An interview with Victoria Alonso
Posted by Mariana De Niz, on 30 August 2022
MiniBio: Dr. Victoria Alonso is currently a Researcher at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Rosario (IBR-CONICET) and an Assistant Professor in the Parasitology Department of the School of Biochemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences (FCByF) of the National University of Rosario. She is starting her own line of work focusing on studying the role of α-tubulin acetylation in the dynamics of the cytoskeleton in the flagellate protozoan Trypansoma cruzi, particularly in the characterization of the enzymes responsible for this post-transcriptional modification. These are potential target mechanisms for the development of new trypanocidal drugs.
She has a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from the FCByF of the National University of Rosario and completed her Ph.D. at IBR-CONICET under the supervision of Dr. Esteban Serra. She did a postdoc in medicinal chemistry at the Research Institute for the Discovery of Pharmaceuticals of Rosario (IIDEFAR-UNR) under the supervision of Dr. Ricardo Furlan. She has mentored undergraduate students that are now performing their PhDs abroad or working in industry. She is currently the Ph.D. supervisor of Gonzalo Martinez Peralta. She has been involved in diverse outreach activities and has participated in several science communication initiatives locally and internationally.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
I was a very curious child but I do not have a defining moment when I decided to be a scientist. I am from a family of medical doctors, all the way to my great-grandfather, as far as I know. My mom is an anatomist/ pathologist, and we lived in a small city, where she had her own lab. I basically grew up in that lab! So since my childhood I became familiar with histological sectioning. Then as a teenager – between 14 and 17, I had to work in the mornings in my mom’s lab. I used to do staining of Pap smears and other types of samples. I had to wake up early (which is never fun for a teenager), but I received payment for my work. I learned how to work in the lab, around samples and microscopes, and I enjoyed it very much. Also, during high school, I participated in the National Chemistry Olympiads. I think that defined my path a bit: I realized I didn`t see myself as a medical doctor for example, but I wanted to study something related to biology, chemistry, and health. When I entered University, although I wasn’t an expert nor using complex equipment like the microtome, I knew how to do paraffin embedding, histology preparations, histology staining, and how a hematoxylin/eosin stain worked, and so on. The degree I did was a BSc in Biotechnology, and it is rich in Biology, Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry. It was only here that I became aware of what a scientist does, and all the possibilities. I did all my earlier studies in Rosario, as my whole family studied here. The University is public so there are no expenses in terms of education, which is a very positive trait of Argentina.
You have a career-long involvement in cell biology, parasitology, and microscopy. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to choose these paths?
During undergraduate and graduate school, the practical sessions I enjoyed the most were those involving microscopy, so my interest towards microscopy began at this point. Regarding parasitology, I wasn’t immediately drawn to it. My first approach to parasitology happened when I was doing my final project for my BSc degree (which in Argentina is 1 full year of practical work). It was during this time that I chose this project, one which involved work with T. cruzi. This was in the lab of Dr. Esteban Serra, where I also did my Ph.D. My project involved the characterization of Bromodomain-containing proteins in Trypanosoma cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas disease. I arrived and had to become familiar with the literature and what this parasite was – at the time I only knew it was an intracellular parasite, but that was about it. In the BSc in Biotechnology, the theory covered some information on infectious diseases, but not specifically on parasitology. I think this was better covered in degrees like Biochemistry or others more related to the medical field. Also during my Ph.D., I earned an assistant teaching position in the parasitology department, and I think that’s when I fell in love with parasitology – including protozoan parasites, helminths, arthropods (both parasitic and vectors of other parasites), and many more things. So, from a very early stage in my career, I got involved in cell biology, parasitology, and microscopy.
Can you tell us a bit about what you have found uniquely positive about becoming a researcher in Argentina, from your education years?
The main positive aspect of Argentina is its public and free access to Universities, I was able to complete my Bachelor`s degree without having to pay anything. BSc degrees in Argentina are quite long – the degree in Biotechnology is 5 years long, and the last year involves a small thesis, carried out fully within a lab. So, although we don’t come out of the BSc degree as fully independent scientists, we are able to work with some independence in the lab. As opposed to different countries, in Argentina, to begin a Ph.D. you don’t need an MSc degree, mostly because the last year of the BSc fulfills the same requirement. The degree can even extend longer, beyond 5 years, sometimes because of this final year project. I feel anyone who completes the degree is well prepared.
Also, I think the best words to describe researchers in Argentina are resilience and resourcefulness, we have had ups and down in the economy for as long as I can remember but, we somehow manage to keep going. This also translates to science, different governments have different opinions about how important is to fund the scientific community so I`ve had ups and downs in my career because of it, but nevertheless, I feel very lucky I was able to live through my entire scientific career in my home country studying a disease that has a direct impact in our region.
