Alicia Pérez-Porro: “I admire CREAF’s multidisciplinary spirit and transversality, one of the reasons that got me interested in this position”
16 de December 2020
A few months before the end of 2020, CREAF welcomed Alicia Pérez-Porro as the new Scientific Coordinator, a key and cross-functional leadership role for the center.
Alicia is a marine biologist who combines ecology, gender equality, science policy and science diplomacy. After 12 years living in the United States, she is thrilled to return home “twice”: returning to Catalonia, and returning to the biodiversity and climate change research arena.
Her position was recently created to drive CREAF´s new strategy, both in its research and international reach, to bring us to a new era. A new CREAF that, as she says, must be built by all of us to deepen the impact our science has on society.
Welcome to CREAF Alicia, and congratulations on this new position. After a month with us, how would you summarize your mission at the center?
Thank you! My mission has two parts. On one hand, I am joining the team that is managing the Severo Ochoa award. A key piece of this is not only maintaining, but also increasing CREAF’s excellence so we can achieve a second Severo Ochoa in the future. On the other hand, my role is also focused on leading the new and collectively built strategy at CREAF through reinforcing and leading the strategy promotion team. Both aspects of my mission involve understanding the current CREAF and all the people who are part of it—which is a challenge because I am still in the US. And there is a ‘from scratch’ component because it is a completely new position for CREAF, so I am also helping to define the role.
That’s not nothing! How do you approach such a new, cross-functional position in a center going through a overall transformation?
I approach it with great enthusiasm, energy and ideas, and also with humility. I am the last one to arrive, there are people who have been doing a lot of work for many years at CREAF and therefore I want to learn a lot from them, from their vision, from what has worked and what has not worked. I want to help build a CREAF that includes everyone’s perspectives, without leaving anyone behind and without losing the current culture and spirit, which has been what has differentiated CREAF from other research centers since its founding. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but it is important to detect possible improvements or innovations that should be incorporated and try to predict CREAF’s future needs so we can move forward. I see an opportunity in the fact that the whole world is also going through a total transformation. What role do we want CREAF to play in the society of the future? Answering this question is part of our growth process as a center.
Excitement, humility, what else do you think your arrival brings?
A lot of things! I have done research, I know it from the inside, and I bring an external vision, and personal, professional and international experience outside of research that can help CREAF fit into this global environment. A vision whilse pieces already exist in some form or another in CREAF, ready to be united by strategy and developed. I hope to help by bringing all these pieces together.
If all of this comes true, how do you envision CREAF in five years?
“I don’t know what CREAF will be in five years, because am not the only voice that matters, we have to define it together.”
I don’t have an answer to that question because I am not the only voice that matters, we have to define it together. We still don’t know what CREAF will be in five years, but I do have an idea of how I would like us to get there. I would love us to enjoy the journey, build a team and all row in the same direction, like a unit, during the next 5 years. If we succeed, it will be the road that we paved together, The final destination is less important, we will consider it a success if we´ve built it together.
What good ingredients does CREAF already have?
CREAF has a lot of good ingredients. This is fantastic because it makes work easier for all of us. The first ingredient is research and researchers of the highest quality. We come from a base of excellent research. In addition, CREAF has a multidisciplinary spirit and transversality which I admire very much, and in fact, it was one of the reasons that got me interested in this position. On the other hand, I think CREAF has also been able to understand the new times coming in science and the communication department is a great example!
What ingredients are we missing and should develop?
Women! In big neon capital letters. CREAF lacks women in its highest research positions. This is a problem will hold us back from the next level unless we change it. Otherwise, we will not be a reference point for other centers. This could be a fatal mistake.
The importance of diversity, inclusion, justice and gender equity is an issue we should all be aware of. Absolutely everyone, because it affects all of us. It affects the quality of research, transference and impact. If the voices of 50% of the world’s population are not represented, it means that we lose 50% of the talent, and therefore, we all lose. Is that what we want? Can we afford it? Just as we are an example for many other issues, I want CREAF to be an example in this too, in how to turn this problem around and overcome this imbalance that we now have. This is a problem we share with many other research centers, especially in STEM. There is a lot of work to be done, in how to write a job offer, in how to evaluate a CV or resume, in how to approach an interview, in creating a work environment and working conditions that allow women to stay and develop their career at CREAF. Shall we start?
