Alfonso Clavijo: From the middle class of Colombia to new director of NBAF

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Dr. Alfonso Clavijo, former K-State professor for the Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology, stands proudly as he was recently appointed Director of USDA National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. (Mary Kate Zach | Collegian Media Group)

Dr. Alfonso Clavijo comes from a middle-class family from Colombia. He said he was in the top of his class at school and his parents were very supportive of anything he wanted to do.

On Oct. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture appointed him to be director of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which will open in Manhattan in 2021 and be fully operational by 2023.

Throughout his life, he said he’s always had a passion for diagnostics of animal diseases. While he studied to be a veterinarian, his focus was in research and laboratory work.

“There is very strong interaction between animals and humans,” Clavijo said. “You cannot see it any better than in rabies. In South America, there are still countries where people are dying from rabies, which is not acceptable.”

He’s worked in this field all his life — going back and forth between South and North America. When he left Colombia, he traveled to Canada and obtained a doctorate in virology. When he was there, he began working for the federal government at the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease.

“[I started] to work with the federal government in Canada in ’96 or ’97 within the foreign animal disease diagnostic lab there,” Clavijo said. “We worked with avian influenza, classical swine fever, African swine fever, most of the diseases that are foreign to Canada, and also foreign to the U.S.”

In 2008, he went to Brazil to work for the Pan American Health Organization. His role involved checking for proper laboratory equipment, personnel and diagnostics.

“That was a really good experience,” Clavijo said. “[It] helped me to understand many of the limitations that the developing countries have related to diagnostics. They are not the same level as we are in North America, for many reasons.”

After spending some time there, he came back to the U.S. and began working leadership and advisory positions at Texas A&M and Kansas State, where he worked as a professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology in the 2015-2016 academic year. He then went back up to Canada to become the director of the NCFAD.

“[I had] the opportunity to go back to the lab where I developed my career as a scientist, but this time as a director,” Clavijo said. “It prepared me for this job too.”

When he heard about the opportunity to lead NBAF and come back to Manhattan, he started the long, competitive process of interviews and presentations with many different groups, including K-State and the USDA.

“It’s like in any job when you apply, you really don’t know who made the decision,” Clavijo said. “I guess it’s a collective decision.”

As the successful candidate, he said he is very happy to be here.

“This will be a great life,” Clavijo said. “I saw the opportunity. This is a great time to come. I enjoyed the time that I was here in Manhattan. How could I say ‘No?’”

While he has not yet had time to explore Manhattan much, he said that when he was here as a professor he enjoyed eating dinner downtown and being able to drive to Kansas City to watch a soccer game. His wife is with him as well.

“She has been very supportive, and I think that [I] wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing if it wasn’t for her support, and her flexibility to move with me,” Clavijo said. “It has been hard, because moving that much is not easy.”

Ken Burton, NBAF coordinator and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service director of operations, said Clavijo is a people person and a very good communicator.

“He places the importance of personnel and interacting with people and explaining the mission of NBAF and why the work that will be done in the facility is so important to public health,” Burton said.

Just south of NBAF’s construction site, Stephen Higgs, the associate vice president of research at K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute, also noted Clavijo’s interpersonal skills.

“He will engage communities,” Higgs said. “He can make complicated things understandable to everybody.”

While what he is most looking forward to is opening day, and the culmination of —most likely — three years of work, Clavijo said the toughest obstacle is making sure it all comes together correctly.

“I think that the biggest challenge right now is making sure everything is going as planned, because there are many parts of this project,” he said. “There are many, many pieces that need to come together to build the right lab.”

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I'm Pete Loganbill and I'm the News Editor for the Collegian and host of the Collegian Kultivate podcast! I spent two years at Johnson County Community College, and I am now a senior in Public Relations at K-State. I believe constant communication leads to progress, no matter how difficult a comment may be for me or anyone to hear. Contact me at ploganbill@kstatecollegian.com.