An interview with Rogerio Amino
Posted by Mariana De Niz, on 29 March 2022
MiniBio: Rogerio Amino is a group leader at Institut Pasteur, France, since 2015. He started his academic career as a teacher of robotics. He did his early studies at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, under the supervision of Prof. Sergio Schenkman. He later moved to France, at Institut Pasteur, to work with Prof. Freddy Frischknecht, Dr Paul Brey and Dr Robert Menard, where he was one of the pioneers in the intravital microscopy of malaria parasites. Among his discoveries he visualized the fate of sporozoites in the skin, including sporozoites invading blood and lymph vessels as well as skin cells, and together with Prof. Volker Heussler, he discovered the merosomes as they egress from the liver to begin the blood stage of malaria infections. In collaboration with Prof Fidel Zavala, he imaged for the first time T cells eliminating infected hepatocytes as well as, how antibodies neutralize sporozoites in the skin. Rogerio is an extremely versatile scientist whose approach to science is curiosity-driven, and with a point of view of wanting to know how things work and why. He emphasizes this is what makes him interested in studying biology and himself.
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?
I started as a computer programmer, and later I became a teacher of robotics. Since every complex mechanical machine is based on the combination of simple machines. I asked myself at this time whether the same was true for biology. So I decided to study biology at this time. I was curious about the principle of things – just as mechanical things, I wondered whether biological things also behave similarly . So my knowledge about Carlos Chagas, Oswaldo Cruz and Victor and Ruth Nussenzweig came much later.
You have a career-long involvement in microscopy and infectious diseases. What inspired you to choose this career path?
I was rather interested in biochemistry. I was naively searching for the secret of life. I was 15-18 years old and had lots of existential questions. I want to better understand what was a living being. I thought biochemistry would help me understand this. So I joined University at this time. I don’t consider myself a microscopist, but rather, I want to understand how and why things happen in the biological world.
My first contact with a microscope was in the lab of Sergio Schenkman in the University of Sao Paulo. I spent a lot of time there – he was my supervisor for the PhD and it was there the first place where I saw a professional microscope. In Sergio’s lab, he was working with Chagas disease. He asked me what I wanted to study, and I said I wanted to study animals – not parasites. He then offered me to work with the vector, the triatomine bug
. Soon I became more interested in understanding how the bug can bite a host, usually in the face, and remain blood feeding for up to 30 minutes without being noticed. I was sure they had something relevant in the saliva. So quickly I changed my subject: instead of studying the parasite, I was studying the saliva of the bug. But I didn’t use microscopes in general during my PhD thesis. I was rather doing a lot of biochemistry. I entered the area of microscopy, and specifically intravital microscopy because of Freddy Frischknecht. Around the time I finished my PhD, Freddy invited me to become a postdoc – but he was a postdoc – so I was going to be the postdoc of a postdoc around this time I got a professor position in the department of biochemistry in Brazil. I told the faculty in Brazil that I had already a position as a postdoc in France and they held the position for me. They told me I would just have to return to Brazil after doing my postdoc at Institut Pasteur in France. So when I came to France to work with Freddy, that’s when I started microscopy. Now as a PI, I understand intravital imaging is a powerful tool to determine where, when and how microorganisms are dynamically interacting with their hosts. Using fluorescent markers and mutants, an extra layer of cellular-molecular functional analysis can be introduced in this type of approach.
Brazil has renowned and historical institutions dedicated to research (and microscopy). Can you tell us a bit about how you chose your career path and what you have found uniquely positive about becoming a researcher in Brazil, from your education years?
I started to work very early as a teacher and my choices were shaped during this very special period like mentioned previously. I think one positive point about being a Brazilian researcher is the creativity. We are exposed to non-optimal conditions which force us to adapt and create solutions.
You are mentioning your age in many things, and you were very young. Were you a gifted child?
[Laughs] I think it’s all about balance. I used to play capoeira and had a lot of facility to do all the movements. And I had a friend who didn’t have this facility, but he was a harder worked. After five years he was doing movements I couldn’t do. I couldn’t reach his level of perfection. This taught me that although you could learn quickly, if you don’t put the extra effort, it is not enough. And also emotionally. You can have talent in one thing, and other things become fragile if you don’t pay attention to it. What I learned is that we are all gifted – emotionally, physically or intellectually, so it is good to be balanced.
Have you ever faced any specific challenges as a Brazilian researcher, working abroad?
I think it’s a problem that when you live in a place for too long, you think the entire world is like this. The biggest advantage of living abroad is to know new frontiers. Things that you never expected that could happen. I’ll give you an example: when I arrived in France, the amount of metro stations was something unconceivable to me. This opens the way in which you understand and see the world. It taught me that the world is much bigger than your own little world. So living in a « bigger » world with different codes and culture was my first challenge.. I came to France by chance really. When I was younger I got a fellowship to go to NIH, but at the time I had two young kids and my wife.. My supervisor at the time told me he had the same situation when he was young, and that it was better for me to search for a smaller city to do a postdoc with my family. Around this time, Freddy invited me to give a seminar, and it was the first seminar I ever gave in English and I did not speak French. I think the language was my second specific challenge.
