Melissa Cordoba Asprilla is hungry to learn and gets bored with routine. She has found the solution is to take on several projects at a time.
At Vital Strategies, that has led her to take on roles in two different programs, and then continue those jobs while moving from Colombia to London, U.K., to earn a second master’s degree, in health policy.
“At work I like to move, learn, keep myself creating and innovating, and not be stuck on just one topic. Now, I am never bored,” she said. “I can explore many things.”
In 2017, Melissa was hired to be the Data Impact country coordinator in Colombia. In 2020, she added on the role of senior manager for six Latin American cities in the Partnership for Healthy Cities.
“In Data for Health my role is as a technical advisor to help the national government use data to make decisions for public policy. I love public policy. And then, in the Partnership for Healthy Cities, we support implementing the policies. By working with different cities and contexts, I can then see how the implementation evolves and the local government’s struggles in implementing the policies. I love that complement.”
Melissa’s family is from the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Her parents moved to Bogotá looking for opportunities and their extended family later followed. Her father was an accountant and her mother worked as a draftsperson for architects. Several other family members were artists, and their home was filled with music and dancing.
Melissa attended a private military school near her home, where she excelled at sports and in her biology and chemistry classes. She was the only Black student at the school.
“The problem is that I don’t remember people were racist to me. I think I was raised in a bubble. I think my mom protected me from that,” she said. “The protection, it was like a whiteness, an involuntary whiteness. I was like them. I was Black, but I didn’t express my culture. In school, I don’t remember in history classes learning about Black history or slavery. I had no Black friends, only my family’s friends. It was not until college that I had Black friends and then Black colleagues, and it began my black history awareness. If I go back in the past and watch that experience with my eyes and awareness of the present, I can definitely say that the environment was racist.”
Melissa wanted to study chemical engineering because chemistry came easily to her, but it turned out that chemical engineering was not available at a public university, which is what her family could afford.
Instead, she chose to study microbiology. “I had no idea what that was about. Chemistry was easy for me in high school, and I liked it. Teachers told us in professional development classes that if you were good at something, you should dedicate yourself to that. That is not always true,” she said. “In the end, studying microbiology was the best decision I made.” She learned about how viruses, bacteria and fungi interact with physiopathology and chemistry in the human body. “In part that defines me—I need to know how and why things work.”
She studied microbiology for five years to earn her bachelor’s degree, then spent one year at a rural hospital. After that, she saved money and went back to university to study epidemiology and worked in hospitals in Bogotá for about three years, working in epidemiology, analyzing data from hospital records and field epidemiological investigations of outbreaks.
“Although I liked what I was doing, I realized that I didn’t want my work to be just in a hospital, in one place,” she said. “In childhood, I always looked for something different to know or watch. It was because of my grandma—she used to tell me different stories—as well as my uncle, the poet who traveled very much. I imagined living all those things, and that’s still who I am.”
She went on to work at Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) during the H1N1 epidemic, traveling around Colombia, verifying how the sentinel surveillance of respiratory viruses worked and helping to strengthen it. And she worked with the Ministry of Health for seven years, developing guidelines for humanitarian action after a disaster, as a liaison between the public health office and the emergency and disaster office. She also worked with a nonprofit organization as a technical advisor, helping ensure Indigenous people were counted in the census in Colombia.
“The experience with Indigenous people was amazing. I learned a lot in the territories. It was very meaningful for me. It made me more flexible in my thinking for work and my personal life,” she said. “For example, in the guidelines for humanitarian action, you must provide quality water, but when you go to those territories, it’s impossible to always guarantee that. We need to make tools that provide a quality of life with the resources available and build local capacities until we can change the true structural problems.”
In 2017, Melissa joined Vital Strategies.
“At Vital Strategies, everyone is aligned, and people have passion for their work and that is contagious. I love the diversity.”
She feels particularly grateful for her relationships with Cynthia Driver and Ariella Rojhani, and how much she continually learns from them.
“I love to work here at Vital because you have the freedom and the support to do things that maybe in the government you can’t. We can promote unpopular policies that affect economic interests that sometimes, being immersed in the government, you can’t,” she said.
For example, Melissa was involved in supporting Colombia to bring together institutions and navigate challenges to finally develop the first reports using data on 10 years of road crashes, which has provided valuable insights into where improvements can be made. And the Partnership for Healthy Cities supported the city of Córdoba, Argentina in passing a regulation to improve school stores by banning sugary drinks. “That is huge,” she said. “You can change the life of a generation.”
Outside of work, Melissa loves art and is an avid reader and cook. She enjoys walking—especially in London—as well as meditation, writing and traveling.
“I am not an artist, but I love to go to galleries, a play, a concert, because I love that expression,” she said. “I think that is related to my work and motivates my creativity. You can see different perspectives from what people are showing and expressing.”
Melissa hopes to graduate with her second master’s degree in 2024. Her thesis is on the Data to Policy program, exploring the value of information analysis to inform policy adoption in public health issues.
Whatever direction her career takes in the future, she wants her work to make the world things better by changing structures. “That’s my motivation,” she said. “It’s what I’m doing at Vital Strategies, contributing a little to change structures and injustices. And due to that, I am learning new tools to help me do things better.”