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Engineer follows the science of water

A Rotary scholar dedicates her expertise to providing an essential human need


As a girl growing up in Caracas, Isis Mejias was perplexed that she and her neighbors in the Venezuelan capital couldn’t count on having regular access to water — and that when they did have water, it could cause diarrhea or other illnesses. “I felt like I needed to understand why certain things were happening in my country,” she explains. “I was very curious about how science could help me figure out the reason.”

Mejias inherited her love of learning and her passion for science from her father, an engineer. “My dad told us stories about picking cotton to buy his first uniform to go to school, of working from a very young age to buy pencils, papers, and books,” she says. “But that was his dedication toward education, and he passed on all of those passions for studying to his children.”

As a high school student in Houston, where her family moved in 2001, Mejias focused on chemistry with an eye toward its practical and altruistic applications. “I didn’t necessarily know I was going to be studying something related to water specifically,” she says. “But I knew I had that desire to help others, to work on human rights, and [ensure] that everybody had the things they should have access to.”

Even in high school, Isis Mejias understood that she wanted to apply her science education to altruistic causes. “I had that desire to help others, to work on human rights, and [ensure] that everybody had the things they should have access to.”

Image credit: Trish Badger

At the University of Houston, Mejias followed her father’s path and earned a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering. (“The fruit didn’t fall far from the tree,” she says.) She also began working with Engineers Without Borders, a volunteer organization that helps communities find ways to provide for basic human needs. She co-founded a chapter at the University of Houston, and after she graduated in 2008, she spent three years working with the organization on a project in Kenya, where she helped provide a reliable water distribution system to a hospital.

Isis Mejias

  • Rotary global grant scholar, 2012-13
  • Doctorate in environmental engineering, University of Houston, 2014
  • Doctorate in sanitary and environmental engineering, University of São Paulo, 2014
  • Member, Rotary E-Club of Houston, 2016-present

While raising funds for the water treatment portion of the project, Mejias had a conversation with Bill Davis, a member of what is now the Rotary Club of Lake Houston Area. “We met at a Starbucks,” she says. “He told me about Rotary: what it was and what they did in their areas of focus. I fell in love with it.”

Together, Mejias and Davis submitted a global grant application and secured $61,000 to support the Kenya water project with a filter and chlorination system and a battery system for backup power. That experience was part of Mejias’ ongoing education in what she calls “the power of being part of an organization like Rotary, where you can turn your dreams into action.”

While working on the grant proposal, Davis asked Mejias about her plans. “That was a very important question,” Mejias recalls. “I was in the moment where I needed to figure out what to do with my life.” Davis told her about Rotary’s global grant scholarships, and Mejias jumped at the opportunity. Despite having only a few days to write her proposal and prepare for the interview, she secured the scholarship.

Mejias had already been accepted into a graduate program at the University of Houston; now, working with her adviser there, she arranged to use her scholarship to simultaneously study at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, where she intended to concentrate on environmental engineering and water treatment. “I thought about the real reason I wanted to continue my education,” she says. “Whatever came out of my [doctoral] research, I realized I needed to focus my solutions on those that needed it most: people that can’t afford to pay for complex treatments of water.”

In February 2019, Isis Mejias worked in Kalisizo, Uganda, on a global grant-supported project devoted to water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Courtesy of Isis Mejias

During two years of work in the field and the laboratory, Mejias created an inexpensive biofilter that uses bacteria to remove metals from water. While in grad school, she also engaged in Rotary projects that fostered collaboration between clubs in Texas and Brazil. “The goal of the scholarship, besides the academic work, was to build lasting relationships and expand the work of Rotary,” she says.

With PhD in hand, Mejias is now a consulting director at ERM, or Environmental Resources Management, which she describes as “the largest sustainability consultancy in the world.” She also started her own company, Global Wash, a nongovernmental organization that assists communities and groups as they implement essential water projects. “I wanted to pass along my experience in the planning, execution, and monitoring phase,” she explains. “We want to build sustainable projects that are owned and continued by the communities at large.”

Today, Mejias is a member and past president of the Rotary E-Club of Houston, which suits her travel schedule. “The e-club opened doors for me to continue in Rotary,” she says. “We were able to do wonderful projects while I was president.”

Chief among those was a project that enabled the diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Backed by a $36,000 global grant and working closely with the Rotary Club of Barquisimeto-Nueva Segovia, the Houston e-club established a partnership with a hospital in Barquisimeto and, especially, the Venezuelan Science Incubator (Incubadora Venezolana de la Ciencia, or IVC), an ambitious nonprofit devoted to the study of neglected tropical diseases.

Once underway, the project garnered praise from Science magazine. “With help from The Rotary Foundation,” the prestigious journal reported in its March 2022 issue, “IVC has just opened what co-leader Isis Mejias, an environmental consultant in Houston, bills as Venezuela’s ‘first state-of-the-art molecular diagnostics lab.’ ... It will help detect pathogens responsible for everything from Chagas’ disease and leprosy to leishmaniasis, Zika, Mayaro, and malaria.”

As if that weren’t enough, Mejias is also an ambassador for the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Rotary Action Group, and she frequently consults with clubs and districts on water projects. Her girlhood passion to put her scientific expertise at the service of humanitarian endeavors burns brighter than ever, as does her commitment to Rotary. “I don’t know what the future will bring,” Mejias says, though she does make one prediction: “I’m going to continue being a Rotarian until the day I die.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

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