Published 29 September 2022 by Ulrike Böhm
Women in Research #LINO22: Mariana Hugo Silva
Mariana from Portugal is a Ph.D. student at the University of Limerick & Janssen Pharmaceutica, Belgium.
Her project aims to develop a new generation of long-acting injectables (LAI). This means that instead of taking a particular drug in the oral form (i.e., tablet), the drug is injected, just like a vaccine. Due to the properties inherent to crystalline drug microparticles, the drug is released during a certain number of months instead of taking a daily pill.
Mariana participated in the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, in advance, she took the time for this interview.
Enjoy the interview with Mariana and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
I was born in Coimbra, Portugal, also known as the city of the students because it’s home to one of the oldest Universities in Europe. Since I was a child, my family and I would go to the university’s museums, new exhibitions, and any other activities the university would plan for the general population, such as star gazing and short theatre plays with science themes … With time, I became increasingly interested in science and, more broadly, in learning about new topics. So, you can say that, from an early age, I wanted to go to university and become a scientist!
However, I never thought that I would be pursuing a Ph.D. I thought that after getting my degree, I would be done. However, during my master’s, I became passionate about research and wanted to keep working on it while exploring different fields. So, I worked in different research groups (e.g., microbiology, immunology, physics, and world heritage) in different countries. One thing became clear: regardless of the field, I always enjoyed being in the lab, running my experiments, analysing data, and finding new questions to answer. Research was undoubtedly my future. As a result, here I am.
Who are your role models?
To be honest, I am not inspired by a single person; instead, I have attempted to imbibe the qualities of several people who inspire me. But if I had to name a few, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein would be at the top of the list. Just think about it, Marie Curie is the only person who has ever been awarded two Nobel Prizes in different fields and is a woman! And Einstein just reconceptualised the whole universe with the Theory of Relativity, which was only possible to prove decades later because technology needed to evolve. Such a visionary, but also a person that fought for peoples’ rights, he defended that everyone was a citizen of the world, and I could not agree more. I see myself as one. Also, I need to mention Carlos Fiolhais, a Physics Professor from my home university, who, throughout his career, and even now though retired, has been giving his time and soul to science and science communication. It is impossible not to fall in love with the subject when you hear him speak about space, stars, and mathematical theorems.
However, one image that inspires me greatly is one taken at the Solvay Conference in 1927. It’s incredible how many Nobel Laureates were reunited there, sharing and discussing ideas, the most brilliant minds of the time.
Nonetheless, I firmly believe other people crossing our paths will also inspire us, especially those we work closely with and are our mentors during the early days. For me they have been: Professor Hermínio Sousa, Professor Carmén Alvaréz-Lorenzo, Dr. Christopher Sundling, Professor Gunilla Källenius, Professor Isabel Gonçalves. And more recently, my Ph.D. supervisors: Dr. Sarah Hudson, Dr. Lidia Tajber, and Dr. René Holm. I also have learned a great deal from the people with whom I have shared the laboratory throughout the years, such as Postdocs, Ph.D. students, researchers, technicians, and Master’s students. In some way, they all have shaped me into the researcher and, more importantly, the person I’m today.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I can proudly say that my career path has been full of fortunate events. Initially, I enrolled at the University of Coimbra to study Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2012. After a year full of Chemistry, I felt overwhelmed and decided that I’d like to pursue a course that would be more oriented toward Physics and Mathematics subjects while also covering Biology subjects. Hence, in 2013 I changed and joined the Integrated Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Coimbra. During my academic studies, I became acquainted with a diversity of scientific fields that allowed me progressively to sort my ambitions and expectations while maintaining my options open for an uncertain future. I built a solid foundation of scientific knowledge and skills that have been indispensable for all the research I have done till now.
During these years of university, I participated in a range of extracurricular activities and was also a member of many clubs and societies (e.g., IEEE student chapter, student organisations, WiE society, Summer University, among others) that significantly contributed to the development of my soft skills. Furthermore, I dedicated summers to internships where I had the opportunity to explore my interests in immunology, bioinstrumentation and signals, and tissue engineering.