Did you have many opportunities to interact with other Latin American groups, outside of Brazil?
I have collaborated with and supervised many Latin American scientists and students – Peruvian, Colombian, Brazilian, etc. I think it’s the proximity of the language. As a PI, for me it’s important to give opportunities to people -sometimes there is a lot of potential but not so much opportunities. I’ve organized workshops in Latin America and here, all for imaging. I also try to be present with my own group. I have my own micro-world here, that is small enough that I can exert my own positive action (or negative).
Who are your scientific role models (both Brazilian and foreign)?
My models are those I had the privilege to work with: Sergio my first scientific mentor – my model of creativity. I definitely learned a lot from him. Freddy my microscopy mentor, my model of an international scientist. Robert Menard my mentor during my early career at Pasteur. My model of writing. He has a sublime way of writing and a highly cultivated and interesting view of the world. Victor Nussenzweig and Ruth Nussenzweig, made such important contributions to the field, have trained so many people and had this burning curiosity and enthusiasm. . There are more people I admire. People that go against the current and the dogma, and that do things that they think are important. Overall, I think from all of one’s supervisors one can learn from what we think they do right and what they do wrong, so we can always have a lot of role models!
What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?
Everything that is moving, I can have fun with. I love things that are dynamic. But I don’t have a favourite one. Right now for instance I am trying to develop a way to see parasites through the cuticle of the mosquito using optical fibers and lego and we are trying to do correlative in vivo imaging with FIB-SEM. To answer your question, If I need to chose one it would be intravital microscopy using high-speed spinning disk confocal microscopes.
What is the most extraordinary thing you have seen by microscopy? An ‘eureka’ moment for you?
I remember I was dissecting salivary glands with Freddy and I told him “Freddy, this project is really boring. I am more interested in the interface between the host and the vector”. So one day I put some infected mosquitoes to bite the ear of a mouse, and using a very old microscope, I saw parasites moving in the ear skin. I called Freddy to come and watch. So from then I started focusing on this. The second most exciting thing was when I observed sporozoites invading blood vessels. I was recording parasites moving, and one day I saw a parasite invade. It was just before a lab meeting. I remember I told Freddy “I’m seeing very cool things in the microscope, I cannot stop, I won’t join the lab meeting”. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had recorded many movies before, and after I saw this event of invasion, I went back to my old movies and saw this happening many times. It was shocking to me that the brain recognizes easily only things that it understands and can conceptualize. I was a bit scared because this can happen with other things that you don’t know. Your brain can ignore things you don’t know. Ah and there is a third one, when I observed the merosomes with Angelika Sturm in a collaboration with Volker Heussler! Altogether, every time you see something new, you don’t expect it, so it’s great. You see things that nobody has seen.
What is an important piece of advice you would give to future Brazilian scientists? and especially those specializing as microscopists?
I am really not the best to give advice. I never wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be a professor. Being a scientist is not clear for me. When I was doing my PhD, I used to ask my supervisor, Sergio, why he was doing science every day. He couldn’t answer. At the end of my PhD he posed the same question, and I couldn’t answer either. I guess it’s because we like it. We work with the unknown, and the possibility to probe the unknown makes me happy. Once the unknown becomes known it becomes uninteresting [laughs]. This reminds me of one of my professors who told me that a paper is like a cadaver. Once you publish, the discovery is dead. While you are writing the manuscript it’s like the discovery is in the drawer, and it starts to smell bad, so you need to publish as soon as possible. What makes us happy is to discover really. I love being at the boundary of the known and unknown.
But getting back to advice: follow your heart, but this is hard because the heart is not precise. It’s intuition. There is a very nice word in Hebrew, for “paying attention”: put your heart. This level of awareness can increase your sensibility. It’s difficult to translate in a precise language. It is a feeling.
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?
It’s hard to say because I’m not there. I guess similar to the rest of the world. I think smaller devices linked to for instance mobile phones will allow us to scrutinize everything around us. Beyond that, I think it would be fantastic that we could use other types of energy to discover another world. Now we see structures that before we couldn’t so it would be great if we could one day see things we don’t even know. There might be a world that we cannot see. For instance very high frequency movements or energy flow.
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?
You want me to tell only the best parts and not the worse?
What is good in Brazil is the people. You have a huge mix of cultures. I remember when I got my letter of recommendation from Robert Menard, he said I was a combination of Brazilian and Japanese. I think it’s so that you bring all your culture with you -for example I was a professor of capoeira, not judo (I am descendent of japaneses). You cannot mix a sushi with a feijoada, but if you take the japanese rice, and you eat with feijoada, it’s delicious. Actually we do this at home! So you can take the good parts of the different cultures, and make something harmonious – less strict and more open that can incorporate both. I think that’s how I would define the people of Brazil. In terms of profession, I don’t work in Brazil since 2008, but from my previous experience Brazilis a country in development, consequently this generates a lot of demands and opportunities.