Published 14 September 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Alicia L. Bruzos

Lab meeting of Scuba Cancers ERC project in 2019 led by Dr. Jose Tubío (right) in Spain. Alicia is discussing the results of that week with the multidisciplinary team. Photo/Credit: CiMUS, University of Santiago de Compostela

Alicia from Spain is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at Université de Caen in France.

Her research focuses on cancer genomics and the molecular basis of marine contagious metastasis.

Alicia participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Alicia and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

Since I was a little girl, my parents nurtured my curious and adventurous spirit: from getting lost in the garden eating strawberries, hunting insects that would be my pet for a day, and even family traveling to the Macaronesian islands. However, I remember my interest in science becoming evident on a high-school excursion to the beach of Viveiro (northwest of Spain) when I was fifteen. We collected seaweed to make an algarium and identified, with our teacher’s help, various animals that we found on the rocks; in fact, I had never touched an anemone out of fear, and with her, I discovered that not all of them are stinging. Later, we had another excursion to identify and collect mushrooms that we ended up cooking in the school’s kitchen to serve them to our families and friends. Therefore, I think it was due to the fortunate circumstance that I had science teachers who passed on their passion to me my curiosity and desire to explore the world grew.

Who are your role models?

Family picture, landscape in the background
Alicia (right) as a child and her family in Viveiro, a town in northwest Spain where she grew up. Photo/Credit: in courtesy of Alicia L. Bruzos

By defining a role model as someone that inspires, supports, and encourages you to make the most of your life, my first and foremost role model is my mother, Alicia. She is the strongest woman I have ever met and an example of taking life one step at a time. She always encouraged me to believe in myself and that you can achieve your dreams with determination, which I tend to forget when stressed. Besides not being a scientist, she leverages logical reasoning and critical thinking in everyday life, which might be the reason why I usually discuss with her any scientific findings or results I struggle to explain.

As a woman in science, I must confess that I often read about the career steps of female scientists whom I admire as Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, Marie Curie, Ángeles Alvariño, or a long list of extraordinary scientists that changed our world.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

When I was a child, I used to think that I would end up teaching like my mother – a true role model – specialising in English or foreign languages so I could work abroad. Years passed, and I started to fall in love with science: Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Biology… these subjects were fun and interesting. Therefore, when I finished high school, I soon recognised that it was ultimately the right thing for me, and I started a Bachelor’s degree in Biology at Universidade de Santiago de Compostela (Spain). I got the chance to study in Brussels (Belgium) for a year with an Erasmus scholarship that led me to my first contact with research with a summer internship. That year was a game-changer; I discovered my passion for evolutionary biology, learned some basic molecular biology techniques, and shaped my scientific thinking. In 2015, I defended my degree thesis with honors, and my supervisor Prof. Rubén Retuerto gave me a magazine article talking about the future of biology that encouraged me to major in bioinformatics. Therefore, I obtained an MSc in Bioinformatics from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and some analyses of my master’s thesis were comprised in one major publication, my first peer-reviewed paper in Nature.

After that, I obtained a fellowship from the Spanish government to conduct a PhD and enrolled in my alma mater’s Molecular Medicine doctoral program. I was lucky to be supervised by Dr. Seila Diaz, who taught me many qualities that a good scientist needs, and she was the first and closest female role model I had in science. A doctorate can be full of trips, and I definitely made the most of any opportunity I got. In 2018, I went to the laboratory of Dr. Michael Metzger of the Pacific Northwest Research Institute (Seattle, United States) to learn gene-editing techniques. The following year, I moved to the National University of Ireland Galway (Ireland) to study the disseminated neoplasia of Irish cockles. In 2020, I worked in the laboratory of Prof. David Posada, where I learned phylogenomic and statistical techniques to apply in my research. Finally, in 2021 I moved to the laboratory of Dr. Young Seok Ju at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Daejeon, South Korea) to learn about transcriptomics and cell-of-origin analysis. Furthermore, I supervised several university students, achieved awards at scientific conferences, and engaged in many outreach activities. During this period, I met and watched Dr. Jose Tubío passionately conduct research and establish collaborations with other researchers. Under his guidance, my research career blossomed in the field of cancer genomics. In 2022, I graduated with honours.

My first postdoctoral experience leveraged my knowledge of the bioinformatics analysis of cancer genomics. For that, I joined The Francis Crick Institute and the University College of London (UK) in September 2021 to work in the laboratory of Dr. Veronica Kinsler, which focuses on precision medicine. It was a swap from my previous work and gave me a multidisciplinary perspective. Recently, I have been awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship from the regional government of Normandy, and I will be joining Université de Caen (France) after attending the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. My current research topic consists of exploring marine contagious cancers from an immunological perspective, and it has potential within the field of cancer biology and genetics.

