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The Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders Alumni Portraits Series will trace back the stories of impactful young leaders of the ADEL alumni community. More than a biography, this journalistic approach will capture these success stories, helping us understand the roots of their leadership and pursuit of positive impact. From Morocco to South Africa, Germany to Canada, Brazil and the United Statesl, these young leaders from diverse backgrounds came together in Marrakech for the common goal of rebalancing Atlantic relations to include Southern Atlantic states. As the ADEL Alumni community keeps on growing, we will highlight some of their singular stories here in the spirit of intergenerational dialogue that lies at the heart of the Policy Center for the New South.

Leonardo Párraga

He is a young man like no other. One can spot him easily in a crowd by the way he dresses and addresses the issues with which he is concerned. Leonardo Párraga, an award-winning social entrepreneur and alternative education activist, was born in Colombia with the soul of an artist. He writes poetry, engages with photography, and finds inspiration in the writings of Walt Whitman, whom he describes as the poet of “interconnectedness”.

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At 25, he left Bogotá for Harvard University, for a Master’s program in International Education Policy. At the time, he had already spent five years working on “how to create community engagement through non formal education”, he explains. He wanted to complement his experience with the arts and creative thinking, and “explore how education can foster peace in the Colombian context”. He also felt like being part of an international network of practicioners in his field, to help him “get other insights on how to foster social change and activism in a more effective way”.

Since his year spent in Harvard, he has been traveling a lot, but has been fully back in Bogota since 2019. He launched the BogotArt Foundation in 2013, to conduct work at the intersection of art and community development in vulnerable neighborhoods. In 2016, his team started to expand through partnerships, working on transformation in a neighborhood “through creativity, diverging thinking and self-knowledge”. That was the year Leonardo Párraga became an Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leader (ADEL), and travelled across the Atlantic to Marrakech to take part in the Policy Center for the New South’s young professionals program and flagship conference, the Atlantic Dialogues. There, he found a unique “kind of network” with young professionnals from all horizons. “Usually, networks are really specialized, but this was different, something magical and enlightening. I learned about South-South cooperation, something I had not seen before with direct connection between Africa and Latin America”.

Towards peace and reconciliation

The BogotArt Foundation has now reached a third stage, looking for ways of achieving peace and reconciliation. It launched a campaign called Cartas por la Reconciliación (Letters for Reconciliation), with two other organizations, the Junior Chamber International and Youth for Youth Foundation. “We realized we could bridge the gap between citizens and the FARC ex-combatants, to connect them and help to dismantle stereotypes and labels about the other, that generate hatred and negative feelings”, Leonardo Párraga recalls. More than 5 000 people participated, in the broader context of the implementation of a peace agreement. Four field visits were also organized for 500 people into FARC strongholds, in order to have “face to face conversations”.

This campaign, thanks to its large visibility in the media, allowed the Colombian people to “notice the importance of reconciliation and of generating spaces to interact with one another”, he says. It nurtured the global policy paper We are here, a United Nations study on the role of youth in peace processes, where the willingness of society at large to welcome back ex-combatants of armed groups such as FARC was highlighted. He received the Youth Carnegie Peace Prize in 2018 and was named the Youth Ambassador of the Peace Palace in the Netherlands. In 2019, he was awarded the 1 Billion Acts Hero Award during the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Mexico, and was part of the ADEL alumni delegation to the Paris Peace Forum. In December 2019, he also came back to Marrakech to address the 2019 ADEL Cohort about the importance of collective memory in the reconciliation process.

A new campaign: Letters for Healing

The Covid-19 crisis has brought about an opportunity for further engagement, and has led Leonardo towards a new campaign, Letters for Healing, to help others cope with the crisis. With two international partners, he intends to connect people suffering from the crisis with messages of support and understanding, sent by people from all over the world. The recipients, spread across Colombia, Mexico and Spain, will be health practicioners, essential workers in supermarkets, delivery and cleaning services, but also infected people and their family members. Formally launched on May 22nd, 2020, the campaign seeks to improve mental health in this tough period and aims at sending 20 000 letters by the end of the year.

Inspired by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu for their work on peace and reconciliation, he also mentions Martin Luther King and his letter from the Birmingham jail, as a “powerful way to transform and give perspective on a new kind of society”. The singer Nessi Gomes catches his attention with the song All Related, about how much human beings are interconnected and can only thrive together. “If we were more mindful of the consequences that our actions have in our environment, we would reduce the harm we do to the world”.

