Research in Latin America

 

Latin America is one of the most dynamic and exciting locations on Earth. A diversity of nations, cultures, languages, histories, geographies and ecosystems, the region of central and south American includes 19 countries and three territories. South America encompasses an area of 17,821,028 square kilometres. This is almost 12 percent of the surface area of Earth! And just like its many peoples, Latin America also has a diversity of science systems, driven by passionate, brilliant, creative emerging and established leaders, including Nobel Laureates (both present and future!).

Latin American science is on the move these days. Many countries have long legacies and histories devoted to scientific scholarship and enterprise, such as Mexico. Other countries are investing in new mechanisms to advance the scientific community for the benefit of humanity. Chile’s Congress, for example, announced only weeks ago the creation of a new science ministry, specifically to grow its knowledge economy. The Parque Explora in Medellin, Colombia, is a world-class science museum, generating lots of buzz and recently playing host to many international conferences and special events; it also houses South America’s largest freshwater aquarium the.

At the 2018 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, 27 of young scientists from seven Latin American nations will participate. I had the chance to sit down with a few of these merging leaders and ask them why science in Latin America is so electrifying these days, and why this region will only continue to grow as a powerhouse of STEM solutions to humanity’s grand challenges.

 

Maria Miranda at #LINO18. Photo/Credit: Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Maria Miranda

Home Country: Colombia

Current Institution: Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing, Cologne, Germany

What she’s doing her research on:

“Mitochondria generate the vast majority of the energy that our cells need to function via the oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) system. But more than that, they are also essential to make and process many of the building blocks of the cell. Thus, loss or decline of mitochondrial function causes severe genetic diseases but is also found in many age-related diseases and the ageing process itself. During my PhD I have studied how the small mitochondrial genome, which encodes a few essential proteins of the OXPHOS system, is expressed and how loss of its expression affects cellular function. A better understanding of these fundamental cellular processes will contribute to identify biomarkers of early mitochondrial dysfunction and potential targets to treat human diseases.”

On being a scientist in Colombia:

“Colombian people are really hard working and excited about the science – here, you do [science] because it’s something you really love [because of challenges associated with pursuing it]. To access a PhD program abroad, you have to find a fellowship or grant. It’s not so easy to write to a professor to convince them to be a PhD student. It’s easier to apply for a fellowship in advance. Colombia is a fantastic place if you want to study anything related to biological diversity or ecology. If you are interested in tropical diseases or plants, it’s a paradise.”

On science in South and Central America, and Colombia, specifically:

“I think it’s the people – the passion by which we approach the problems. I know I’m in a very privileged position which allowed me to be here and I want to make it count somehow. That applies for most of the people I know from Colombia – they have the passion for what they are doing. And in general, they are very warm people. It would be great to support the Colombian science system and try to make it stronger. We will have a new government soon and I hope they place science as a priority and will support the scientific system because we need to train people and support the resources for people to come back to work on science. I hope this will happen and get stronger with time. “

On the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting:

“The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is probably one of the most inspiring meetings a young scientist can participate in. It is the privilege to meet and interact with researchers whose work has changed the way we currently understand many aspects of Physiology and Medicine. It is an investment on the young generations of scientists where the Nobel Laureates can share their knowledge and views, how science transforms society, and how to shape our future careers. Furthermore, it promotes the creation of a world-wide network of young researchers from diverse scientific and cultural backgrounds.

 

Claudio Bussi at #LINO18. Photo/Credit: Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Claudio Bussi

Home Country: Argentina

Current Institution: The Francis Crick Institute, London, UK

On completing his undergraduate and doctoral education in Argentina:

“The environment is very good. At the national university, education is free. Our university, Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, is one of the main universities in the country, the oldest in the nation, and one of the first in all of America, and thus we receive a lot of students from everywhere in Latin America. It makes Cordoba a very nice city with many young people, so the environment is very friendly. I enjoyed life there, as you can interact with people from different backgrounds.”

