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An interview with Maria Eugenia Francia

Posted by , on 31 May 2022

MiniBio: Maria Eugenia Francia is a group leader at Institut Pasteur de Montevideo, focusing on Apicomplexan biology. Maria did her early studies (BSc and MSc) at the University of Idaho, where she started working on Apicomplexan biology. She then moved as a PhD student to the University of Georgia, where she continued this work. She later moved as an EMBO postdoctoral fellow, to the Instituto Gulbenkian in Portugal, where she focused on cell division. Since 2019 she established her own lab in Montevideo, where she focuses on the study of cell division of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. She currently also became an organizer of the Latin American Biology of Parasitism (BOP) course, which is a prestigious course focusing on parasitology, that aims to bring together young scientists from Latin America, and foster collaborations in the region. In addition to her scientific work and contributions, she is a member of a steering committee for equity, diversity and inclusion of the largest scientific society in Uruguay.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

I was born curious. I think this was the main motor behind my career choice. I have always been fascinated by the perfection of biological systems; learning about the intricacies of complex organisms, and how everything is intertwined to ensure survival, blows my mind every time I connect the dots.

We have a system whereby in high school, in our 4th year, there is something called ‘Orientation’ or paths, and you choose the path depending on what you want to study at University. We have the Scientific, Biological, and Humanities paths. So if you want to study Medicine, you’d need to choose the Biological area – there’s no way to enter Medicine via the scientific or humanities paths. Here, one has to make this complicated choice very early in life-  when you’re 15-16 years old. But for me it was clear I wanted to do science – I didn’t know exactly what: I liked Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, but what I truly loved most was Biology. When I chose the Scientific orientation, and realized Biology is not taught within this area, I realized I really missed it. So when I had to choose my BSc degree, the Faculty of Sciences (which is where you’d study the BSc in Biochemistry), fortunately accepts two paths for admission: the Scientific and the Biological paths. At that point I didn’t really know what a biochemist does, but for me the combination of Biology and Chemistry was very appealing. I think it was a great choice which I’ve never come to regret. Half-way through my high-school I went to the USA. Because of some discrepancies in the teaching programs of the USA and Uruguay, when I came back to do my BSc in Uruguay, I had some gaps in knowledge in Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics, so the first year was not easy. Still, I liked it a lot. I eventually went back to the USA, to finish my BSc. In the USA I worked with Prof. Gustavo Arrizabalaga, in whose lab I later did my MSc, and I was fortunate to have had the chance to work at the bench quite intensely already early on. My MSc was relatively swift because I was already involved in the project.

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

My ‘entry’ into parasitology is a bit unusual. My involvement in infectious disease began in Prof. Gustavo Arrizabalaga’s lab, where I started working on parasitology. He is Puerto-Rican, and his parents are Argentinian. Since I am Uruguayan, we already shared some interests (like football and mate), and since there was a connection, I didn’t feel shy to ask him lots of questions regarding research too. One day, while I was working as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant, he came with his family and he recognized me – and asked whether instead, I was interested in a job in research. He invited me to join his lab if I was interested, and that’s how I joined his lab. I loved it. This was my first real experience in a lab, where I could pursue my own interests. He gave me lots of autonomy and independence. And here’s where I realized that my interests were molecular biology and genetic manipulation. Later on in Prof. Boris Striepen’s lab, I identified that I was also interested in cell biology, cell division and microscopy. About microscopy in specific, I have always found it fascinating to observe cell division. It’s the ‘miracle of life’. For a long time I have used microscopy. In my PhD, super-resolution microscopy was gaining momentum. It was here I realized that physics and microscopy go hand in hand (I hadn’t joined those dots before). Towards the end of my PhD, Boris acquired a super-resolution microscope, and I was heavily involved in choosing and implementing it. At this point I became also very interested in the technology and engineering aspect of microscopy too. In my PhD I also came in touch with electron microscopy. I went to Montpellier for a couple of months and I learned a bit more about it from the great, and infinitely patient, Dr. Jean-Francois Dubremetz. I wasn’t aware microscopy was so fascinating until I started doing it myself held by the hand of awesome mentors.