Clarissa Rios Rojas

Born in 1984 in Peru and trained as a scientist, Clarissa Rios Rojas has a PhD in molecular biology, but also a clear taste for exploring beyond her field to see the bigger picture.

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She is since March 2020 a Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, launched by the Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. “The Center is very multi-disciplinary, with philosophers, astronomers, lawyers, economists, and educators, working on the management of global catastrophe risks such as a human-engineered pandemic, she explains. It could be a nuclear war, the impact of an asteroid hitting Earth, bio-threats or climate change. Anything that could decimate humanity with little chance to recover”. 

Her team is working on ways to prevent such risks or mitigate them. Her specific role is to “be the bridge between research and policy makers, finding innovative policy solutions and an international  framework for governments to manage extreme natural, technological or biological risks”. 

She participates in workshops organized with different inter-regional stakeholders, such as the United Nations or the International Network for Government Science Advice, among others, and policymakers around the world.

She has started in her new position in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, a perfect example of why it is so important to think about the future and start to change policies now. The pandemic still has a “snowball effect” of shutting many systems one by one in many countries: the health system, food security, trade, tourism, airlines.

Expansion of knowledge

Very early on in her life, she has looked for opportunities to grow. Firstly, she decided to leave Peru for Finland, where she would study with a scholarship. “I did not even knowi where Finland was at that point”, she recalls with a smile, “people would think I was going to the Philippines or Philadelphia, none of my friends heard about Finland before”. She studied for one year in Turku and ended up being hired for another year to work in a laboratory.

Then, through what she describes as a “chain of events”, she went to Sweden to get a Master in Biomedicine, worked in Germany for Evotec, a pharmaceutical company searching for a drug in neurodegenerative diseases. There, she developed a passion for XX and XY (male and female) chromosomes and looked for a leading laboratory to uplift her skills. She found it in Brisbane, Australia, where she got her PhD in Development Molecular Biology in June 2017. What would be the next step ? “Going to the Moon”, she laughs. She loved her Australian experience, “being so far away and surrounded by nature and amazing landscapes”. 

At the same time, she launched Ekpa’palek, an NGO helping Latin American students develop professionally, through a digital platform that offers free professional mentorship opportunities, taking on a mentor role there and convincing her friends to join her. She kept on expanding her knowledge, this time on international development and politics. That’s why she applied to the Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders (ADEL) program in 2016. “Coming to Marrakesh was my first step out of science, encouraging me to attend later different conferences on science diplomacy and make presentations on international development. At the same time, I realized that some topics related to emerging technologies were a threat, like the edition of genes and the first genetically edited babies, born in China in October 2018, raising huge ethical questions. This called my attention to finding a place that would encompass science and policy advice”.

Clarissa Rios Rojas has already achieved a lot in her life. She describes her profile in her Curriculum Vitae as “a scientist with experience working at an agency from the Ministry of Environment in Peru, the European Commission and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, providing science-based evidence and advice for policymaking. She also has experience as an Eisenhower Fellow, a UN Women champion for women's economic empowerment, a UNESCO delegate, an Emerging Leader at the Atlantic Dialogues, a Fellow at the Asian Forum for Global Governance/Raisina Dialogues, a newspaper collaborator, an advisor at Women Economic Forum and as a co-lead of the Science Advice working group at the Global Young Academy”.

Empathy, a personal engine

She has also written many scientific articles and received awards (Exceptional Women of Excellence at the Women Economic Forum in the Netherlands, 2018). She has followed policy-making training in Japan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Switzerland, India, Germany and Jordan, and got herself doing presentations in conferences all over the world, from Thailand to Chile, passing through Cairo, Geneva, Kigali and Copenhagen. She describes herself as “persistent, curious and empathetic – a quality that is worryingly lacking in many well-educated people, who don’t care much about the rest of the world.” 

Her dream ? “If human beings would be empathetic with each other, a lot of problems would be resolved. This is the best thing I could see in my life. We need to teach empathy at different levels within the education system and at work to let us become more human. There must be a way.”

The famous novel 1984, by George Orwell, is her favorite book, and she also likes The Fifth Season (2016), a fiction about earthquakes and science written by N. K. Jemisin, an African-American female author. She sees her parents and friends as her main role models and source of inspiration. “My father is a technical engineer at animal farms, who taught me persistence. My mother a scientist, teaching at the National University in Peru taught her about women empowerment. She didn’t want me to be to become a biologist, thinking it would not be a good career choice if I was ending up being as badly paid as her. But in the end, she supported me and here I am…” As for her friends, she likes to be in tune with “optimists working on the reduction of inequalities, women empowerment and who think about the future”. In short, some of her own reflections.