On doing science in Argentina:

“The first thing I believe is important to share is that scientists in Argentina are extremely passionate about science and the profession. This may seem trivial. But if you consider our level of funding, which is really low in comparison with any country in Europe or the USA, and compare the level of publications we manage to have and the quality of the PhD students we teach, we are doing a great job. This lack of a good level of government funding (in Argentina, research is mainly funded by the government and not industry) causes you to think very carefully about your research project and the planning. You have to be very sure of the planning because for us nothing is disposable [every resource has to be stretched and carefully planned to optimise it]. So in the end, the background you get is very good and for that reason Argentine scientists are very well appreciated around the world. If you look at their positions in the world-leading institutions, you will find more than Argentine group leaders. So, I would say our passion is a bit different. We are really committed. We have a great commitment to society because as the national university is free, the PhD students get a fellowship (get paid) so in a certain way we feel we have to give back to society. Another factor that contributes to the good level of Argentine science is that most of the groups here have done productive work abroad including PDs, or longer stays. The standard is high. We know that we are limited by funding, but our ideas are not limited. So, the quality and standard is very high.”

We know that we are limited by funding, but our ideas are not limited.

On the honour of being from Argentina:

“I am proud to be an Argentine scientist. Although it’s hard to be considered as a scientist [yet]! I am a scientist in progress. I am proud of my Argentine background, because I think the quality of science here is very good and we have a high demanding level. Some people only say negative things about their country when they go abroad. For me, it’s totally the opposite because I have realised what I did in that environment, and that is the same for most the scientists in Argentina. We are proud of our PhD and the way we do science in Argentina.”

On his career goals:

“I come from a developing country and I was always interested in a science contribution to society and health care. It represents one of the more important reasons I chose research as a career.”

On the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting:

“I strongly believe that this will be a unique and inspirational experience. Since I started my undergraduate degree, I have been always involved with research and teaching-related activities. I am really passionate about science, and I have a strong commitment to continue my academic career. In consequence, I would really enjoy attending the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and take advantage not only of the outstanding talks, but also the sessions designed to discuss and exchange ideas between participants and Faculty. It would also represent an invaluable occasion for networking opportunities and to discuss and get solid advices about science and career development. In addition, it would allow me to expand my scientific background and to identify the current challenges in the field, it would be great to gain this kind of knowledge.”

 

Enrique Lin Shiao at #LINO18. Photo/Credit: Christoph Schumacher/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Enrique Lin Shiao

Home Country: Costa Rica

Current Institution: University of Pennsylvania

On his current research and career interests:

“Aside from my PhD in basic science, I am getting a certificate in public health. I have been actively working in immigrant health in the USA, specifically with undocumented Hispanic populations. I believe immigrant health in these vulnerable populations shares many parallels with health care in developing countries. Further, I have worked on some minor global health projects, studying the high suicide rate in Lithuania as well as sugar taxation and food labelling across the Americas.”

On why science is exciting in Costa Rica:

There are lots of reasons. One is that we are a country where sustainability and renewable resources is very important to us, so a lot of research is pursued in these subjects. We have a big goal of going carbon neutral by 2021. We have 3.3-5% of the worlds biodiversity in 0.03% of the land of the planet [Costa Rica is only 51,100 sq. km, ranking it 129th in worldwide landmass, about the size of Denmark.] I work on epigenetics, and every single child born in Costa Rica is tested for genetic diseases and the blood goes to a huge blood bank at the national children’s hospital so there are lots of opportunities for genetics for research there. And our number one export is medical devices – there are a lot of companies doing Research and Development in medical devices here.”

On living and working in Costa Rica:

“Among the reasons to come to Costa Rica (probably because I almost take them for granted), Costa Rica has no army, it has one of the oldest democracies, it is politically stable, it has 97% literacy rate and universal healthcare (everything is covered from HIV treatment, cancer treatment to IVF). And because there is no army (since 1949), the government has been able to invest that money in education and social guarantees. Some of our best research is also found in our state/public universities, including the University of Costa Rica, the National University and the Institute of Technology.”

On the challenges of doing science in Costa Rica:

“There are limited resources, in terms of funding, although there are ways of getting around it, for example, the first satellite built in Central America was funded by crowd funding. There are other ways of funding science that are less conventional, but we are open to them in Cost Rica. There is also private funding. Another challenge is that Costa Rican scientists are often trained abroad so sometimes it is hard to compete against offers from abroad. So, there is some brain drain, but I think there are more efforts to try to establish collaborations, so those people can connect with Costa Rican scientists. It’s a problem but also an opportunity.”

Advice for young scientists considering careers in Costa Rica:

“You have to work with the strengths of the country first. So, think about renewable energy or sustainability – if you are interested in those topics that are of priority to that country, it’s easy to establish a career here. In Costa Rica, we are very open to new and exciting ideas, so start to get in touch with people in here and start those collaborations and connections.”