For me personally, these economic ups and downs affected me during the transition between my postdoc and the independent group leader position. Usually, the salary of researchers is paid by CONICET (which is a governmental organization), so you have to apply to be a researcher in CONICET, with your CV and proposals. Two separate commissions of scientists evaluate the proposals and decide who will become a researcher- often with permanent positions. In the year I applied, the government in Argentina changed, and the amount of positions available for group leaders was cut by half. Despite having a good application, I wasn’t selected that year. Luckily I had a lecturer position (in parasitology) and continued working on teaching and research until I was able to apply again and eventually got selected in 2019.
Once you chose microscopy as a profession or main discipline, can you expand more about how your career has progressed in this line?
The first confocal microscope of Rosario arrived when I was an undergraduate student and we were one of the first research labs to use it. During my Ph.D., I took several fluorescence microscopy courses. Then our research institute acquired a new confocal microscope and we were able to perform more complex experiments. And even now I am always studying. This year I attended an EMBL image analysis course, to incorporate machine learning and automatize image analysis. A few months ago I started applying expansion microscopy in T. cruzi and we are analyzing our mutant lines using this technique. Regarding image analysis, it’s a discipline of its own, where you have to be constantly getting up to date, constantly learning, and constantly putting your knowledge into practice. Otherwise you forget things, or can quickly become obsolete. But image analysis is great. I am now implementing a few things to automate the process of quantification in our parasitology projects.
Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as a researcher involved in microscopy?
I feel it’s impossible to work on parasitology and not do microscopy! It’s such a vital tool, starting from identification and diagnosis to more complex questions. I work with microorganisms every day, and pretty much every day I use microscopy. Also, I teach practical sessions of parasitology, where the microscope is always present. Regarding my research line, I focus on studying cytoskeletal proteins of T. cruzi (acetylated tubulin), where we use different techniques to genetically manipulate the parasite and study phenotypes that we then observe through confocal microscopy and electron microscopy (TEM and SEM).
Did you have many opportunities to interact with other Latin American groups, outside of Argentina?
We have collaborations with Latin American groups, especially in Brazil. We have a long-lasting collaboration with Dr. Cristina Motta, from Universidad Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Cristina is an expert in T. cruzi electron microscopy and we have published several papers together. Chagas disease is endemic in Latin America so many research groups that study Trypanosoma cruzi are located in this region and we are a small community with a lot of interaction. I have been lucky to have funding to establish these collaborations. I am a member of the Argentinian Society of Protozoology, and we have a lot of interactions with people from other countries working on parasitology. I never had a problem establishing collaborations: it’s easy to contact people and everyone has had a good disposition and feedback.
Have you ever faced any specific challenges as an Argentinian researcher, working abroad?
I`ve always felt very welcome in all the labs I have visited. Sometimes, coming from a Latin American country and being a woman I felt a bit apprehensive to speak my mind but with time I learned to overcome it. Also, a personal challenge for me was the language. I studied English and can speak it fluently, but it takes a while for me to feel comfortable or not feel out of place. Until then I struggle with forming my ideas and finding the best way to express them in a language that is not mine. Especially earlier in my career, when I attended international congresses, I sometimes felt I lacked the tools to express myself correctly or accurately. Later in my career, this fear faded a bit. Now I can speak to anyone.
Regarding being a woman, Argentina is a very male-dominated society but luckily in the last few years, there was a pretty big change in the mindset of our society regarding gender roles. This was in part set in motion during the discussion of the legislation on legal abortion which was approved in 2020. When I was studying for my BSc degree, there was a general feeling that male teachers ‘knew better’, which of course later in my career I realized was not true. It took a while to change ‘that chip’ and feel comfortable expressing myself with confidence.
Who are your scientific role models (both Argentinian and foreign)?
The first people I’d like to mention are my mentors: I always felt supported and heard during my Ph.D. and postdoc and now I try to do the same with my students. Then, I work with two amazing women scientists and mothers, Julia Cricco and Pamela Cribb, who are examples to me. From abroad, I have many scientific role models or people I admire, especially in the field of parasitology and microscopy like Cristina Motta.
What is your opinion on gender balance in Argentina, given current initiatives in the country to address this important issue. How has this impacted your career?