Later on, for my postdocs I went first to the Gulbenkian Institute in Portugal, in the lab of Prof. Monica Bettancourt. I went there to implement CRISPR and do super-resolution microscopy. I was there for 2 years with an EMBO fellowship. I then received the offer to come back to Uruguay to have my own project.

Specific to my interests: I have focused for a long time now in understanding cell division. Cell division is particular in that it’s a highly dynamic process whereby many chronologically ordered process happen dynamically. The visual beauty of cell division is unparalleled, and when you can connect what this means in terms of the molecular biology of the organism, and actually see it, it becomes addictive. The tangible insight that microscopy gives into what is happening in the whole organism, at once, is unparalleled.

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

Uruguay is a small country, with limited resources devoted to science. This inevitably forces you to be creative; search for (usually lower-cost) alternative ways to achieve the same results. On the other hand, we are raised (academically speaking) knowing that collaborations are the best/most effective way to do world-class science. Being in Uruguay necessarily means you do efficient collaborative science, and that’s great. Also, Uruguay has very finely trained students – the quality of the students is superb, and if they chose to do science and stay in academia in Uruguay, they are usually very highly motivated and committed. 

I didn’t finish my BSc in Uruguay. In Uruguay, the BSc is 4 years and then a written thesis – so usually students take 5-6 years to complete the full degree. In my 3rd year I went to the USA and finished my degree there. Now that I supervise theses, I understand a bit more about how the system works in Uruguay. For their undergrad research project, students can choose a lab that they are interested in and has space to receive them. They can orient their degree towards the research questions they find most appealing. Nowadays there are very multi-disciplinary degrees, involving more than one Faculty (eg. Science, Humanities, Psychology, Medicine, etc.). So students can really choose the path they wish to take because it’s so flexible. Here, students must get involved in lab work before finishing their BSc degree, so the theses that I’ve supervised or evaluated when I’ve been a member of juries, are really high quality. In Uruguay there’s a philosophy that it’s the current researchers’ responsibility to train the future scientists of the country, and put all the resources at the disposal of those students so they can train.

Throughout your career you have belonged to various world-renowned centres of microscopy? Can you tell us a bit about your path, and how did this shape you as a microscopist both at home and abroad?

Yes! I was very fortunate to work at several places that have great microscopy facilities, where students were trained and allowed to become independent users. I learnt to do TEM and SEM, super-resolution microscopy, FRAP, live cell microscopy, and much more very early on in my career. To have all of these tools in hand, know how to approach them and who the best people doing them are, really helps when you think of new questions.

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

Yes! We have strong collaborations with groups in Argentina and Brasil. Most of them involve microscopy probably because we have great microscopy facilities right here at home. We do collaborate with TEM experts in Brasil even if we can do TEM in Uruguay – their expertise is so valuable!

In more general terms, the collaboration culture in Latin America is less strong than in other continents or world regions. This might be, form my point of view, due to various issues: for instance, the fact that we don’t know one another very well. We tend to look in other directions, when we search for collaborations (eg. USA, or European countries), and we tend not to think that perhaps there might be a great collaborator next door, or in our neighbouring countries. I think this has a lot to do with the prejudices that perhaps we tend to have in Latin America about the quality of the work that is done in our own region. There tends to be a perception that the quality of science/technology done in other regions (like Europe or the USA) is better than the one we do in our region, which is not necessarily true. I feel also people have opportunities to travel. So it’s difficult sometimes to find scientific colleagues from the region, in international conferences where you are most likely to meet North American or European scientists.. And when we do have the opportunity to study or work abroad, it’s generally not to go to the neighbouring country. Moreover, when scientists go abroad, and then return to Uruguay, they form stronger links to labs abroad, and tend to keep those as collaborators. It also has to do with the fact that perhaps the entire Latin American region is affected by the same issues (financial, political, etc). This sometimes represents limitations to what one can do in the region, and really pushes for collaborations with scientists outside Latin America. But I do feel we could and should do more to maximize the opportunities for collaboration in Latin America.

