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An interview with Erica Martins Duarte

Posted by , on 22 March 2022

MiniBio: Erica Martins-Duarte currently acts as Adjunct Professor at the Department of Parasitology of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, where she develops projects focused on the discovery of new treatments for acute and chronic toxoplasmosis, characterization of drug resistance in atypical Brazilian isolates, and the impact of the infection by atypical isolates of Toxoplasma gondii using murine models.  She graduated in Pharmacy from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro UFRJ, and then did her M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Biological Sciences (Biophysics) at the Biophysics Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She has experience in the areas of Parasitology, Parasitic Chemotherapy, Drug screening, Cellular and Structural Biology (with an emphasis on optical and electron microscopy), and Molecular Biology of T. gondii.

Brazil has a long-standing history of contributions to science both, in Latin America and world-wide. It is the land of scientists as renowned as Carlos Chagas and Oswaldo Cruz. It is also a country of fascinating biodiversity, attractive the whole world around. Before becoming a scientist, were you aware of this heritage? What inspired you to become a scientist?

Not really. I am originally from Rio de Janeiro, and the building of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute is a castle in Av. Brasil (a main avenue). I used to see this place often, but before I became interested in science, I had no idea that scientific research was being carried out there.

You have a career-long involvement in microscopy and infectious diseases. What inspired you to choose this career path? 

In 1992, when Brazil hosted the ECO92 world conference (for environmental protection), we started speaking more about science at school, and science fairs took place, and I started reading more about science in the newspaper. But at the time I also liked art a lot. I honestly wanted to be a cinematographer until I was about 15 years old. I then started studying in a technical school for chemistry, and many of my teachers were very young and were finishing their MSc or their PhD. They spoke a lot about their thesis and what they were doing, and I became interested. At school we had a school fair we could submit experiments to, and here I discovered science. I loved doing experiments. I decided I wanted to be a scientist. I became first interested in parasitology. I did a first internship during my BSc, working on Leishmania and as I was studying pharmacy, I became interested in a project studying chemotherapy against Toxoplasma, so I went to Dr. Rossiane Vommaro’s lab. It was here where I discovered the love for microscopy. There’s so much information in an image that you want to stay forever taking pictures. I think my first interest in parasitology arose from the fact that Brazil is endemic to many parasites. And with my background in Pharmacy, I was aware of the combat, throughout the country, against infectious diseases, especially parasitology – this was very motivating. In fact something I would love to be involved in is field work. But so far this opportunity hasn’t arisen.

Brazil has a long-standing history of research against parasites – we are pioneers. The first electron microscopy image of Trypanosoma cruzi was done by Hertha Meyer, who is the founder of the laboratory where I did my studies. She was one of the first to culture Toxoplasma in vitro. She was a reference for T. cruzi culturing too. Then we had Carlos Chagas, who discovered the whole life cycle of T. cruzi, and Oswaldo Cruz certainly. Knowledge of Brazil’s role in this type of research was very motivating for me throughout my career.

What about your dream to be a cinematographer?

The truth is I applied to two faculties, one to study cinematography, and one to study pharmacy. I was only accepted in the school of pharmacy, so…   I ended up becoming a scientist. But I still love cinema. And microscopy is an art. We don’t just do it for the science, but for the beauty of the images too. It becomes an addiction!

You are currently a group leader at the University of Minas Gerais. Can you tell us a bit about your job?

A central topic of my research is to find a new treatment against Toxoplasma infections. I have collaborations with chemistry specialists to test new compounds and their mechanisms. Microscopy is an important tool for me to understand the mode of action, and targets of these compounds. Many of these targets are interesting also to understand the biology of the parasite – for instance the relevance of inhibiting a signaling pathway, or generating mutants to understand the role of specific proteins in the context of chemotherapy. I am also at the interface of cell biology, trying to understand the role of different proteins for the parasite’s biology. And for all this work, microscopy plays a central role.

Throughout your career you have belonged to various world-renowned centres of microscopy? Can you tell us a bit about how this shaped you as a microscopist?

