the dri­ving force of science. 
Curios­i­ty is the dri­ving force of science.
You’ve earned mul­ti­ple degrees, includ­ing a PhD, and you did your work in Colom­bia, Mex­i­co, and Cana­da. How has the expe­ri­ence of doing aca­d­e­m­ic and sci­en­tif­ic work in three coun­tries shaped you?
It opened my mind and broad­ened my cul­tur­al under­stand­ing. I remem­ber when I first left Colom­bia and went to Mex­i­co; I was fas­ci­nat­ed to see how sim­i­lar we were in cul­ture and lan­guage, and yet so dif­fer­ent in the ways we did things. This gave me a lot of per­spec­tive, and I learned how to adapt.

I must admit, how­ev­er: It was hard. Dur­ing my first trip to Mex­i­co, I was still doing my under­grad­u­ate work. At first, I want­ed to call every­thing off and go back home; but then I real­ized that it is an amaz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty that I need­ed embrace with all my heart and ener­gy. Lat­er, when I returned to Colom­bia to defend my the­sis, every­one was so impressed with me. My peers and the stu­dents in younger cohorts were ask­ing me for advice. I was very hap­py to be able to speak with them about my expe­ri­ence in Mex­i­co and to see how they became moti­vat­ed to study abroad, too. That was the point when I real­ized shar­ing expe­ri­ences is powerful—contagious—because you can change people’s minds in a good way.

Anoth­er amaz­ing ben­e­fit of study­ing in more than one cul­ture is hav­ing the chance to devel­op the skill of adap­ta­tion. My inter­na­tion­al jour­ney gave me a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to get to know dif­fer­ent sci­en­tists and learn about how sci­ence is done in dif­fer­ent places. It’s the same sci­ence, of course, but there are dif­fer­ent resources every­where. In Colom­bia and Mex­i­co, the resources were lim­it­ed, so we learned how to save some of the reac­tive mate­ri­als we need­ed for our exper­i­ments, or to recy­cle them to do dif­fer­ent things. Here in Cana­da, I have dif­fer­ent oppor­tu­ni­ties to try out things as we have more resources. How­ev­er, learn­ing with how to work with more restrict­ed resources was a valu­able les­son that still helps me to be flex­i­ble and adapt to new envi­ron­ments. These expe­ri­ences have shaped the per­son I am now pro­fes­sion­al­ly and personally. 
You had men­tors who guid­ed you as a youth and young pro­fes­sion­al. How did they influ­ence your path, both pro­fes­sion­al­ly and personally? The first peo­ple in my life who helped me were my two old­er sis­ters. One of them, who is a micro­bi­ol­o­gist and bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist now, was already a teacher when I was fin­ish­ing high school. She was the one who advised me how to go to the Uni­ver­si­dad Nacional Autóno­ma de Méx­i­co. This huge step in my life was much eas­i­er with her sup­port and guid­ance. Anoth­er impor­tant per­son I would like to men­tion was my PhD super­vi­sor in Mex­i­co. She sup­port­ed me, taught me, and helped me with the per­son­al aspects of my life. I was very for­tu­nate to have a lot of female men­tors through­out my life. They could relate to me in many ways and read­i­ly under­stood my strug­gles.

Men­tor­ing becomes espe­cial­ly valu­able when you have to make deci­sions or face chal­lenges. It is an immense help to have a knowl­edge­able per­son whom you can turn to with your ques­tions. It is impor­tant to note that the men­tor will not make deci­sions for you; rather, they will share their expe­ri­ences, allow­ing you to gain insights and, per­haps, to form your own deci­sions on a bet­ter, more informed basis. 
In 2018, you launched the Fun­dación STEM sin Fron­teras (STEM With­out Bor­ders Foun­da­tion). The foun­da­tion focus­es on sup­port­ing and empow­er­ing stu­dents and teach­ers in STEM areas. How does the foun­da­tion work to achieve this goal?
We have two main mis­sions. The first is to pro­vide equal access to STEM edu­ca­tion for stu­dents in the rur­al areas of Colom­bia. We start­ed with a pilot project in the Toli­ma region. We orga­nized in-per­son pre­sen­ta­tions for kids in the schools by experts who orig­i­nal­ly came from that region. We talked about our roots in the Toli­ma region and what our careers look like now. We brought exper­i­ments and robots, and the kids were fas­ci­nat­ed. It was clear that they had the same curios­i­ty I had been talk­ing about; they just lacked the resources.

The sec­ond mis­sion is to empow­er girls and women and help them to learn to believe that STEM could be a poten­tial career for them, too. We dis­cov­ered that girls in Colom­bia, espe­cial­ly in the rur­al areas, don’t want to go to uni­ver­si­ty. The rea­son behind this is not a lack of skills but rather lack of aware­ness that this is a real­is­tic path for them. The only female exam­ples in STEM they see are their teach­ers, or per­haps a nurse. There­fore, by pre­sent­ing images of women in sci­ence whom they can relate to, we encour­age girls in rur­al set­tings to dis­cov­er their inter­ests and build their con­fi­dence. This helps them real­ize they can choose a sim­i­lar path for them­selves if they want to.

We offer sev­er­al in-per­son pro­grams and activ­i­ties, and since the pan­dem­ic we have also devel­oped online ver­sions. The activ­i­ties include work­shops and webi­na­rs as well as a pro­gram in col­lab­o­ra­tion with TED-Ed Colom­bia to fur­ther sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion among stu­dents. We also have a spe­cial pro­gram called “Myths and real­i­ties” that helps stu­dents with the tran­si­tion from school to uni­ver­si­ty. Besides for stu­dents, we also offer train­ings and fel­low­ships for teach­ers. We firm­ly believe that these kinds of sup­port empow­er teach­ers to improve their edu­ca­tion­al offerings. 
Fun­dación STEM sin Fron­teras (FSsF) and Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing are now part­ner­ing. How can a col­lab­o­ra­tion between FSsF and Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing help young STEMM tal­ents in Colombia?
FSsF is focus­ing on increas­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties and enabling more young peo­ple in Colom­bia to access them. The var­i­ous activ­i­ties we launched are designed to help youths to increase their inter­est, acquire skills, and devel­op their con­fi­dence by show­ing them exam­ples, role mod­els, and paths to fol­low. Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing and its world­wide net­work offers the youths we sup­port an addi­tion­al chance to immerse them­selves in the world of inter­na­tion­al sci­en­tif­ic col­lab­o­ra­tion. See­ing the youths in our pro­grams, I can con­firm that many of them have great poten­tial. I believe that by com­bin­ing our strengths and resources with Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing and allow­ing the youths to con­nect with inter­na­tion­al STEMM experts, we can make a last­ing effect on the lives of these kids in Latin America. 
I think men­tor­ing is pass­ing your lega­cy to the people.
How do you think Colom­bian and Cana­di­an STEMM experts ben­e­fit from Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing by par­tic­i­pat­ing as mentors?
Being part of this sort of net­work is a great advan­tage for an expert. The experts in the Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing net­work share a strong moti­va­tion for sci­ence, and as such they can help one anoth­er.

Above all, men­tor­ing is reward­ing. It gives you the chance to give back to soci­ety, share your knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence; and in so doing, you are mak­ing a pos­i­tive impact on someone’s life and our com­mu­ni­ty. The men­tor will become part of the suc­cess and future of this per­son and their com­mu­ni­ty, even if it is only one small part of that suc­cess. It’s a way of pass­ing your lega­cy and all that soci­ety has giv­en you when you were devel­op­ing onto future generations. 

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