Pedro De la Torre Márquez: Caught between the Pandemic and Scientific Inequity in Colombia

Oprime aqui para leer este articulo en Español.

 

Pedro De la Torre Márquez is a chemist and biophysicist born in Barranquilla, Colombia. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital in Boston. He works under the tutelage of Dr. Artur Indzhykulian and Dr. David P. Corey, with whom they focus on combining biophysics and biochemistry to search for a potential treatment to treat hereditary deafness and blindness. From Harvard University, he fights to support the scientific development of the Caribbean Coast of Colombia to reduce the knowledge gap between its rural and urban areas.

 

By Pedro De la Torre Márquez

dlt-1Pedro De la Torre, the first on the left in this picture with his childhood friends. Hibácharo, Colombia, 1994.

 

We were a small troop of innocence, a generation of children who only thought of smiling, waking up to the noise of frogs, crickets, roosters, and enjoying those beautiful sunsets offered by the charming Colombian Caribbean. It was 1994; I was there, dressed in blue and arm crossed in an elegant way at a party in a small town called Hibácharo. I grew up there, in a colony of the Mokaná indigenous tribe in Atlántico Department (rather similar to a U.S. state). We attended the same primary school, which had no high school or library. The closest library was about three hours away in Barranquilla, the capital of the Atlántico Department.  Unfortunately, even in 2020 the school is waiting for a library. Due to economic conditions, the chances that a child from Hibácharo will make it to college are remote.

In Hibácharo, the main means of transportation for families was the donkey, but now motorcycles are common. It is hard to believe in the opportunity of being able to travel and go to university with few cars in town and families with few resources to get around. Luckily for me, my father was the driver and owner of the old town bus, with which he transported the passengers from Hibácharo to Barranquilla, the capital where the peasants traveled to sell their agricultural products.

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My father Luis, at his home in Colombia. Today my father only knows how to stamp his signature and follow the empirical mathematical rules that life has given him. Despite not completing school and never going to college, this was not an obstacle to being an exemplary person to educate his children. Personally, I respect his conservative philosophy when he tells me that he already raised me and that is why he does not accept a penny of support. He tells me, "You should focus on your future and that of your family, because I already did my job."

 

Reaching a position as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital seemed like a dream for this Colombian raised in the heart of a rural area, far from the city, in a territory with little (maybe none) scientific infrastructure. Within four months of living that dream, on December 31, an outbreak of SARS-COV-2 was reported in China that threatened to spread throughout the world producing the Covid-19 pandemic. My wife Pierina and my two-year-old son were traveling to Colombia on vacation on January 18. A day later, the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Washington. I decided to travel to Colombia to join my family on February 7 to coordinate a science symposium that I had organized to bring knowledge to the Caribbean region. No official cases had been reported of Covid-19 and we enjoyed the largest cultural festival in Colombia, the Barranquilla Carnival. After the carnival passed, and Barranquilla returned to calm, the first case appeared. That's when the nightmare begins.

But before the nightmare begins, let me tell you a bit more about my story.

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Pedro De la Torre receiving his preschool degree with Eucaris Jiménez, one of his favorite teachers at the Niño Jesús de Praga rural school in Hibácharo, Atlántico, Colombia.

 

After I was born in Barranquilla in 1988, my parents went to live in the epicenter of my father's work, Hibácharo. He was transporting the passengers from 4 a.m. in the early morning to Barranquilla. My mother, born and raised in Barranquilla, used to take my father's bus on her way in the morning to go to the university. That is how she met him and they got married. She left city life to go live in the countryside, ride a horse, dedicate herself to collecting cattle on the farm, and do social work with the community. In Hibácharo I lived part of my childhood attending the elementary school Niño Jesús de Praga, where I learned my first letters and numbers, until violence and economic hardship knocked on my door.

Mechanical failures in my father's bus added difficulties to our financial situation. Meanwhile, the armed conflict and violence in Colombia took two of my uncles from me when I was only about eight years old. One of them was killed during a lunar eclipse. The moon was very red, as if to say that something would happen that day. I was at a mass in the church with the village priest because it was Holy Week, and suddenly everyone said, "They killed Evaristo, they killed Evaristo."

