This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Mariana Rama Pedro Alves
#LINO18 young scientist Mariana R. P. Alves, 23, from Portugal, is a PhD student at the EMBL in the Developmental Biology Unit, Germany.
It’s fascinating how animals evolve from a single cell to a complex embryo, but many of the mechanisms at play are yet to be understood in detail. In Mariana’s lab they have the fruit fly as a model and follow the motto “seeing is believing”, so they use imaging techniques to understand how a single cell evolves into an embryo. Specifically, she wants to understand the mechanisms underlying how the spatiotemporal activity of enhancers (regions bound by transcription factors that promote or repress gene expression) is regulated and contributes to complex gene expression patterns during development. If you want to know more, be sure to check their latest paper. Enjoy the interview with Mariana and get inspired!
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I had a wide spectrum of possibilities in my mind, including literature or journalism, before I decided for my BSc in Biochemistry. What finally drove me to science was the will to contribute to society in the form of a meaningful and translational discovery, such as a vaccine. I was also attracted by the idea that biochemistry is a very challenging subject. Ironically, during my undergraduate studies, I discovered my passion for basic research rather than for translational or clinical research. The pursuit of discovering unknown molecular mechanisms is what is driving me to do research and be a member of the scientific community now.
Who are your role models?
Several people have inspired me. Hard-workers. People with clear work and life philosophies and principles that make me think “wow, how haven’t I thought of this?!” Courageous and bold people who don’t stick to the “norm”. Several friends or colleagues I have met along the way have inspired me in that sense. Over time, I dedicated to podcasting and radio broadcasting, I interviewed over 100 international scientists and found inspiration in most of them. I would highlight names such as Oliver Smithies, Marina Cortes, Martin Chalfie or Tiago Brandao Rodrigues. Marina Cortes is a very special example, because she studies Cosmology, a field completely unrelated to mine, but nevertheless listening to her gave me such an energy rush, such a hype! She was a ballerina first – something I relate to because I also dreamed of being one before I entered high school and broke my ankle – and she currently hikes the world’s highest mountains. I was very inspired by her enthusiasm regarding people having several passions instead of “funnelling” what you dedicate your life to. The ultimate women in science role model is my friend and Lindau Alumni Renata Gomes. Wise and generous, two of the 100 adjectives that could be used to describe her, Renata has been a role model since I met her. Some of the most impactful encounters prior to my time as a PhD student have been with women in science. I would also like to mention Dr. Carlos Faro, someone I would call in time of doubt or when I had to make choices, who recommended Dr. Jose Silva’s lab for my first international experience and who was very enthusiastic and supportive about me gaining experience abroad. I am also very inspired by the women scientists who founded the non-profit organisations DrosAfrica, NativeScientist and Maratona da Saude. My family has been a good source of inspiration as well. Just to mention my father’s resilience and standards, my mom’s strength and generosity, my sister’s resolve to follow her own path or my grandmother’s personal history. Finally, I have a very deep respect and admiration for artists and creative individuals. I am very inspired by creative giants such as Lin Manuel Miranda, Pina Bausch and Beyoncé. What unites artists and scientists is a high level of motivation, discipline, creativity and resilience. The 12 consecutive hours we can spend at the bench are similar to the 12 h a recording artist spends in a studio or rehearsing a choreography. This extreme work ethic and relentlessness are, in my opinion, the qualities one needs to be a great scientist as well.
Mariana with Renata Gomes at the 64th Lindau Meeting in 2014. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Mariana Rama Pedro Alves
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
In a nutshell: I think it was essential for me to have an early start in a lab, to get international experience and work in different labs. I also value the time I spent in my MSc a lot, which allowed me to mature my thoughts and ideas before starting my Ph.D. (and applying for several programmes as well!). In addition, I believe that it was important for me to follow my personal career path and dedicate the time I did to science communication and public engagement. I believe I can say that all these aspects added up to positively influence my personal development and development as a young scientist. Finally, I am extremely grateful for all the generosity of my supervisors (formal and informal) and everyone who helped me along the way, and my family who made it all possible.
