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Scientist and Entrepreneur, Harvard

Heritage: Colombian

Age: 30


Prior Recognitions:                                                                       

  • Medal of honor Alejandro Ángel Escobar en Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales, 2016

  • MIT TR35 (MIT Technology Review), Top 10 innovators under 35 in Colombia, 2015

  • HHMI international student fellowship, Harvard University, 2013-2015


By: Frank Morris


Maier Avendano is making a difference by changing molecules — and minds.


The 30-year-old scientist and social entrepreneur can tell you a lot about biophysics, nanotechnology and super resolution microscopy. He finished his master’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and last year, earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University.


All of that, he admits, can sound pretty nerdy and, in the very least, odd and unusual, especially to youngsters living in his home country of Colombia.


“There’s a perception of a scientist in Latin America. They think a scientist is a strange person, someone who just mixes things in a lab coat and doesn’t talk to anyone. So first, it’s a cultural problem,” Avendaño said.


But the cultural perception also influences the government and the funding they put in place to help advance the sciences, he added.


That’s why he cofounded and directs the Colombian chapter of an educational program called Clubes de Ciencia. The program seeks to expand access to high-quality science education and to expand and inspire future generations of scientists and innovators in Latin America.


Comprising a team of young Colombian scientists from MIT and Harvard, the group travels to Colombia to teach science to high school students for one week. During the program, the teens explore benefits of math- and science-based careers.


The program started a year ago, initially at 18 different schools in two cities in Colombia. This past summer, the program was implemented in six cities with 72 different clubs. And just last month, the program added three more cities with 10 new science clubs. That’s 1,600 kids affected in just one year.


The result? “The first thing is they change their minds about science,” Avendaño said. “They think scientists are really cool persons, normal persons. That person becomes a superhero to these kids.”


Surveys conducted after the program show 85 percent of those who completed the program want to go on to pursue a Ph.D.


When Avendaño isn’t having an impact on kids back home, he’s busy working at a venture capital firm, Boston Flagship Ventures, where he’s developing breakthrough technologies with applications in the agriculture sector.


He is also known for researching and developing new nano-scale techniques that have the ability to uncover and solve significant biological and biomedical questions. Ultivue, a Harvard-based startup, is in the process of trying to commercialize Avendano’s work so that it can be implemented far and wide.


“As scientists, you can change the world. You can have really huge implications,” Avendaño says.

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