I was confused… I ran with all my strength for about half a mile to reach his house. I remember it like it was yesterday.

“He was lying on the ground on his back, blood was still running on the floor, and I managed to see three bullet holes in his head. He was having dinner, the plate of food was still on the table almost finished and accompanied by a jug of juice, I think it was guava with milk. "

When many children around the world thought about toys, I was already part of the group that thought about how to survive and erase the moment from my mind, but I have never been able to.

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Pedro on his visit to his former elementary school Niño Jesús de Praga (March 2020)

 

Time passed, and my parents—for protection and looking for a better future—decided to take me to Sabanalarga (Atlántico-Colombia) together with my two siblings, Tatiana and Luis. This beautiful land that I adore welcomed us like one more family. There I finished my high school studies when I was 16 years old, supported by a merit scholarship from the ASPROS Institute, since my parents had no way to pay for my studies at that time. Inclined towards science, I applied to the only public opportunity I had to be a professional, to the Universidad del Atlántico, where I graduated with honors as a chemist.

With a scholarship in 2011, I went to Chile to pursue a Doctorate in Applied Sciences at the University of Talca, and was recruited in 2016 by Dr. Marcos Sotomayor at the Ohio State University (OSU) to do my first post-doctorate. There I deepened my knowledge in structural biology and biophysics, awarded with the Pelotonia fellowship. We made great scientific discoveries to understand the structure of biomolecules located in specialized cells of the cochlea in the inner ear, without them or with their malfunction, we would be deaf. These discoveries brought me to Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Hospital for Eyes and Ears (MEE) in September 2019. The end of the year came and it was time to think about a break and the plan was to return to Colombia.

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Pedro, his wife Pierina and their son Luciano during their arrival at Harvard Medical School, where he is doing his second post-doctorate linked to the Department of Otolaryngology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital (MEE) in Boston.

 

My initial plan was to take a 30-day vacation and later rejoin my team at Harvard, but I ended up trapped in Colombia for five months because of Covid-19 and the subsequent closure of airports.

The first emotional impact I had was seeing the political polarization amid the increase in infections and deaths, which were daily news in Colombia. Although the environment seemed difficult with a population in panic, I had to do something to help, I had an ethical responsibility to give back part of my knowledge to my country.

I had four big challenges as a Harvard scientist, stuck in my own country:

  1. The first was to try to protect my family from the virus, I was supposed to have a level of scientific training that could give me certain advantages with respect to prevention measures.
  2. The second was to work remotely in a territory with poor internet access.
  3. The third was, how could a scientist from the Atlantic Department help protect the population from the attack of a virus?
  4. Finally, how could it help to mitigate hunger in the towns of the Atlantic Department?

I was able to train my family and many friends on how to protect themselves from the virus, but other acquaintances inevitably died. Despite the virus, constant power outages, and poor quality internet access that reduced my scientific productivity to the lowest standards, I was able to adapt to my new environment. During this process, I noticed even more the poor scientific infrastructure that my region suffers from and its dependence on collaborations with better equipped laboratories in the country's capital.

So how could I support the neediest communities and help build a better scientific infrastructure for my region?

The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) of Colombia (Minciencias) extended an invitation to help in the construction of an initiative that would bring together the best scientists in the country, so that, with their ingenuity, a plan to counter the pandemic could be activated in Colombia. Ad Honorem, I contributed my ideas to Minciencias, which, as never in the history of Colombia and with the help of Minister Mabel Torres and her vice ministers, who has brought a little science to peripheral territories of the country with poor scientific infrastructure, like the one I grew up on but much remains to be achieved. To build a self-sustaining and knowledge-based society, the scientific community and local leaders need to work together to give a higher priority to invest more in science, technology and innovation.

For example, when I started my studies in chemistry in 2006, there was only one “video beam” projector for the entire Faculty of Basic Sciences of about a thousand students (an unlikely case to be found in universities in the main capitals of the country), not to mention its scientific infrastructure. The research laboratory building of my Alma Mater has been under construction since 2009 and is not yet finished. Against all odds, today the Universidad del Atlántico is accredited (including the chemistry program), ratifying itself as the best university in the Colombian Caribbean. It is an arduous work of only those honorable faculty who keep alive the Atlántico Department’s  only public university.