Maria with her lab

You’re the organizer of the Latin American BOP course. I feel this is part of the actions you were talking about, for promoting collaborations in the area. How did this idea come up, and how has the experience been?

            I feel I’ll understand more about this whole experience after the course has taken place. At the moment it’s the first time we will do it, and it has involved a vast amount of planification. I am co-organizing it with various people. The inspiration came from the BOP course, and also from what Lilach Sheiner and Omar Harb were doing with Middle East BOP (MeBOP) course. And I thought to myself “this has to exist for all regions of the world”. In Latin America we have different issues than those being addressed by MeBOP, for instance the lack of connection within the Latin American region, the relative lack of opportunities in several countries of the region, and the opportunity to interact with people elsewhere in the world. Logistically, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been rather complex: it was planned to take place in 2020 and we’ve had to postpone it twice, and raise funding each time all over again.

Related to parasitology in specific, Latin America is endemic to various parasites. Does this play a role in the focus that Uruguay (and your lab) gives to specific topics of research?

There’s a strong tradition in the region, of studying Trypanosoma cruzi. Fortunately, Uruguay is not endemic to vectorial transmission of Chagas for many years. But there is still a tradition for research in Uruguay where vertical transmission is still an issue. There are relatively few groups that work on other parasites, but we are aware that Apicomplexans are a big problem, in Uruguay, as in most of the rest of the world. Cryptosporidium is a big problem. Toxoplasma is a big problem too- it’s the number 1 cause of abortions amongst sheep, and has a prevalence of 50% in the human population. Neospora causes a very high number of abortions in cows, etc. Farming and cattle-related activities represent a major source for the economy of our country, so these parasites have a huge impact. The general perception though, is that it’s not a big deal, but it is. Some groups here study helminths for instance, like hydatid cysts. But overall, some of the strongest groups in terms of research, are those involved in T. cruzi. This is also because it’s such an important pathogen in the entire region, so perhaps for this area there is major chances of collaboration.

Having worked abroad, what were some of the things you found to be very different between doing research in Uruguay, and abroad?

Politics matter a lot in Uruguay. Whose friend you are, and whose friends your friends are friends with can either make you or break you. This is probably true everywhere else in the world at some scale. But as a student I was very protected from this, and did not know how much human interactions could condition your work.

Also, the population of graduate students is very different in Uruguay from what you would find in the US for example. In many cases students plan tostay in the country for good. They want to finish their degrees, but they do not necessarily plan to leave the lab when they do. So, you have to plan differently, and think long term. This has an obvious up side which is that students are usually super experienced and independent and their training is more like an investment. But on the other hand, everyone’s careers and futures are a bit on you.

            Specific to microscopy, when I was abroad, the best thing for me was to learn how microscopes work. Amongst the most valuable things I learned was how to take an image that was publication-worthy, and how to use microscopy to address scientific questions. I try to teach this to my own students: to have it very clear in their minds what scientific question they are asking before they go to the microscope, what type of microscopy they need to answer this question, what type of sample preparation, and what type of acquisitions they have to do to answer this question, eg. in terms of resolution, magnification, number, for quantifications, etc. I want them to know how images will transmit specific pieces of information within a story. Also, how they can make the most out of the time and resources they have at their disposal when it comes to microscopy usage. I think that having a mentor sitting by your side at the microscope, who can explain to you these things is invaluable, and I have tried to do this with my own group. I owe this to Boris for instance – he was vital in my formation as a scientist. He taught me to think in the context of microscopy. Sometimes perhaps my students might feel I’m very picky, but I find this a vital part of their training.