The institute where I worked really encouraged us as young scientists to not be afraid of the microscopes. To really understand each piece, and become familiar with these big machines. Dr. Kildare Miranda, for example, used to say that each piece and each button of the microscope has a function, and you should know what that function is. But if it’s there, it has a function. So in the end we lost fear to use the microscopes. Prof. Wanderley de Souza was also great – he really loves microscopy, so to this day you can come with a nice image and he will be very happy. Dr. Rossiane Vommaro also. So altogether, this center was very inspiring to become a microscopist. After my PhD I went for a year to the lab of Prof. Boris Striepen in the University of Georgia. He had just bought a structured illumination microscope for super-resolution, and within a month after I arrived, I was already using the microscope. I went there with a Brazilian fellowship from ‘Science without Boarders’. And then I came back to Brazil – I got a fellowship as a postdoc for 5 years. I joined Prof. Wanderley’s lab – and I gave continuity to my previous postdoc project, so I was basically independent. He allowed me to establish my own research line within his group as a junior leader. In the meantime I started applying for grants to become an independent PI, and I was selected. Like this I formed my group in Belo Horizonte, where I am currently.

Can you tell us a bit about what you have found uniquely positive about becoming a researcher in Brazil, from your education years?

My ‘Iniciação científica’ (as a BSc student) was in the lab of Dr. Jose Roberto Meyer Fernandes. It was a project to study ecto-ATPases of Leishmania amazonensis, and here I became an independent researcher. My supervisor was very encouraging, and I was in his lab for 2 years. I think the tradition in Brazil of giving young students intellectual independence and their own projects is excellent for becoming an independent scientist. It’s a characteristic of Brazilian students. We become creative and mature to find solutions, early in our careers.

Did you have many opportunities to interact with other Latin American groups, outside of Brazil?

Currently, I collaborate with Dr. Maria Francia from Instituto Pasteur de Montevideo, but I think funding is missing to promote collaborations between institutes across the various Latin American countries. There are some – for instance there are programs between Uruguay and Brazil. Recently I believe Dr. Kildare Miranda (CENABIO) won a grant from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative together with researchers from Argentina and Uruguay to develop a network of Latin America Bioimaging. This has as a purpose to incentivize exchange between countries. Funding removes borders.

Have you ever faced any specific challenges as a Brazilian researcher, working abroad?

I think abroad it’s easier to do research: access to resources is better. In Brazil if you need reagents, the access and delivery time can be quite long (even up to a year). You won’t be able to do research at the same pace in Brazil. Perhaps this is because of importation rules. It’s all very bureaucratic.

Technical assistance to the microscopes is easier abroad too. For instance, in Georgia when some equipment broke, it was immediately solved. Here in Brazil it can take one or two years to replace pieces of equipment. And then by the time it arrives, maybe some other piece already broke. Altogether it’s difficult to compete with groups that have different access to resources and more money. There are labs abroad that have the suppliers just across the road.

About education, I felt that because in Brazil we have long projects as BSc students already, we already begin our PhDs with a lot of pressure to produce and publish. My experience abroad was that a first year PhD student is still in training and therefore doesn’t have all this pressure at this point. It might cause less anguish. What I saw abroad is that students then have more time to complete their projects. In the USA it’s 5 or 6 years. Here in Brazil you have 4 years with a fellowship and that’s it. Some people stay 1 or 2 years without pay – this is very hard for a young scientist.

About challenges as a Brazilian scientist being abroad, I think the main one was the language barrier. I confess at the beginning I felt a bit lost, but eventually I adapted well to the lab and to the culture. People were very collaborative in the Striepen lab, and my impression was that the labs around us seemed to have a similarly nice culture.

Who are your scientific role models (both Brazilian and foreign)?

My supervisors: Rossiane Vommaro and Wanderley de Souza. I give them all the credit. Kildare Miranda and Marcia Attias were an inspiration too. Everything that stimulated to learn about microscopy came from them. I based a lot of my interest in their opinion and their guidance.

Brazil has one of the best equality in terms of gender I have encountered as a researcher, with women heavily involved in research, at various leadership levels. Was this something that influenced you? How?