Fortunately, before everything got worse, I met Dr. Rafael Borges (the only internist at the local hospital Sabanalarga, a beautiful town with an estimated population of 102,000 people, known as the "land where intelligence is plague") way before the arrival of the virus to Barranquilla, “The Golden Gate of Colombia,” the epicenter of the virus on the Caribbean coast. We agreed that the lack of scientific infrastructure to detect cases in record time and the lack of hospital infrastructure in rural areas showed a potentially devastating scenario if the virus reached Barranquilla and spread to the surrounding rural areas.

dlt-6Pedro De la Torre accompanied by Dr. Rafael Borges (white coat) informing the community of the Atlántico Department about how to avoid contagion of SARS-COV-2 on the Channel 9 of Sabanalarga. Social communicator Doraine Acevedo (left), journalist Geovanis Alvarez (in red), Wuilly Rodriguez and Yesika Cardona (not shown in the photo) have played an important role in transmitting these messages to the community.

 

We decided to start a round of talks in the Municipality of Sabanalarga through local television channels, radio and social networks to inform the community about the importance of social distancing, answering questions from pregnant women, about what infections were like in children, and many other questions. We had experts in different medical branches informing the community. One of them, Dr. Virgil Carballo, former president of the Colombian Board of Internal Medicine,  unfortunately died from Covid-19 on September 8.

With resources from many friends in Colombia and around the world, we were able to get school supplies to the children of my old school Niño Jesús de Praga, with the “Scholar Kits for all Children” initiative, with which we were able to supply the school with basic elements that served for the children to work their activities at home. Also, we delivered food to each home in Hibácharo in the middle of the pandemic

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Scenes from Pedro’s “Scholar Kits For All Children” programming at the Niño Jesús de Praga elementary school before the quarantine by Covid-19 in Colombia (March 2020).

 

I think that the talks were a great success and helped a large part of the population to learn that the virus was real and that we should take care of ourselves. I consider that the work that Dr. Borges and many doctors in Colombia have carried out treating patients philanthropically during the pandemic is definitely an act of heroism. Especially, because Borges also got infected and beat Covid-19 trying to save other people's lives. As if that were not enough, Dr. Borges also saved the integrity of my family when my mother contracted Covid-19, as did my wife, my two siblings at home and my niece.

At the time, I was traveling on a humanitarian flight to the United States, since Harvard University had begun face-to-face work in its laboratories. The next day when I arrived in Miami, my wife started with symptoms of Covid-19, she had lost her smell and taste. So I was infected too? Fortunately not, but with the airports closed, now the odyssey was that my family was ill and I was unable to return to Colombia. It was a complete nightmare. Upon arriving in Boston the week of August 2, I was able to calm all my fears of a possible infection with 2 PCR tests for SARS-COV-2 and chest X-rays, which validated that I could finally after 5 months rejoin my research activities on hereditary deafness

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Pedro with his son Luciano, his mother Luz Marina, his two siblings Tatiana and Luis, and his niece Shaira moments before his return to the United States (July 2020).

 

It wasn't until August 13 that I was able to bring my wife and son back to the United States. I counted the days to have them back home while the maximum peak of infections rose in the Atlántico Department, especially in Barranquilla and Sabanalarga.

I am satisfied with the work that I did and I would like to extend the invitation to each of the citizens who could contribute a grain of sand to counteract this pandemic in each of their countries of origin. It is our social responsibility to give back our knowledge.

I am still reflecting on the fate of science in my hometown Barranquilla, about decentralizing and democratizing science in Colombia, and that it can also reach underrepresented communities. I dream that my region has a scientific research center that provides the basis for a better quality of life for the entire population. It is necessary to ethically rebuild the future of the new generations hand in hand with science and with a social approach, free from any bias stained with corruption. Children and young people are the best candidates to positively change the history of Colombia and all of Latin America, we just need the opportunity.