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

            I was very lucky – I was always a member of groups that were both inclusive and diverse. In all groups where I am, there were always other foreigners, including Latin Americans. Perhaps I was never in a group where there were other Uruguayans, but there were Argentinians or Brazilians or from other regions. This helped a lot, because I didn’t have to face many prejudices that I would otherwise have if the groups hadn’t been either inclusive or diverse. I was lucky to be in groups in which it didn’t represent a huge challenge to be Latin American or a woman. This had to do a lot with my mentors –  Gustavo Arrizabalaga, Boris Striepen, and Monica Bettancourt. Monica as a woman believes a lot in empowering women, and so I learned from her.

In other terms, well, I did face some prejudices or ignorance. I was many times patronized by people who had no idea about me or my background, but mistakenly assumed “I needed” help because I was a young woman coming from Latin America. Otherwise, some people don’t know where Uruguay is. Some people corrected me when I’d say I’m from Uruguay “no, you mean you’re from Paraguay”, and I was like “no, that’s a different country”. Or questions like “but how come you’re white?”, or “are there Universities and science in your country?”. It’s true that Uruguay is a small country, but some people have preconceived notions of how a Latin American person should look like, or whether we speak English, or things like this.

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

I have many. I admire all my previous mentors (Gustavo Arrizabalaga, Boris Striepen and Monica Bettancourt) profoundly for different reasons. And I was very lucky to also have many “informal” mentors throughout my career; they were all wonderful scientists but most of all, they were wonderful leaders and human beings. For instance when I was in Montpellier, I learned from Jean-François Dubremetz, he is like the father of electron microscopy in Apicomplexans. He was excellent as a mentor. Steve Heyduk was in my thesis committee and he helped me a lot. Philippe Bastin now also gives me some orientation on how to be a PI – at a time when one rarely receives any orientation at all.  

Lately, I look up at successful women for models to emulate. If I had to choose one person to highlight, I look up at Maryse Lebrun as a role model a lot. Maryse is a very successful scientist, and I of course admire her for that – but she is also a wonderfully kind and generous person and a great friend, who has managed to lead a healthy personal life whilst in parallel building a stelar career. And she has been very supportive of my independent career. Like Maryse, Boris has also been extraordinary in terms of supporting my independent career as a researcher. Lilach Sheiner has also been very supportive and is a good friend, so I have been very lucky in general.

What is your opinion on gender balance in Uruguay, given current initiatives in the country to address this important issue. How has this impacted your career?

Uruguay is not very different from most other parts of the world.

Women access scientific careers equally, and they more or less represent half of the studentship/workforce, until they reach their Master’s degrees. We have issues getting women through their Master’s, into and through their PhDs, and up to management/group leading positions.

There are now gender balance requirements that most grant-awarding programs need to abide to in Uruguay, and gender equality committees are acting at institutional levels trying to guarantee fair hiring and promotion. I think this has positively impacted imbalances, but it will take a while until we see this reflected in true representation – not only of women, but of all gender identities. And generally speaking, there is much more awareness of the issues faced by women, which has started to contribute toward closing gaps. But there’s still much to do.

To be honest, I wasn’t truly aware of – and hadn’t paid attention to – gender differences early on in my career. If anyone had asked me right after my PhD if I had ever faced or heard about gender discrimination, my answer would have been no. But I think once you see it, you can’t unsee it and you realize really how prevalent it is. In academia, we are permanently exposed to microaggressions that are completely “normalized”. People accept them as a “normal” thing and move on. Since I came to Uruguay, I realized there is a lot of activism of feminism, both at a country level, and within academia. I wasn’t conscious of the magnitude of the problem. Now I am a member of an Equity/Diversity/Inclusion committee in Uruguay. I can now more easily identify situations whereby women face aggressions and codes are broken, and limits are trespassed in the name of gender. These trespasses are very subtle because they are so ingrained in our everyday life. We don’t even see them as aggressions anymore, which is even more worrying. For me, having worked with Monica Bettancourt was very positive. People used to tell me “working for a woman will be difficult, because women are difficult and moody” – there was this huge prejudice, which I is completely wrong. I had a wonderful relationship with her. But it’s incredible how people view women in positions of leadership. And now I see that this misconception of “moody” and “unstable” has nothing to do with gender. It is truly misplaced. I feel also as a woman I was relatively protected in the groups I was in. I feel because they were prestigious groups, this inherently grants you some respect from the scientific community – which might not be what everyone experiences.

