Women in Research: Mariana De Niz From Mexico

Mariana likes to do microscopy or image analysis. Photo/Credit: Mariana De Niz

Mariana from Mexico is a Human Frontier Science Program postdoctoral fellow at Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon, Portugal.

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

Her work consists on investigating the biophysics and dynamics of the parasite Trypanosoma brucei (causative of sleeping sickness) in various tissues of mammalian hosts. She is particularly interested in microscopy methods to image host-parasite interactions, and is keen on developing new methods that enable visualizing and investigating these interactions. In her earlier career she worked on investigating host-pathogen interactions during various stages of the malaria-causative parasite Plasmodium.

Enjoy the interview with Mariana and get inspired:

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

I liked science since an early age. Since I can remember, I had a keen interest in patterns in nature, in astronomy and physics. I learned all I could on everything space-related, from planets and stars, to how telescopes are built, to the specifics of various space missions, shuttles, and the history of NASA and ROSCOSMOS. My other passion in life as a child was tropical medicine, both its history and biology, and understanding how our body combats pathogens upon infection. I remember my curiosity being triggered by anti-cholera campaigns in Mexico when I was very young, which led me into the world of pathogens.

As I have advanced in my career, I became more and more interested in vector-borne pathogens, in particular parasites- and the biophysical component of their interaction with the hosts they infect.

Who are your role models?

My father is one of my main role models. Coming from rural Mexico with little resources, yet having a very gifted mind, he is a highly dedicated person who hugely valued education and effort. He always encouraged me to dream, and to work hard to achieve those dreams. There was never anything impossible in his mind, and he transmitted this to me: to break any and all glass ceilings. I think without this early encouragement I might have never dreamed of leading the somewhat adventurous life I now lead.

In history, role models for me are Katherine Johnson, Amelia Earhart, and Marie Curie who fought against all odds to be the fantastic scientists and/or explorers they were, in an even more challenging time than it is now.

And of course I have been privileged with great teachers, mentors and colleagues throughout my entire career many of whom are also role models in different ways. Some of the ones in my scientific career include my colleagues Dr. Carolina Agop-Nersesian, Dr. Rebecca Stanway, Dr. Kannan Venugopal, Dr. Idalio Viegas, and PIs Prof. Volker Heussler, Prof. Elena Levashina and Dr. Luisa Figueiredo.

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

I was born in Mexico City, and studied primary and junior high school there. In general, as a child, I had fantastic teachers, and I was very curious, so I loved learning – anything and everything. Equally, this school had as a firm basis the values of a “healthy mind in a healthy body”, so since a very early age I learned to love all sorts of sports. I think these early years were life-defining in what I value now.

Given my wishes to become a scientist, for high school I joined the Institute of Technology (Tecnologico de Monterrey) in Mexico City, into the International Baccalaureate programme. I loved every second of it, and it was probably one of the best times in my life. I had inspiring teachers from all over the world who brought a new perspective to the way I saw life. It was a demanding and rigorous programme, as much as it was intellectually stimulating. A huge advantage of this time, was that it offered me the possibility to study abroad. Between ages 15 and 18, I studied in France and in Australia. I think the ‘bug’ to travel and explore the world began then, and never left me. Also, this school had plenty of opportunities to engage in programs aimed at life-saving and human rights, which led me to early engagement in this context including becoming an open water life saver, and a member of the Amnesty International body of volunteers.

Mariana with the medical and scientific team she worked with during her MSc in Tororo, Uganda. Photo/Credit: Mariana De Niz

I then went to the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, where I studied Immunology. There I had my first academic mentor, Prof. Robert Nibbs, who encouraged me to ask my own questions and pursue these, rather than fit into someone else’s. He encouraged me to ‘blaze the trail’. I think this made a huge difference in my approach to science. Following this advice, I first went as an intern to Brazil and later joined the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to study a MSc in Control of Infectious Diseases. Here, I joined the lab of Prof. Chris Drakeley, an extraordinary scientist who encouraged passion- and curiosity-driven science. In his lab I had one of the best times in my career as a scientist, exploring hemoglobinopathies and malaria in Uganda, and later, Plasmodium knowlesi distribution in Malaysian Borneo.

After that, seeking to somewhat go more into the area of biophysics and microscopy, I joined the lab of Prof. Volker Heussler at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Like my two key previous mentors, Volker Heussler was also extraordinary and also encouraged independent thinking. I learned a lot in this time, in an environment that was inspiring and challenging to ask own questions and seek answers. In this time I developed a huge passion for microscopy which continues to this day. More importantly, because of the freedom I enjoyed, I was able to find my way of being the best scientist I could be.

