Juan Carlos Rivillas

Research leadership, National Health Observatories, Knowledge Translation Group, Epidemiology Unit/ Ministry of Health and Social Protection and MSc professor, Colombia.

Former research staff in epidemiology and health economics, University of Turin, Italy.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Juan Carlos Rivillas

Research staff experience

My main interests are health economics, health policy analysis and health system research.  I’ve worked in higher education as a junior researcher exploring the role of socio-economic conditions in health outcomes. I’m now employed by my government in a job that is primarily a research role. 

My first research staff experience was at the Faculty of Public Health, University of Turin, Italy, and lasted one amazing year. It was a research internship on the Turin Longitudinal Study, one of the largest longitudinal studies in Europe. 

My main activities and responsibilities included developing and implementing analytical tools for monitoring and forecasting of socio-economic data from the Study and designing and implementing health economic studies on determinants of health issues. I also produced an article on socio-economic inequalities in health and area characteristics related to violent mortality in Italy. 

The origins of my career as a researcher, however, go further back – to when I had the chance to be a young researcher at my university in Colombia during my undergraduate programme. 

This was an important opportunity for me – it helped me to stand out at an early stage. Standing out to improve your career prospects is not necessarily about getting high marks or even working particularly hard. Rather, it’s about knowing how to choose and prioritise your interests. It is important to select your theme or emphasis carefully, maybe as a part-time project to start with. Ideally, choose something not very commonly studied, but which is important and relevant to your context. For my part, I decided to be a researcher in a project to prevent violence in my city. In Medellin, violence was one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in the population, so I felt it would be a good idea to contribute and start there. I had the opportunity to attend study groups and intervention programs to learn more about it. 

I believe it was largely thanks to this experience that I was successful when, several years  later, I applied for a place on a European Union programme for Latin American graduates. This program gave options for master’s studies in different areas of public health – such as epidemiology, health economics, public health and biostatistics – at one of five top European universities. It took me, in 2010, to an MSc in Health Economics and Policy at the University of Turin and the research internship on the Turin Longitudinal Study. While in Europe I further broadened my international research experience by attending research summer schools given by John Hopkins University and Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain) and Université de Lausanne (Switzerland). At the latter I was also employed on a short research project.

After completing my master’s in 2012 I moved back to Colombia, to find a permanent job with good career prospects.  I was successful in securing my current post.

Career transitions

To identify my current job I undertook an active search for jobs and also made use of my professional networks. By this stage, with the benefit of my international experience in Europe, I was well positioned to make my next move – much more so than at the start of my career journey.

When starting to think about future careers, it is important to consider many options – but that can be very confusing. It is tempting to follow familiar paths. In my case I always wanted to be a physician or to do clinical research, simply because that was what my friends were already studying, yet now as a health economist and systems health researcher, I feel I couldn’t have chosen a better option for me.  

I think that a major problem, if you are aiming for a career in a competitive area, is not being well-enough prepared for the ‘race’. Many people lack access to first-hand experience, to people who can share their lessons learned and tips. Resources such as these career stories provide good tools for helping think about alternatives and focusing on possibilities for your future. 

Current job

My job title is National Coordinator of Health Observatories at the Ministry of Health and Social Protection in Colombia. This is a strategic position in Colombia’s health care system. Much of my time is spent in research activities. For example, I initiate and implement complex research projects (either independently or in a team), assist in collecting, modelling and analysing data, contribute to the formulation of peer reviewed research grant proposals, write, contribute and present reports and papers for publication in a variety of modes including peer reviewed journals, and present research papers at conferences and international meetings.

Other duties include: initiating and sustaining links with external bodies to foster collaboration and influence decision-making; developing and working on associated areas of the Minister’s work that are of his or her own interest and that fit within the Minister’s mission; and managing the activities of research assistants, junior staff and master’s students on a day-to-day basis. 

I am proud to be leading several health systems research and knowledge translation initiatives in Colombia across different national observatories. Another recent achievement is to have received grants from the Erasmus Medical Center (ERACOL), National Fund for Research (Colciencias) and the British Council to carry out a research project at the London School of Economics Health and Social Care research centre, UK. 

I also enjoy doing some teaching on master’s courses, as Assistant Professor (Epidemiology and Health System Research) at University of Valle (Cali), and University of Norte (Barranquilla), and Assistant Professor (Health Economic Assessment) in Pontifixial Javerian University (Bogotá). 

Competencies old and new

My research staff experience developed my critical thinking abilities and understanding of research methods, both of which continue to be central to my work. My time in Europe, working in an international, team-oriented and collaborative environment, helped me develop strong interpersonal and communication skills. Also, the exposure to strategic networking and strategic thinking was invaluable.

Since 2012 I have gained much experience to enable me to deliver high quality research, to develop excellent organisational skills, initiative, and problem-solving abilities. I have also learned negotiation skills and diplomatic sensitivity.

Reflecting on my career path

I am very pleased with my health research career path so far. I get particular satisfaction from sharing experiences, lessons and interests with master’s students and sharing my knowledge when abroad. I stress to my students and colleagues that whenever they are networking and meeting more people, it is only the beginning. You need to continue working on innovative ideas, to strengthen knowledge translation in health and social issues not only in your country but also globally.

Colombia’s national health observatories are a significant achievement in our Low Middle Income Country (LMIC). I think that through them we have built a ‘bridge’ between research and evidence and policy-makers in my country for reducing health inequalities and poverty, and for improving health care among vulnerable populations (the elderly, victims of violence, indigenous peoples), as well as for control and prevention of chronic diseases, sexual violence, infant and maternal mortality.

Now, at the point where I’m seeing the fruits of my labours in the first three years in this role, I am entirely committed to my career and aim to achieve as much as possible. It is an especially exciting time, for health and social care systems is a growing field in the international arena.

Suggestions and advice

I offer four simple rules for a successful research career:

  • Do not forget to learn other languages: they open doors! My willingness to learn Italian made possible my all-important research position in Turin.
  • Be yourself, especially if you are out of the ordinary. Somebody original always stands out from the rest.
  • It is key to be up to date in your market; it’s what makes the difference. Thus, a few recent papers really help. 
  • Finally, dissemination and knowledge translation are needed. Remember, if it isn’t published, it simply does not exist.