In my 5th year, I got to work on a collaboration project between the University of Coimbra and the Pharmacy Faculty of Universidad Santiago de Compostela. This culminated in my master thesis, “New materials for improved oxygenation of cell cultures.” Through this project, I acquired deep knowledge in engineering and biotechnology applications while developing nanomaterials and biocompatible biopolymer-based scaffold materials.
After finishing my master thesis, I decided to complement my knowledge of experimental work by learning new methods and embracing new challenges. I received a scholarship to work in the Centre for Physics of the University of Coimbra (CFisUC), where I analysed world heritage monuments’ samples, followed by a short stay at a Microbiology group from the Centre of Cellular Biology and Neurosciences (CNC) in Coimbra, which led me to, after receiving an Erasmus+ grant, a professional internship at Karolinska Institute (Stockholm, Sweden), where I tested a new method for blood fixation, important for collecting and storing blood samples of TB (tuberculosis) infected patients, in remote poor settings. In each of these projects, I acquired knowledge in a multitude of fields and learned new methods, thereby gaining expertise in various techniques. However, by the end of all these research experiences, I felt there was still a missing part of the puzzle: working in industry. So, I gave it a try by joining Accenture in Software Development. Although I loved being part of the set-up, this experience contributed to strengthening my passion for research and that this would be the path that I wanted to pursue.
At this point in my life, I felt I was at a crossroads in my career. I realised the importance, the challenge, and the opportunity that a Ph.D. can offer, especially the ones that bridge Academia and Industry, along with strong international diversity. The project I am currently working on has all those flavors matching all my aspirations. My ambition is to keep working and contributing to the development of delivery methods that will change the existing medical paradigm.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I’d say my master’s project, hands down. Since I started my love affair with science, I’ve been involved in many projects, but I’d say that my master’s has been my favorite one. The reason is simple, I was completely independent and led my own project. I was creating new materials for the improved oxygenation of cell cultures and tissue engineering scaffolds. I’d first produce the nanoparticles with an ionic liquid inside, which would play the role of improving the gases exchange. Then, these nanoparticles were incorporated into biocompatible scaffolds that I produced to improve tissue oxygenation and regeneration at the implant location. The scaffolds were made of biomaterials we already knew the cells would like. They were produced through techniques that would allow an internal structure suitable for stimulating cell growth and proliferation.
I made full use of the opportunity to work with cells for the first time. I enjoyed completing a range of studies, such as testing the cytotoxicity of the materials developed and evaluating cell proliferation on the scaffolds created from the conjugation of hyaluronic acid (a natural substance found in the fluids of the eye and joints) and collagen (a structural protein found in body’s connective tissue). In the end, we ended up concluding that the filling of the capsules was killing cells, so it was a matter of finding the lowest concentration that could provide a therapeutical effect. But that’s when we thought: Why not use them for another application? Like killing the damn cancer cells? That’s how unpredictable and rewarding science can be!
From an overall perspective, although this was a really cool project, I have worked on other exciting projects that have broadened my horizons and made me fall more in love with science. Since this was my first ‘baby,’ it will always be special.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
When they called me to tell me I had received the Marie Skłodowska-Curie scholarship and that I would be part of the Innovative Training Network LongActNow, I could not believe it! It was a Marie Curie after all!! These are the most prestigious scholarships in Europe. I felt like all the work I had been putting into my studies, extracurricular projects, and the risks I took were finally being rewarded. I went from shock to complete happiness!
Also, for any researcher, publishing the first paper is always special. For me as well, it was a moment that I will remember for a long time. I was passionate about the work I was doing, and putting it up in the public domain would help other scientists with their projects.
Another one was recent; when I got selected to attend the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, I felt super proud and happy. While living in Stockholm, one of my favorite times was to spend the afternoon in the Nobel Museum scanning through the profiles of the different Nobel Laureates and visiting the special exhibition. It’s incredible to see how ordinary people with brilliant minds can have an extreme impact on the world’s trajectory, and I am still processing my happiness of getting to meet them in person soon!