Scarlett Varga

Born and raised in Romania, but of Hungarian ethnicity Scarlett Varga is since January 2020 the head of development at Bruegel. In other words, she is in charge of the fundraising strategy of this leading European economics think tank, launched in 2005 in Brussels. Her position is highly strategic, as she is member of the organisations’ management and contributes to a 6 million Euros yearly budget, safeguarding Bruegel’s core values of   independence and transparency.

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Leading a team of six talented young professionals, her mission is to tap into private and public sources, targeting multinational corporations (the likes of the GAFAM – namely Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple –Morgan Stanley or Shell), central banks and governments, and grants from European Union institutions. Through dynamic relationships with policymakers at every level, Bruegel has also established itself as a vibrant laboratory of ideas.

The Coronavirus crisis is putting her and her team to the test. “I just stepped in the labour market during the international financial crisis of 2008, and this is the second crisis my generation is facing in its productive life. At Bruegel, we are bringing data and potential solutions on what leaders of today have to act fast on, and not lose so much time as in 2008”.

Proposing a position she could fill

Scarlett Varga, who is also a passionate dancer, landed her first contract with Bruegel in 2014 with a broken toe and a lot of luck. During her interview with Bruegel’s director she was asked to propose a position she could fill, to search for new ways of fundraising. “I could see the potential of working more with private foundations, such as the Wellcome Trust or the Compania de Sao Paulo, to address social issues, to see where our common objective lies and how we can grow together”. In 2018, she became the Deputy Head of Development. She is passionate about the impact of the research published by Bruegel, dealing with real and immediate issues such as the Greek crisis and Brexit, but also long term challenges of climate policies or digitalization in the workplace.

She has come a long way, though, having begun her studies in the IT sector. “In Romania, it was seen as the job of the future when I started studying. After 4 years of IT, I realized this was not for me: I can’t sit next to a computer seven days a week. I need a team and constant movement”. She started Economics in 2006 in Romania, and got a scholarship to follow a double degree of Economics and Business and Marketing studies in the UK. When she arrived in Canterbury in 2009 with 500 pounds in her pocket, she was already attracted to EU economics, and was later dreaming of establishing herself in Brussels, the capital of Europe.

Which she did, in 2010. She ended her higher education  with an International Master of European Studies at the Université Catholique de Louvain. After more than two years of work in Brussels, as a Junior Project Officer and Project Officer at the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (SolarPower Europe), she decided to travel alone for nine months in Latin America in 2013.

A nine-month tour of Latin America

Against all the friendly advice she was getting on how she might “ruin” her career, she followed her inner voice. She stayed in almost every country, except Venezuela, reaching out for immersion in local life and culture through volunteer activities in the non-profit sector. In Colombia, she worked for a charity taking care of disadvantaged children, and in Chile, in the renewable energy sector. This long trip was a “life school” for her: “In Western Europe people lose track of how to be happy with what they have. I met so many nice people in Latin America, with so much compassion and kindness despite their hardships. I felt our societies are sometimes getting lost in constant status anxiety and self pity”.

Co-founder of the Brussels Binder database in 2016, she has co-created a platform where female experts can be more visible and get more chances to participate in public debates.

In my job, which is all about partnerships, I enjoy conversations and understanding how different cultures are working”, she explains. That’s why she applied to the Atlantic Dialogue Emerging Leaders (ADEL) Program in 2018, and was selected. Besides making “great friends in Marrakech”, she thinks “the length of the ADEL programme really gives you the time to understand each other and have a genuine curiosity payoff”. She was also interested to see how the youth is invested in and invited to “deliver”, sharing thoughts, projects and advice.

Attracted to the Spanish culture and dancing world, Scarlett  thinks of Spain as a possible home someday, to open a rustic hacienda, welcome people in a warm environment and host a colorful variety of cultural events from book presentations, to dance seratas and musical stunts. While acknowldedging her generation is “lacking the dreams, since Internet made our life buzzling with short-term challenges”, she explains that her “dream goes with no search of impact or income, but something just very peaceful”.

Kheston Walkins

“Fathom the incredible, create the crazy”

His warmth comes as naturally as his strong sense of empathy, obvious from the first encounter. No coincidence there: since his childhood, Kheston Walkins has a “fascination with the human brain” and its infinite possibilities. He spent time reading Encyclopedias and dictionaries when he was a child, rather than novels and history books. His mother, a teacher, “exchanged her sleep for our survival”, he says about his family, which has no scientific background.