Your professional profile is unique. How was Alicia born and transformed from when you decided to do a PhD in marine sponge transcriptomics to the present day, as the scientific coordinator of a research center?
If I had to define my professional career in one word, it would be serendipity. From the PhD until today there has not been a predetermined path, but there has been an interest to seek answers and to connect those answers with society. I’ve let myself be carried by the opportunities, as they say here in the United States, ‘go with the flow’. Without being passive, but I learned at some point that the best plan is no plan. In fact, serendipity is born out of curiosity, and I owe everything to my curiosity.
I did a PhD without thinking what I would like to do next, out of curiosity and taking advantage of the opportunity, and because I wanted to work close to nature. Once I finished, I found myself in an absolute darkness and not knowing what to do. It was a very hard time. Nobody had told me what to do with my doctoral degree beyond research, and I couldn’t find my place in the world of research. From the beginning of my PhD I felt that I didn’t fit in, At the time I was lacking the holistic vision to be able to understand where my research was framed, the impact of what I was doing. In retrospect, I think that more than wanting to study nature, I wanted to be the voice of nature.
And you jumped into the void, out of the research…
Actually, more than a jump, I entered the water by the stairs, gradually. A first step was the professional barriers related to my gender that I had to face and that affected me personally and made me rethink my future. Another step was my love for science, which made me explore scientific fields beyond research. Hand in hand with scientific activism, I explored gender equality. Then came science policy, science diplomacy and management. At the point on the journey where I am now, I consider that all my experience has made me a very global person who tends to think broadly. All the things that I have been exploring are culminating in the Master’s in International Relations and Diplomacy that I am pursuing at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. This master’s degree is helping me look at science from the outside, in an even more global way, and help science have a real impact on our society. At this stage of my life, I want nature to be represented at the decision-making tables, and I want CREAF to be one of its voices.
Therefore, leading, thinking and implementing a new strategy for CREAF seems a natural and coherent step in your professional career.
Being the scientific coordinator of CREAF makes a lot of sense in my career. This position allows me to apply all the knowledge I have acquired in recent years in a place and in a position of responsibility. It allows me to unite everything that has happened to me up to now in a concrete and powerful objective: to help build the CREAF of the future. Furthermore, I am returning to the field of climate change research, I am returning home twice.
Yes, I’m going back to the research sector, but also to Barcelona! This new personal adventure and allows me to return home after living 12 years in the USA. I went to Costa Rica in 2005 on a mobility grant from the UAB, and have been going around the world since then. Now, serendipity has brought me back here again.
Alicia Pérez-Porro is a marine biologist connecting the environment, gender equality, and science diplomacy for a sustainable future. By day, she is the Scientific Coordinator of CREAF, a multidisciplinary Spanish research center focused on global change and biodiversity research. By night, she is the President of the Association for Spanish Scientists in USA (www.ecusa.es), and President of the Network of Spanish Researchers Abroad (RAICEX, representing ECUSA). Alicia is also a Research Associate at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution), a sustainability consultant for Bakery Group, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in International Affairs by Fletcher School (Tufts University – GMAP’21). In 2018, she was selected to participate in the largest, all-female expedition to Antarctica with the Homeward Bound Project, and was awarded the Spanish Red Cross Gold Medal for her efforts advocating for gender equality as a key component of climate action. The following year, she and her teammates founded the Spanish non-profit ‘Ellas Lideran’ to continue their advocacy work. She was a 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar, and a 2018 92Y Women inPower fellow. Recently, she co-authored the children’s book ‘The Secret Life of Viruses’, translated to 14 different languages and with more than 30.000 copies already sold. She is a lemon pie lover, misses dancing, and is a mom of two. Personal website: www.aliciaperezporro Twitter: @aliciaprzporro.