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

            I love all the spectrum and wealth of possibilities. I love TEM, and I can spend endless hours just looking at ultrastructure. I love seeing cell complexity, so TEM is what gives this level of detail. On the other hand, light microscopy is an extremely powerful toolkit as a whole.

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

Cell division is my all-time weakness. I have seen it many times, under transmitted light, in fluorescence live microscopy, by TEM, by super resolution, even in ultra-structurally expanded samples! And I find it fascinating every time, in every format.

Connected to this, an Eureka moment for me was to observe spindle assembly triggered in Xenopus oocyte extracts, using fluorescent tubulin. All those spindles assembling in perfect synchrony, in solution, like a perfect choreographed dance, blew my mind.

But I’ve also seen other fascinating things – with FRAP for example. To see fluorescence dynamics and test hypotheses like this is truly fascinating.

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

You have great allies here! Microscopy is growing steadily in the country. Cutting on costs and recruiting super well trained microscopist has made it possible to do amazing microscopy in Uruguay. Reach out. Come, see what’s here and what can be done.

Uruguay is like any other place in the world. Science has something that is a bit inherent to it (despite it being rather cruel)- which is the lack of work stability. The main difficulty lies in having a permanent position and being able to plan your life and settle without such stability. If you first settle, then you sacrifice the range of work and opportunities you will have access to. So my first piece of advice is to face science with realistic expectations: it’s not an easy world to navigate in. But it’s not easy for anyone, anywhere in the world. Not in Uruguay, not anywhere else. This is important to know: there is sometimes this unrealistic notion in Latin America that if one goes to the USA or Europe, we will automatically have this stability. This is not true. It’s a competitive career everywhere. There are other reasons why the international experience is worth it, but stability is not one of them. I believe also it’s important to be flexible. If a scientist abroad wants to come back to Uruguay, the flexibility exists to go abroad again. Nothing is set in stone. Another thing is that opportunities exist- it’s a matter of finding them. I think Uruguay is doing great in terms of infrastructure, in terms of human resources (the quality of the students and senior scientists), in terms of access to technology, in terms of import/export of reagents and bureaucracies. Finally, never lose the sense of collaboration: science is collaborative – we’re not a one-person island: one cannot do everything on one’s own. So keep this in mind as a PI and as a student.

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

I think intravital and deep tissue imaging will continue revolutionizing our understanding of host-pathogen interactions. Cheaper ways of doing super resolution and fluorescent dyes have also been game changers, and will continue impacting life sciences. I hope we can benefit from all of these. If the microscopy tools are there, we can ask the questions!

At present, we are starting to use organoids as an alternative to using animals, and I am extremely interested in this. Super-resolution is also pending in Uruguay – at present there is no super-resolution microscope here, but a low-cost alternative is expansion microscopy, which we have tackled successfully. This is a huge leap in the quality of images we can acquire.

Beyond the science, what do you think makes Uruguay a special place to visit and go to as a scientist?

People. There are really amazingly well-trained scientists in Uruguay. People are resilient and resourceful- there is much to be learnt from how solid scientific institutions were founded and persist in an ill-funded scientific system. Uruguay scientists are generally super committed, motivated and in love with their work. They are fantastic to discuss ideas with! And there is already a critical mass of excellent scientists. I feel if ever we lose excellent students or scientist it’s because of the relatively low remuneration (monetary and in terms of feasible projects with challenging research questions).

Also, come for the beach, the football craze, the mate, and the dulce de leche.           

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews

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