What is a “day in the life” of Mariana like?
Well, it varies with the day… When I arrive at my research center, I check my emails first, ensuring I don’t miss replying to any of them, and only afterward does my lab work start. Usually, I start by making a list of the activities that need to be performed during the day. For the project I am currently working on, I would prepare my samples of pharmaceutical suspensions and do their complete characterisation, e.g., checking the particle size, polymorphic form, and morphology. The time between the experiments goes for either analysing the data collected or discussing some peculiar results with my colleagues and supervisor.
Every week, I also have meetings to update my supervisors in other countries and attend online training to build up my subject-specific knowledge, which can be or is not related to my research topic (FYI, I’m a super curious person). Also, I believe that sharing knowledge is critical in any setting, so I organise training on a variety of subjects and techniques for other Ph.D. students and Postdocs at Janssen Pharmaceutica, Belgium. I am also involved with Pint of Science (science communication entity), which requires me to dedicate some of my time during the week.
Most importantly, I do reserve time for myself and my personal relationships. I find joy in things like attending yoga classes, going for walks (where I click pictures), watching movies in the cinema, dining out, reading before bed, or sometimes watching Netflix, just like any normal person.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I believe that we come to this world for a reason and that we should leave the world better than when we found it. I am creating my own path towards that. Working in science and being able to build something that will help other people’s well-being and quality of life is my main goal. Also, I want to continue being part of science communication because, in the end, everything we do is for the general public, so making it accessible to everyone is essential.
However, we should not limit ourselves to big goals; small gestures can make a big difference and make the world a better place; a smile, kind words, offering help … Simple gestures are powerful!
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I enjoy traveling abroad and within the country where I live now. I love visiting new places, meeting new people, experiencing new cultures, and experiencing local life (e.g., going out, visiting museums, or wandering around). In these travels and daily, I like to photograph moments. There’s something personal when you take a photo at a certain point in time because it does not only represent the place but also who you were when you took it.
I’m also kind of addicted to reading all types of books, but my favorites are by Spanish and Italian authors (e.g., Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Elena Ferrante).
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
Go for it! Take every chance that comes along your way! Find people who have the position you want, either academically or in industry, and talk to them and ask them questions. Try to figure out how they got there and then work towards it. Nothing is out of reach!
To be honest, I never imagined that I’d get where I am today, but the opportunities started appearing step by step, I made the most out of each of them, and here I am. Overall, the main message is: ask questions, try as much as possible, and make the most out of each chance you get.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in your discipline?
For someone who works in close collaboration to industry, I believe that personalised medicine and drug delivery systems will be the future and next big steps. So, let’s turn these big words into something everyone can understand.
Personalised medicine is about developing drugs that we know will work for sure in patients. To meet this criterion, a study of the genetic code (what makes each one of us who we are) is performed, and the medicine development follows. Drug delivery is all about how the drug is delivered to your body and how it travels and behaves when inside, according to the techniques you use to create the medicine. This field has seen significant growth for the past 20 years and is increasingly used in recent pharmaceuticals.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
When I think about it, in the labs where I have worked, most of the people were women, even though the group leaders were primarily men. The scientific community is becoming more aware that times are changing. Although, I have observed, and it is a well-known fact, that men typically hold higher positions and publish more papers than women. Another quite curious thing is that the groups that had female PIs (principal investigators) were not Portuguese research groups. One was Spanish, Swedish, and Irish, but it can be just a coincidence. I believe that Europe can play a role in this by allocating grants to provide more opportunities for women to grow; I’m not saying to favor women but to try to achieve a balance.
Then, there’s the issue of raising awareness and engaging younger generations. When you achieve something great, you can simply inspire future generations of women by telling your story and sharing your experiences. Visit schools, give talks at your university, and engage in science communication. Discussing what science can do to help others and demonstrating what scientists are doing and plan to do in the future will get people excited about it. That way, you can understand a wide range of fields and deconstruct them into ideas everyone can understand or relate to. It is pretty awesome.