After that I went to the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, to the lab of Prof. Matthias Marti. This was my first experience in a non-European country in my career as a scientist. Later the lab moved to Glasgow, Scotland. For this work, I obtained an SNSF fellowship (from Switzerland) and an EMBO postdoctoral fellowship. It was amongst one of my most productive career stages. Between postdocs I went to Woods Hole to the prestigious BOP course (Biology of Parasitism Course), which I loved – it opened my eyes to the big picture of parasitology, and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience altogether.

Afterwards I moved to my second postdoc to the Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon, Portugal, to the lab of Dr. Luisa Figueiredo. I had been a big fan of her work since a few years and was keen to join her lab to explore a different parasite: Trypanosoma brucei. For this, I got a Human Frontier Science Programme postdoctoral fellowship. In my time in her lab, I defined the niche I wish to pursue as an independent researcher.

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

I think most of the projects I have worked on have been very special to me. I loved my entire PhD because it was a time when I was truly free to explore my brain’s interests. Moreover, I found in my PhD supervisor a mentor with whom I could share my curiosity and the excitements of the scientific discoveries and phenomena we were observing. He was immensely fun to work with.
Other special moments: I loved my MSc degree because it opened my eyes to the reality of parasitology. And from my second postdoc, I will never forget the first time I saw Trypanosomes moving in a living animal – it was a fascinating moment for me.

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

I think like many scientists, I suffer from huge impostor syndrome. I don’t think I have felt immense pride, but I was certainly very happy when I was awarded prize for my doctoral work. I was happy mostly because intellectually speaking, I had loved my PhD, and I think this was reflected in the effort I put in my work. The fact that this was recognized meant a lot to me.

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

I am a very early morning person. I start the day walking to the gym listening to music – this helps me put my mind at ease. In the gym, I run and swim for a few hours. I find this fills me with energy for the day. After that I go to work, where almost every day I do microscopy or image analysis – which I enjoy most. At night, depending on the day, I either study languages, play music, or do other sports. At present I’m studying Russian, playing the drums and doing some free-diving. Then I go home and usually I like watching movies or writing on topics related to open science.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I would like to explore the topic I am most interested in, in the most free and engaging way I can. I want to be excited every day about the things I will observe that day.

At the Moment Mariana is working at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon. Photo/Credit: Mariana De Niz

Personally, I would feel very happy if I could contribute to making science a friendlier place, and a more inclusive place to all genders and races. I don’t feel it currently is. A huge achievement for me would be to become a great mentor with whom people are happy to explore their ideas, and where imposter syndrome is an exception rather than the norm. Where no one feels left out or unfitting, personally or professionally.

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

I love endurance sports. When I’m not doing research, I’m usually training for swimming or running competitions. Also, I still engage in life-saving activities. Due to an injury I had to stop for a while, but as I have slowly recovered, I would soon like to qualify to become a paramedic.

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

Be perseverant and resilient. Choose the people you work with extremely wisely. It’s essential for success, for your happiness and for developing to your highest potential. As mentors, choose people that respect you and are interested in your growth and encourage and challenge you in a healthy way and who see in you a colleague and scientist-in-the-making.

Before joining a lab, pay huge attention that you share the principles and philosophy with the PI (principal investigator) – this will often dictate the philosophy and values of your team-members as well. Beyond that, never give up. Also, develop self- awareness and self-confidence. People will always have opinions, but you shouldn’t let anyone’s opinions define you – neither the good nor the bad. And aim to become the best version of yourself. And when the time comes, be a kind and inspiring mentor yourself.

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

I think the next great breakthrough in parasitology will come from approaching science in a different manner than has been conventionally done. I think more and more people are studying parasites from an interdisciplinary point of view, and from a complex system point of view, whereby two organisms interact. I think artificial intelligence and imaging will be revolutionary for this – but of course I am biased.

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

From my experience, my female colleagues who left science, left either because it was incompatible for them with having a family; because they wanted stability; because they felt impostor syndrome – and wanted a job where they felt fulfilled instead; because the geographical relocation that many fellowships demand became a limiting factor; because there were no role models or a network of sufficient support; or because the expectations of time commitment and output were unrealistic and incompatible with work-life balance. I think these are but a few points we should address as a scientific community to retain female talent. I also think we should be kinder and more encouraging to each other and we should encourage collaboration over competition and building a more selfless environment than it currently is.

About Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as a research specialist at the Advanced Imaging Center at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in the United States. She did her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell. She loves to develop and build tools 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.

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