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His passion led him straight to study medical neuroscience at the University of Sussex in Brighton, without going for the classic path of medicine studies. He is now a PhD candidate in Molecular Genetics at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad & Tobago.

Kheston Walkins was born on the 29th February 1988 in this twin-island country, a small and oil-rich Carribbean state facing Venezuela. “I can only celebrate my birthday every four years”, he says with a smile. But he’s clearly too busy to care about that. In a small notebook, he writes all his innovative ideas and works on executing them. “That’s how it is supposed to be, he told the radio program Carribbean Power Lunch. As human beings, we are supposed to fathom the incredible, create the crazy. Developing countries have the power to create the impossible, like Kenya or Colombia are doing with technology”.

After launching an award-winning app called Communicare, focused on helping communication between stroke patients and health professionals, he co-founded the company Allegori in 2018, first with pilot projects, then offering services to the public. Since January 2019, his company has helped 430 people with sleep, focus and anxiety problems. “Using the knowledge in neuroscience adds so much value to people”, he says.

Problems worsened by the Covid-19 crisis

How does it work? “We start from the end, explains the neuroscientist. We collect data with EEG (electro-encephalogram), and if our client has a sleeping problem, we look at the brain when someone is sleeping, then teach how to get as close to that as possible. For instance, the brain can ignore that your clothes are touching your skin… Or if you just cut your finger, it can ignore the pain if something else is happening at the same time. It’s possible to help the body out of will, to regulate the brain activity in order to move quickly asleep. All we do is give people power and control”. The results are more than convincing, with a 100% rate of success. “One patient decidedly slept for 11 hours, even though she could hardly sleep for 4 hours before, and another could get an extra night of sleep per week”.

The main innovation Kheston Walkins has introduced is to analyse and use EEG data to drive the change expected by the clients. All the problems he is addressing, lack of focus, sleeplessness and anxiety became worse with the Covid-19 crisis. “Children who stayed at home during the lockdown are back at school, and have focus issues because they are playing on their phones until midnight, instead of going to bed at 9 pm. I’ve noticed that lots of executives in companies have encountered sleeping problems, because of new levels of stress in the way business is done. Working from home has also brought confusion, with no proper turn off in the evening”.

Other fields of work Kheston Walkins has developed include pain management. “Resolving chronic pain is also possible, as we have noticed with helping people with sleep challenges. One patient couldn’t walk or wear shoes, and ran for 5 kilometers after training with us. It’s very moving for us, and powerful to see how beautiful and interesting the brain is. When given the right instructions it can do a lot more for us than we would expect”.

Export in countries with little access to mental health

Covid-19 has also changed the way Allegori conducts its business, accepting one patient at a time and offering its services fully online. The aim is now to grow regionally and internationally. The first steps have been taken, through partnerships with Caiman Islands and two agencies in Trinidad & Tobago.

Kheston’s dream is as simple as it is consistent with his own journey : “Keep on doing what I’m meant to be on the planet doing, reaching out to the Carribbean and West Africa, in countries where mental health services are not developed”.

This is partly what drove him to attend the Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders (ADEL) program in December 2019 in Marrakech. There, he found exactly what he was expecting : “to meet young and interesting people from different parts of the world and exchange”. He was also impressed with “the passion of the African political elite present at Atlantic Dialogues for their countries. Trinidad & Tobago has a population of 1.3 million, while some cities in Africa are ten times bigger. The challenges are so massive, but I could see core values such as passion, interest in progress and care for the future of Africa”.

A keen listener of audiobooks, he mentions Brainfluence and The 7 habits of highly effective people as mindblowing, as well as the business book Blue Ocean Strategy. Filled with optimism, this bright young scientist is determined to make his scientific knowledge useful for everyone, every day.

Carolina Zuheill Rosales

The Covid-19 pandemic has induced a major shift in Carolina Zuheill Rosales’ career. This internal medicine doctor founded Guimedic in 2011, when she was 25. Through its mobile clinics, this NGO provides medical consultations in remote and poor areas throughout Mexico. The main focus is to treat indigenous communities.

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Because of a structural lack of medical access to these populations, she has launched in March 2020 Promesa, a social business that is using artificial intelligence. Algorithms were created to look for COVID-19 patients, in order to reach them before they present potential complications.