On the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting:

“I have looked forward to this meeting for almost 10 years now. I am particularly excited to meet the Nobel Laureates but also to meet like-minded scientists from all over the world, with whom I can collaborate on future projects and endeavours. I’m a firm believer in interdisciplinary science in biomedicine and also the importance of international large-scale collaborations to tackle new challenges.”

 

Francisco Barrera at #LINO18. Photo/Credit: Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Francisco “Frank” Barrera

Home Country: Mexico

Current Institution: Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, Monterrey, Mexico

On his current research, as a 21-year-old medical student:

“I am doing medical research in evidence-based medicine and also patient-centred care, for example, doing a systematic review related to patient outcomes. The important outcome for the patient, MC infraction, stroke, or death, they feel and suffer directly. Other outcomes are indirect markers or predictors for these important outcomes, called subrogate outcomes, for example, cholesterol. Most of the evidence of the primary articles focus on these outcomes but not on the serious ones. All the money that goes into research is generating knowledge of subrogate outcomes but not outcomes that can be implemented directly in the patients.”

On why it is an exciting time to do scientific research in Mexico:

“We are lacking some support like other countries, but the government is beginning to support the scientific community in many ways. There are also a lot of international collaborations. For example, the

Cochrane Collaboration [a non-profit NGO formed to organise medical research findings to facilitate evidence-based decisions in medicine], which has a centre in many countries, such as Canada, the UK, and Brazil has recently [been established] in Mexico. Also, the Knowledge and Evaluation Research (KER) Unit, which has connections with the Mayo Clinic, recently opened at my university as the KER Unit Mexico. It evaluates primary research to generate conclusions that can be directly applied to patients.”

On why it is thrilling to be a scientist in Mexico:

“The scientific community in Mexico has been growing, and we are beginning to grow even more. We have all the expertise and capabilities to be on the same level as other countries, so we can have the same opportunity to improve and generate knowledge that can improve patient care.”

On building a career in science in Mexico:

“The key for success in research is always collaboration with people that have the same interests as you and to define your objective. Our objective is to improve patient care and we have that goal in our minds and by collaborating with people who share this goal, we can achieve success in research. The key is collaboration. It is easy to pursue a scientific career in Mexico. Mexico is open to receiving scientifically interested students and it’s very accessible to pursue a scientific career in Mexico.”

On participating in Lindau:

“Being selected to participate in the Lindau Meeting is definitely the most honourable academic-related achievement for me. I had never imagined I would have the opportunity to meet and interact with Nobel Laureates. My ultimate goal in attending this meeting is to truly listen and learn about the laureate’s scientific-philosophy and their postures and ways of thinking about health-related issues and their problem-resolving approach. I believe this experience will expand my way of thinking, my passion for science and will motivate me incredibly to continue my academic career. Following that, I am strongly looking forward to networking with Lindau alumni. Especially with those whose research interests relate to mine.”

 

Salvador Valle

Home Country: Mexico

Current Institution: University of Colima

On why doing science in Mexico is so exciting right now:

“Because we have the opportunity to help with the health problems in the country. Maybe it is not enough, but we do our best every day to find a treatment, a drug or a mechanism to help us understand the diseases, especially the oncological events.”

On the challenges of conducting scientific research in Mexico:

“For my area, maybe it is the equipment and the samples, as it is very difficult for us to find patients who are willing to donate a sample and if we obtain some, sometimes the reagents are limited.”

On his advice for crafting a scientific career in Mexico:

“Plan your experiments well, and always look for experts ready to help. Maybe being a scientist in Mexico is difficult compared to other countries or even in other states of the same country, but if you really like it, nothing is a problem!”

On what he sees the opportunities are from contributing to Lindau:

“I am looking for the opportunity to do a postdoctorate and to interact with people from all over the world would open several doors. I am also interested in knowing how to work in other laboratories and especially interact with people of revolutionary thoughts worthy of the Nobel Prize, something that I would really like to follow.”

Alaina G. Levine

About Alaina G. Levine

Alaina G. Levine is an award-winning entrepreneur, STEM career consultant, science journalist, professional speaker and corporate comedian, and author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), which was named one of the Top 5 Books of 2015 by Physics Today. She has delivered over 700 speeches for clients in the EU, US, Canada, and Mexico, and written over 350 articles in publications such as Science, Nature, and NatGeo News Watch. In addition to serving as a Consultant to the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, she is currently writing two online courses for Oxford University Press/Epigeum about career development and entrepreneurship. @AlainaGLevine

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