Published 6 July 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Flávia Sousa

Flávia from Portugal – also on the Women in Research blog. All photos/credit: in courtesy of Flávia Sousa

Flávia is a Senior Researcher at the Adolphe Merkle Institute, University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her current research is focused on developing new biological nanotherapies for brain cancer using polymeric and lipid nanoparticles. Her research work has been pioneering regarding the encapsulation of anti-angiogenic monoclonal antibodies and understanding the efficacy in treating glioblastoma by normalising the tumor vasculature and microenvironment. Currently, she is working on a new gene-based nanovaccine for immunotherapy.

Flávia participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Flávia and get inspired:

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

Since childhood, I have had an enormous passion for science and teaching. I remember being still a child and asking my young sister’s professor to mentor her and her colleagues during primary school. While growing up, I started being interested in how drugs interact with our bodies and how we can treat patients properly – that’s why I am a pharmacist by training. When I started my Ph.D., my passion for science was even more pronounced because I believed we could transform the world into a better place and find new treatment tools for incurable diseases.

Who are your role models?

My first role model is my father. He taught me to be resilient and persistent, believe in my potential, and never give up on my dreams. He had the inner force to build his own business from scratch and never give up after all the challenges he was going through. He greatly impacted my life and shows me daily how to succeed when you have a passion for your work. Professionally speaking, I worked in 7 countries and was lucky to find great mentors and collaborators around my pathway. All of them have traits that I appreciate, and they inspired me to be a good scientist.

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

I must say I started my career path when I was ten years old when I was tutoring my sister’s class during the summer break. Since then, I began tutoring students until getting into university.

Flávia’s scientific career path started fairly early: At 10 years of age, she began with tutoring.

I started my research journey during my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in pharmaceutical sciences at IUCS under the supervision of my professor of pharmaceutical technology Bruno Sarmento. After that, under his supervision, I decided to do a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences at ICBAS, University of Porto. During my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to work temporarily with international research groups such as the International Nanotechnology Laboratory (Dr. Inês Pinto), University of Aalborg (Dr. Teresa Petersen), Northeastern University (Dr. Mansoor Amiji), Ghent University (Dr. Stefaan De Smedt). My biggest achievement was receiving the Fulbright award to finish my research project regarding in vivo pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. I am thankful to receive this award because being in Boston was life-changing. Meeting great mentors (I must mention the great mentor Dr. Mansoor Amiji) and being in contact with biotech companies completely changed my perspective of the academic world and increased my passion for doing science.

After finishing my Ph.D. studies, I did my first postdoctoral studies at Imperial College London under the supervision of Dr. Molly Stevens. It was a challenge because it was at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I was so impressed by how great a scientist Molly is and how she successfully leads a research group. In 2021, I was awarded by Marie Curie MINDED fellowship at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia under the supervision of Dr. Paolo Decuzzi. Since 2022, I have been a Senior Researcher at Adolphe Merkle Institute, where the NCCR awarded me for Bio-Inspired Materials with an independent Women in Science (WINS) research fellowship.

During my academic career, I’ve faced enormous challenges regarding the frustrations of a Ph.D., adapting to a new country, balancing personal and professional life, etc. But I want to point out that it was my passion to do science and create a discovery that moved me to where I am today and keeps me motivated to become a great scientist and professor.

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

The coolest project is my current project regarding developing a new gene therapy for brain cancer treatment. It is the coolest project because the fundamental idea behind that was mine, and NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials recognised it as a potential project. When you write a project you believe in, even if the results are not what you wish, the motivation to work is entirely different.

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

Flávia speaking for TEDx at University of Twente, Netherlands.

Especially this year of 2023. I have received several awards regarding my research. Apart from being nominated by the European Commission to attend the 72nd Lindau Meeting (Physiology/Medicine), I received the MIT Innovators Under 35 Europe and Female Science Talents Award from Falling Walls Foundation. On the other hand, I was a TEDx speaker at the University of Twente to talk about “How can we stop scientists from leaving academic life?”. Being internationally recognised for my research work and, at the same time, advocating a more inclusive academic environment is something that gives me a fulfilling life. I feel immense pride in myself, too, when my research work is published in a recognised journal and when it is cited by scientists meaning my work might be helpful to society. There is no better feeling than having an impact on another’s life.

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

My perfect day in life starts at 6 am, doing meditation, yoga, journaling, and a healthy breakfast. Around 7:30 am/8 am, I am at work where I do some laboratory experiences, analyse the data, and write scientific papers. Depending on the schedule, I sometimes have to focus my writing on writing a grant to fund my research. I also take some time to mentor my students with individual and lab meetings. Something I love about my life is that there is no day equal to another one, my days are never dull, and they are super unpredictable. Making last-minute decisions and improvising is something you can expect of my “day in life.”

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Flávia has clear ideas for her future life.

This is an easy one: become a professor and a great scientist. Building an international research team in the field of nanomedicines for brain cancer treatment, having international collaborations with academia and pharmaceutical industries, and discovering a new era of nanomedicines to help cancer patients. Seeing our research be upscaled to pharmaceutical industries is my ultimate goal. Educating master’s and Ph.D. students in scientific knowledge and being a great mentor to help them to achieve their dreams.

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

The balance between my personal and professional life is very important to me. I love to do sports (yoga, running, CrossFit), and I have to take time to meditate and connect to nature. I also go hiking in the beautiful nature of Switzerland at the weekends and love to cook for myself and my family/friends. Social life is very important, and I need family/friends to surround me. In addition, I cannot miss traveling and being exposed to new cultures.

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

Good things take time. Being insistent with the wrong people at the wrong will give you disappointment. Instead, focus on your dreams; yourself and your heart/passion will tell you what to do. Never give up; sometimes, you are just in the wrong place. Follow your heart!

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

The development of a new era of nanovaccines for cancer immunotherapy. Anti-cancer nanovaccines including stimulator of interferon genes (STING) activating nanovaccines, neoantigen nanovaccines, mRNA-based nanovaccines, adjuvants to antigen-presenting cells as well as combination therapies, are emerging strategies to improve the therapeutic efficacy of cancers. Therefore, I genuinely believe in the next years, researchers will optimise the existing nanoformulations, develop new strategies for cancer nanovaccination, and enhance clinical translation.

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

This topic is very dear to me, and I have been discussing it at some conferences/mentoring programs, such as the Female Science Talents program. Recently, I was moderating a panel about “Female transfer knowledge in academia,” and this was precisely one of the points to talk about it. Top-bottom changes are always easier than bottom-top, so to increase the number of female scientists should come from the top positions. Offering better conditions for women to desire an academic career is urgently needed, as well as including them in the administrative bodies. For instance, adding women to the panel of calls will definitely help to increase the number of female professors in my discipline. Both men and women are equally needed in academia, and fortunately, in the last few years, the number of young female scientists in my field has increased. However, this is not true if we see it in the administrative bodies and with higher ages. Therefore, including more women in top positions as presidents/deans of the university will help to change the current patriarchal academic system.

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.