Promesa is on the front-line of defense of indigenous communities in Mexico, which do not have the infrastructure, so the measures established by the WHO cannot be applied. Between March and December 2020, Promesa and its team of 53 volunteers have helped 13 000 patients with no access to health services. Among them, 83 have passed away. “The protocol consists of notifying us by cellphone with satellite service to follow up on the patient remotely. If the patient has all the symptoms and the data issued by the AI system gives a risk factor above 85%, we send them to a hospital, in line with the policy of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples. Treatments are also provided at home, such as Vitamin C, D, and acetaminophen”, she explains. Mexico is one of the hardest hit Latin American countries, with nearly 2 million Covid-19 cases and 170 000 deaths by mid-February 2021, on a total population of 126 million (against 9 million cases and 235 000 deaths in Brazil, for a population of 209 million).

 

The “doctor of the poor”

Born in the city of Guadalajara in 1986, Carolina Zuheill Rosales describes herself as “curious person by nature”. This natural curiosity led to “out of the box” problem solving skills. At 17, she went to Canada to study computer animation for one year, but she already knew she was meant to become a doctor. “Science has always held savvy over me and as serving others is my passion, it was only natural that both would come together". She also thinks that "being a doctor is a difficult path. It means to sacrifice yourself with sleepless nights and sometimes being bullied by patients, doctors and fellow students, but at the end never to give up."

To get her degree, she successfully completed a mandatory year of social service, and was assigned by the Health Secretary to a remote area in the State of Jalisco, eight hours away by car to the nearest hospital. “On my way there, I thought I would have a clinic with equipment, but there was nothing. After a few days, I met Maria, an indigenous woman. She walked more than 20 hours to ask me for help, but her baby was already lifeless. I could feel her pain”.

This shock led her to investigate the access to health care in Mexico. “The number of people deprived should decrease, but instead, it is increasing. We now have 56 million Mexicans living in extreme poverty, with no access to health and dying from preventable diseases”. She then decided to start Guimedic, a humanitarian medical association, with the help of medical students from different parts of the world and Mexican doctors. Since 2011, her non-profit has treated 13 800 000 patients, with a team that had a peak of 1 200 volunteers and financial help coming mainly through donations from families, friends, volunteers, private companies and local government. 

This hard work on the ground means a presence throughout the year – and not four times per year with rotations like in other programs. Carolina keeps on coming back to remote places, even if that means a lot of hiking and sleeping under a tent. Patients have nicknamed her “The doctor of the poor”, because she never forgets them and is the only doctor taking care of them. But this is hardly enough for her, given the scope of the challenges. Acting on several fronts, she has served the federal government in 2012 as a State delegate on violence and crime prevention. In 2014, she became the national president of that task force and formed alliances on the Mexican borders to address migration issues. “We developed safe community routes, in areas that have in common the presence of drug cartels”, she says.

 

Getting involved in public policies

In 2013, Carolina obtained a certificate in entrepreneurial development at Harvard, and went on to study health management in 2015 at Universidad del Valle Mexico (UVM). “I want to create a positive change in people’s lives", she explains. I did not have enough knowledge to grow my venture, and needed more information to work with other countries”. She traveled to Spain to study  International Cooperation Development and Directive Skills, and obtained a Masters degree, before publishing a book on How to Prevent Zika with Mayan Medicine (2016).

She joined the Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders program in 2018 in Marrakesh, applying in a spirit of advocacy: “We need to open doors and make sure that everyone understands that health is a human right we need to invest in”. With the Policy Center for the New South, she was in touch with one of her passions – social policy. “Being able to connect with Presidents, Prime ministers and ambassadors gave me another perspective. We have to get involved in politics to create social policies to protect all people and see the change we want”. 

Carolina, who likes to work behind the scenes, is about to finish a PhD in Public Health. Her next step is to study public policies and become an actor of change. Nothing can stop her, not even a brain tumor. She underwent surgery in 2019 and spent three weeks in a coma. “A life-changing experience that made me a human doctor, understanding the fears and doubts of the patient about the treatment”, she says. More determined than ever to “make a difference”, she thinks big and is still giving. Besides her NGO and her social business, she is a mentor for Voices of Social Change where more than 5 000 students around the world are learning from her experiences. She is also part of the Kuongoza Initiative, helping young people in Africa creating social businesses based on STEMI (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Innovation).

Awarded many times, Carolina has been named in 2020 “Citizen of the year” by Grupo Salinas, a Mexican conglomerate operating in television, electronics and Internet. In 2021, she was selected as social entrepreneur by the biggest TV company in Mexico, where she will launch a campaign to motivate people to create social businesses.

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