Two female researchers in the lab looking at a glass.
Alicia mentoring an undergraduate student in the lab. Photo/Credit: CiMUS, University of Santiago de Compostela

In general, I think I have been very lucky. I’ve worked very hard, but I have also lived a privileged life/career. The most rewarding aspects of my job – those that keep me focused, grounded and positive – are mentoring students and collaborating with people from all over the world.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I feel that most of my projects are very cool, but that’s probably why I decided to get involved in the first place. One project that does stand out was my doctoral research, where I looked into the genetic causes of marine contagious cancers. To undertake this work and learn all the techniques, I worked in different labs on three continents (South Korea, USA, Ireland, and Spain). This collaborative research taught me a lot about cultural differences and the strengths of diversity, and it gave me lifelong friendships. I think that working in international environments is super cool, and both my PhD and postdoctoral projects have leveraged this competence feeding my eagerness to explore the world.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

Funding is probably the biggest bottleneck in a scientific career. Getting an evaluation committee to believe your ideas are worthy and bet on you to carry out experiments that validate or reject the proposed hypotheses is a reason to feel proud. Therefore, I take pride in every fellowship and grant I obtained during my career. I also take pride in all the rejections received before getting the successful one, as every single proposal taught me something to do it better on the next one. Very recently, I got a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship to continue the research line of my PhD in France, the ultimate cherry on the cake. Joining the BÓREA laboratory for this project, I hope to uncover meaningful mechanisms of marine contagious cancers that will give us a better understanding of nature.

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

My day-to-day life varies greatly, and that is the enjoyment of science. Some days I conduct fieldwork; other days, I am in the lab extracting and analysing DNA; sometimes, days consist of meetings or data analysis sitting in front of the computer with litters of tea beside and even occasionally, I teach at the university or deal with administrative tasks. Lately, I have been in a laboratory transition, so I have been working remotely from home, wrapping up reports and papers from the lab in London (UK) and warming up for my new position in Caen (France). I value independence, and one of my favorite privileges of this career is the freedom you get if you work hard to accomplish goals.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” and I have plenty of dreams for my career. My future plans include the exploration of cancer in marine animals to continue contributing to science and advancing the field alongside my esteemed colleagues and collaborators. The sea hides many secrets, and I dream of opening a laboratory to discover those well-kept secrets of cancer that marine species (much older than us) might tell us.

I also want to be a supportive mentor to young researchers, especially women, so we can move forward toward breaking the glass ceiling in science. I would not be where I am today without all those exceptional women who fought for our rights in the past, and I would like to continue their legacy.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I have a curious mind that enjoys exploring the unknown, and probably that’s why I chose science as a professional career and traveling as my favorite hobby. When I was young, I set the goal of visiting as many foreign countries as years old I am, and for now, I haven’t failed. I have traveled to 30+ countries on four continents and worked in laboratories worldwide, from the US to South Korea; I fluently speak four languages and am starting to learn German.

Scientists on an excursion boat
Alicia during her involvement in the Arctic Ocean Expedition. Collecting eDNA samples with Dr. Wing Yan Chan (right) and taking data on the deck during the Polar night (left). Photo/Credit: Sea Women Expeditions

I am a travel junkie keen to combine science with my insights from around the world, which sometimes led me to get involved in projects and activities that merge these two, such as the expedition to the Arctic in 2022 or the Lindau Meeting in 2023.

As a fierce supporter of women who travel, I did my first solo female backpack travel in 2016, and since then, I have encouraged anyone that hesitates to undertake a solo trip. I have also gone on hitchhiking trips and long-distance hiking routes; in fact, I walked the way of Santiago twice, and I went to Morocco hitchhiking more than 1,000 km. However, I have forever been fascinated by the sea, I grew up in a coastal town, and that’s why I can easily be found scuba diving, sailing, or just having a walk with my feet in the water.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

My own personal secret for women interested in science is, “If you want to try, you have little to lose and a lot to win.” Follow your interests and passions, look for the career steps of people you admire, don’t be afraid to contact them looking for support or mentorship, and most importantly, bet on yourself!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

Breakthrough discoveries are usually unexpected, and, despite being born in a land of witches, I don’t control the ability to stream the future. However, I can venture to say that we will probably discover more cases of contagious cancers in Nature in the coming years. The oldest documented case of cancer was reported ∼2,700 years ago, but it was not till the genome sequencing era that we started reporting contagious cancers. Nowadays, we know that contagious cancers affect two mammals and seven bivalve species. I am excited to see which will be the state-of-the-art ten years from now, and I am especially hoping for models that will unravel the most well-kept secrets of cancer.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

Feminism exists because we have a problem of inequality, and science is not the only part of our society facing the lack of women in powerful or tenured positions; politics and the arts are also struggling. Therefore, the proposed strategies may apply in the broader sense to changing the discriminatory system.
Here, I propose three axes of action:

Defense of a doctoral thesis with a presentation screen
Alicia defending her doctoral thesis about marine contagious cancers in 2022. Photo/Credit: CiMUS, University of Santiago de Compostela

First, hire more female professors and principal investigators. In some fields of science, women outnumber men at the graduate level, but then the leaking pipe comes into action. Acknowledging the reasons why women abandon science (instability, unfair salaries, family reconciliation, unequal access to funding…) and offering them contracts that solve them will result in more women in those positions.

Second, change institutional and societal philosophy to avoid the myriads of discriminatory situations we face since minute one just for being women. Penalise inappropriate comments, lower salaries, or the underweight of merits.

Third, make women visible in those positions. To normalise and increase the number of female role models promoted to professor or principal investigator level, the best way is to see them as that will encourage other women to follow their steps, e.g., via outreach activities for scholars to mentorship programs and better media coverage. There are many ways for individuals and institutions to make this happen.

Boosting the number of female scientists and professors in the early stages will benefit society because women are half of the population, and leaving them outside means losing half of the ideas and innovative approaches.

Further Information

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.