I really believe my three years as a volunteer trainee during my BSc made a huge difference in my career path. Professor Francisco Ambrosio was really surprised when I knocked his door, still 18 years old in my freshman year of Biochemistry, to ask to volunteer in his lab. I am forever grateful to him for opening his door. It was the perfect lab for a first experience because it is one of the happiest and friendliest labs I had the pleasure to work in during my short scientific career.
Because I started early, after spending 1 year and a half in the lab during my BSc, including summer holidays, I was ready to spend a summer in a lab abroad, which I did in the second year of my BSc. This was crucial for my personal development and shaping the following career decisions. Two international experiences opened my eyes a lot. The first one was my stay in Cambridge, my first time living abroad and exposed to the atmosphere of a competitive research environment . The second experience was a 6-week lab rotation in Copenhagen, in the lab of Kim Jensen. I loved Denmark, the Danes, and Copenhagen, and I had a great time personally and scientifically. Dr. Kim Jensen and his lab welcomed me warmly and I was able to contribute to a very interesting “story” that was wrapping up.
There is an aspect common to my summer internship in Cambridge and my MSc rotation in Copenhagen: both my previous supervisors were open for me to move on and try different things. This can be rare in academia and I highly value Prof. Francisco Ambrosio’s and Dr. Jose Silva’s attitudes – they could not have been more supportive. This was again true for my PhD applications, for which references from Dr. Jose Silva, Dr. Kim Jensen, and Professor Francisco Ambrosio were crucial, and I am very grateful for the time they dedicated and patience they showed helping me to move on in my career . There are many more names to add to my thank-you list, indeed too many…
I applied to several Ph.D. programmes because I have broad interests and was curious about different projects and places. I benefitted from attending several rounds of recruitment procedures because I really got to know the PIs, the institutes, and was able to see very different research environments. I was able to make a well-more informed choice. The institutes are usually understanding of this. The most important thing is that you look at this as a 2-way process. Sure, they are interviewing you, but you are also making an informed choice and you should be critical and rigorous about what you want for yourself.
Finally, I am aware of the privilege I had in many ways throughout my education and the start of my career. I am extremely grateful for my parents’ investment in my stays abroad and am aware that not everyone has these opportunities. For example, when I was in my last year of the BSc, my work was selected for an oral presentation at an international student conference in Leiden. I didn’t have any travel grant but I saw this as a great opportunity, so I asked my parents to finance my trip. Since they would be paying my travel and accommodation anyway, my mom decided to join me along with a friend and my sister, and we took a mini-holiday around the Netherlands. I also feel that since I lived with them during my BSc, I had the time to dedicate myself to my studies, the lab and all my time-demanding extracurricular activities (radio, theatre, etc), since I was alleviated from all the burdens associated with living on your own.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
This is a very easy answer: it’s my Ph.D. project, which I am currently working on. There is something very special about “seeing” molecular events rather than just graph outputs. I really like to dissect mechanisms and there is still a lot to understand regarding transcriptional regulation in development. I am still new to the Drosophila model and I am constantly amazed by the number of datasets and information that have already been generated for it, they are very helpful when you want to study certain molecular events and mechanisms in detail.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
I would say, anytime a paper to which I contributed got published. But specifically, when my first first-author paper was published. This is a milestone for any researcher but in this case I felt double the pride because this work was carried out during my BSc. I decided to volunteer at Professor Francisco Ambrosio’s lab in my first year of undergrad and dedicated much of my free time from lectures, exams, and extracurriculars to it. A lot of times I would hear people making fun of me for being in the lab so early on, “wasting my youth time”… Finally, three years of hard work eventually paid off. It felt extremely good to have been able to produce a coherent and publishable story at such an early stage of my scientific career . It was with this project and still in my BSc that I had my first poster and oral presentations including in international conferences.