I think we only realize that gender-based discrimination exist when we live through a situation in which you know that the treatment if you were a man would be different. I think in Brazil, in biological sciences there is a good gender balance- this is not the case for physics and mathematics. But even if we reach 50% at the PhD level, in some institutions, leadership positions are only occupied by men. For instance the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro only had its first female dean a few years ago (although the university is around 100 years old). This is different in Minas Gerais, where women have been occupying positions of leadership since the 1970s. This is something interesting I’ve realized – that even within the same country, we have regional differences in terms of opportunities for women.

But the fact that I see women reaching positions of leadership makes me hopeful. I feel that this means things are improving in terms of gender balance.

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

 I love TEM as well as fluorescence microscopy (regardless if it’s confocal or super-resolution). Fluorescence is very attractive: all the colours are great. But TEM is rich in details. I still love to go to the microscope and check some material. It’s difficult to stay away from the microscope.

What is the most extraordinary thing you have seen by microscopy? An ‘eureka’ moment for you?

I try to never look for something. When something is real, it will appear on its own, without you looking for it. As a microscopist I worked with Toxoplasma apicoplast inhibitors and saw an effect in cell division. Then I worked with other inhibitors and anti-parasitic drugs, and saw a similar effect. And while these were accidental findings, we ended up opening a research avenue on the role of apicoplast fatty acids for the Toxoplasma, and cell division- we published this work in JCS. I think eureka moments are like this for me.

What is an important piece of advice you would give to future Brazilian scientists? and especially those specializing as microscopists?

As a scientist, don’t give up. Science is made of cycles. There are hard moments and then it all improves. As a microscopist my advice is that you have to study a lot and stay up to date. It’s not just obtaining images – it’s about understanding all the protocols, from sample preparation until image analysis. Get to know the machines very well. Do advanced courses if you have a chance, and keep really up to date.

Where do you see the future of microscopy heading over the next decade in Brazil, and how do you hope to be part of this future?

I think artificial intelligence will play a key role. I hope this also makes science cheaper – including for example software that currently is very expensive. I think Brazil is very well equipped – we have various centres – such as here at UFMG- with great infrastructure, dedicated to cryo-techniques, high content imaging, super-resolution, etc. All the new technology is reaching Brazil. Moreover, 3D printing is changing the landscape of research: it allows us to create pieces of equipment in a low-cost way.

3D printing is in the direction of open science. Do you feel various initiatives of open science are changing the research landscape in Brazil?

3D printing is being used to generate pieces (even replacement pieces) that otherwise would take too long to be brought here, or which are extremely expensive. About publication costs, this is very difficult in Brazil and probably all countries in Latin America. Some publication costs are absurd. Some journals charge for one publication the equivalent of what I would spend to keep my lab running for one year. Moreover, I think the concept of ‘impact factor’ should be re-considered. This puts people without enough resources, at a competitive disadvantage, and not because of the quality of science being done. For instance, if you can afford to make access open (usually at very high cost) your work will reach more people and will have higher impact. But it comes at such high cost. Regarding preprints, I think it is still an incomplete concept: what would be great is if we could all, as independent researchers, review the work being published as preprints. And this is not happening. People don’t have time and so peer review is failing to occur. If this could change, preprints would be indeed revolutionary.

Finally, Brazil is the largest Latin American country, and one of the largest in the world. Beyond the science, what do you think makes Brazil a special place to visit and go to as a scientist?

In parasitology, I think scientists will be able to see face to face the parasites they work with. I know people who have never known someone who is infected with any of these parasites. I think this reality exists in our country, which I think as a parasitologist is important. To understand the public health impact and this reality.

In terms of microscopy, we have access to a top microscopy infrastructure, and training is excellent.

In terms of personal experience, because things are harder for doing science, you become more creative. We are known for ‘gambiarras’ – finding improvised or alternative ways of doing things J

Brazil is also highly diverse in culture and nature. For example, Minas Gerais State is well known by its amazing food. Belo Horizonte is very attractive for those who like both nature and art. Close to here there are beautiful waterfalls and Inhotim (one of the largest foundations of contemporary art in Brazil). Belo Horizonte is also very close to cities like Ouro Preto and Mariana, where it is possible to appreciate the Minas Baroque art, especially the work of Master Aleijadinho.

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews

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