I was also very proud when, in the summer of 2014, I overcame my fears and lived abroad and away from my family for the first time, to work at Jose Silva’s lab in Cambridge. This was a huge step for me and it paved the way for my definite move away from home 2 years later. Anyone who lives abroad will relate to the fact that there are always new challenges arising, and we should be proud of our daily courage. Here, once again, having people who support you is key – from my family over the distance to the crazily talented and generous Ph.D. student Hannah Stuart who was supervising me and always made sure I felt literally at home. At such an early stage in my career, she really shaped a lot of my “how-to’s” and research principles that I still remember and act by.
Several of my science communication/extracurricular achievements also made and make me proud: doing the press coverage of the Lindau Meeting 2014 for my university radio show, co-organizing the Stem Cell Exchanges Art Project or the coordinating of the video with which my MSc class fundraised almost four thousand euros for neuroscience research in Portugal.
I would also highlight other events such as being accepted in the EMBL Ph.D. Programme after having undergone an intense recruitment procedure or defending my MSc thesis in front of many of my friends and colleagues from my home university.
What is a “day in the life” of Mariana like?
Because EMBL is far from the city center, my day starts with a 20-minute bus ride. It sounds boring, but many EMBL employees take this bus, so there is always someone different to talk to. Then, I usually like having breakfast at EMBL’s cafeteria, because there are flaky and warm croissants. My day in the lab is divided between working with the flies, bench work and imaging and data analysis. The lab usually has lunch together. I usually meet with my supervisor once a week. EMBL has many interesting seminars to attend as well. On my way home, I get to see Heidelberg’s beautiful nature and especially in the summer, when the days are long, it is a very nice way to end the day. I really love Heidelberg’s old town, it somehow magically reminds me of the best features of several cities at home and abroad.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I would like to combine my curiosity for the undiscovered mechanisms of life with my will to impact society. During the next 3 years, I aim to discover how to do this and am certain that the Ph.D. and my time at EMBL will equip me with the tools to accomplish that.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
On a weekly basis, I am learning German and French and like to spend quality time with my friends, going out for dinner or going to the movies. I am interested in science communication and science philosophy so I like to read about it or engage in related activities. Heidelberg is great to enjoy the outdoors, especially during summer, and I really like to get some sun or to swim, although research doesn’t allow much time for that, to be honest. I spend a lot of time listening to music as well – needless to say, I listen to a lot of Beyonce’ (but not only!). On a more sporadic basis, I really enjoy the “performing arts” so I like to go to concerts or dance pieces (being in Central Europe is great for that, especially for the contemporary dance scene, with Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater only 4h from Heidelberg); hopefully when my German is better I will be able to attend theatre plays as well. I miss performing theatre, which I did for several years in a company in Coimbra called Bonifrates. I also like to take photographs and really enjoy travelling. Currently travelling usually means visiting friends living abroad (being in Germany is very convenient for this) or going home to Portugal, which is always nice and refreshing.
Play about Women and Freedom. Photo/Credit Bonifrates
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
Start getting experience as early as you can.
Try different things. I was super anxious to return to Cambridge after my summer there. I thought I would use all my MSc rotation time just to go there and start my thesis as early as possible, given my eagerness to go back and because of my fascination with the university’s atmosphere. I was disadvised to do so and rather try something different. I followed this advice and couldn’t have done better. After all, I had had only one working-abroad experience, and I would be very limited if I hadn’t lived and worked in a different country, institute, lab, and field. I believe that if I hadn’t been in Copenhagen maybe I would not have been so open to moving out of the UK to do my Ph.D. It was essential to gain different lab skills and meet another lab.
Don’t rush into a Ph.D. After I spent the summer of 2014 in Cambridge, my supervisor encouraged me to apply for a Ph.D. So I did, and it was a stressful but rewarding experience. I was called for an interview, which I saw as a major compliment regarding my career stage. The interview was unsuccessful (and rightfully so, I was not ready) and it was very hard for me to take that rejection. But fortunately it was a learning lesson, and it ultimately helped me with my Ph.D. applications 2 years later . I also believe it was truly a blessing to have two years before my PhD to mature personally and professionally. With my MSc thesis research, I understood better what I liked (mechanisms!) and how to be a researcher. There is no such thing as too much experience. I remember asking Nobel Laureate Prof. Dr. Harald zur Hausen about this off-the-record after an interview for my radio show, and he insisted “Do a MSc first!”. Though this depends on the individual career background, of course, this is what I would recommend to everyone: Have substantial lab experience and try different labs before you commit to a Ph.D. programme.
Ask for advice. Don’t be shy! If people don’t have the time they will let you know, but if they do you can learn so much from them. Learn from as much of a diverse group as you can.
Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. Academia can be tricky and there could be times where you need to stand up for yourself, for example, to claim credit that is due and missing. That can be daunting, you do not want to give a bad impression, but you need to stand up for yourself. And credit should be given wherever it is due. Also, do not let your hard-fought and sweat achievements be downplayed by people who will point out all the ways in which you were “lucky”, and don’t be fooled to state that yourself. Finally, you should be aware of “mansplaining” and try to stand up against it.
Do it YOUR way. Follow your instincts and passions, whatever it is that makes you a complete person. Don’t be fooled by people, as senior or important as they might be, who try to tell you how to live your life and who try to convince you that research lives cannot accommodate anything else. It is worth investing time and hard work in projects you believe in. Work hard, don’t fool around, but be yourself.
Take care of yourself. Research can be daunting. PhDs particularly, but it can also feel overwhelming in other stages. Too often there is this weight put on researchers that their failures (a rejected paper or grant, a failed experiment) or successes are direct measures of their personal worth. This can be hard to deal with. I wanted to bring this up because EMBL offers Mindfulness and Stress Reduction training on site, and this is a very important initiative, and I am very glad that EMBL is showing good practice by example by caring about the mental health of their employees – the instructor is Sonja Noss. I am taking the course. We promised Sonja not to make judgments (positive or negative) about it before is finished, so I won’t. But scientists should not be embarrassed of taking care of themselves and acknowledging that it can be stressful. This is where friends and good colleagues also play a very important part.
Celebrate milestones! I believe that no matter how small they are, our personal milestones should be celebrated. And I mean really celebrated. Publishing a paper, having a poster accepted, submitting a thesis, the first time an experimental procedure works, a tiny amount of exciting data, or an interview to the Women in Research blog… Often these events are anticlimactic and science has its lonely and non-eventful times, so we should not be embarrassed to fill our time with celebrations for our small, medium or big accomplishments.
Mariana involved in public engagement in London in 216. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Mariana Alves
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
I hope that we find solutions for antibiotic resistance very soon. I also hope that the scientific scene will leap forward not only in terms of hard science breakthroughs but also from changes in the system. I hope we breakthrough in improving the health of labs, the mental health of workers, gender imbalance, and scientific misconduct of different kinds. Only by improving these conditions, can we keep incredible professionals from leaving academia and increase the chances and the number of great discoveries.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
Change is definitely needed and it is true that the academic culture is harder on women than men. I feel that it is less accepted when women are assertive. I think it will be very hard to change without some forceful rules, such as quotas for faculty positions, conference invitations, etc. At EMBL, I see many scientists with families trying to juggle life and research. This inspires me. It should not be such a surprise and inspiration but it is. And I believe that having a kindergarten on campus, for example, is a tremendous help for mothers in science. Another example of improved practice could be to protect women at the beginning of their contracts against dismissal due to pregnancy. Nevertheless, male scientists also have families and family duties. EMBL currently has an initiative by the Diversity & Equality Committee that encourages female scientists to join for lunch and share their “Women in Science” stories. Small initiatives like this can make a difference because they open dialogue and create awareness.
 It would be impossible to accomplish these things without a support network, in this case the whole lab – from Professor Francisco who opened the door to me, to Filipa Baptista who supervised me and all the co-authors in this project who lent me their expertise and also their time when I couldn’t be there because of exams or during revisions.
 I couldn’t be more grateful to Dr. Jose Silva for accepting my summer stay and welcoming me back to do my MSc thesis.
 I should add Dr. Renata Gomes’ generosity for providing personality references as well.
 Here again, the help of so many colleagues (advice, proof-reading, etc) was indispensable.