During grad school, as a fellow, and as a research assistant, I found that in the world of biology and medicine, the majority were women, but as you move up the career ladder, this relationship is reversed and when you look at leadership positions, most are held by men: full professors, deans, institute directors, and group leaders. This means that we have fewer examples to follow – and that a glass ceiling exists. Luckily in Argentina, the president of the main public scientific organization, CONICET, is a woman. I think this kind of example strongly impacts how young women scientists project themselves. Moreover, she is prioritizing many issues addressing gender balance.
Personally, I never suffered specific gender-based aggression, and I don’t feel I was ever in a situation where I was discriminated against or ‘shut down’ for being a woman. But it is true that at University one meets many people with different views and different realities. Now that I think in retrospect to some experiences I had or witnessed when I was younger, I realize that some things weren’t quite right. For instance, I had teachers who would look at your cleavage or would call all women ‘princess’. At the time I didn’t quite know why, but it made me and other women colleagues feel uncomfortable. I think this has a generational component too: young people now are much more aware of any forms of gender violence or bias, and are more ready to denounce things that perhaps in my generation, we were more ‘scared’ of denouncing – and probably would have not been taken seriously.
I never thought that women were less capable than men, something that I thank my parents for and my mentors who always encouraged me during my Ph.D. and postdoc. Therefore, I never felt held back by gender stereotypes. But looking at my career from a distance, I see that I managed more than once not to give importance to circumstances that could have stopped me. I had my oldest daughter during grad school and as a single mum, it was sometimes a struggle to continue studying but again thanks to my family and all the wonderful colleagues and friends I made during that time, I was able to achieve my goals.
What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?
Fluorescence microscopy for sure, I think there is a lot of art in combining different fluorophores and acquiring confocal images for example. I also love processing images and identifying subcellular structures with different markers. I would love to do live imaging, but we have the limitation that we cannot bring live parasites into the microscope rooms due to biosafety levels. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to go to Chris Graffenried’s lab to do live imaging.
What is the most extraordinary thing you have seen by microscopy? An eureka moment for you?
Last year, I optimized the expansion microscopy protocol for Trypanosoma cruzi, the first time it worked and I saw the cytoskeletal ultrastructure of the parasite, I was really excited, and I immediately send the pictures with my cell phone to our lab WhatsApp chat 😂. Throughout my research career, I remember many other moments of joy looking down the microscope, especially when I was for example seeing for the first time a “strange” phenotype in mutant parasites.
What is an important piece of advice you would give to future Argentinian scientists? and especially those specializing as microscopists?
Collaborate as much as you can, attend courses abroad to train on specific techniques, and most importantly: don`t give up. It’s not an easy road but it is very rewarding and you’`ll meet friends for life along the way. Due to our geographical location, we need to collaborate, otherwise we are very isolated. Sometimes it’s difficult due to lack of funding, but virtual and hybrid conferences and courses have come a long way to bridge this gap. As we say in Argentina, as scientists, we have to ‘keep rowing’.
Where do you see the future of science and microscopy heading over the next decade in Argentina, and how do you hope to be part of this future?
Nowadays, new alternatives to increase resolution using optical microscopy are a trend. Working in an LMIC, where resources are sometimes limited, and state-of-the-art or sophisticated equipment is hard to acquire and these are alternative techniques I think will allow boosting our research lines and stay competitive with countries of the “Global North”. I am beginning to explore Expansion Microscopy as an affordable alternative to super-resolution methods. Hopefully, I can continue this line of work to apply this technique in T. cruzi as well as to other organisms through ongoing collaborations with Argentinian research groups. Also, our University in Rosario is about to receive a super-resolution confocal microscope acquired through a funding program from the Argentinean Ministry of Science, I am very enthusiastic about it and we can´t wait to image our parasites with it. As I mentioned earlier, investment in science is almost fully dependent on the government, and luckily the current government is very supportive of science. This has positively impacted infrastructure and the acquisition of equipment across the Universities. We are also currently adapting a SEM microscopy, mostly used for research in material science, to cell biology. We are also waiting for components to use TEM microscopes on biological samples. Through a foundation, we acquired a 3D printer, which will allow us to apply this technique to many different research areas – moreover there is a lot of open science related to 3D printing – you can easily find prototypes for the things you need. Regarding image analysis, the country is becoming more organized in terms of data organization and data storage. But image analysis per se, as a field is a bit lagging behind in the country. We need human resources capable of establishing this and taking it to the next level. It’s all step by step! Amazon has made some proposals for instance – we have one collaboration in Argentina but that’s for something different – this computational capacity is used for drug screening, but it sets a precedent that similar collaborations can be done for imaging.
Beyond science, what do you think makes Argentina a special place to visit and go to as a scientist?
We have such wonderful landscapes in Argentina, mountains in Patagonia and Mendoza, more desertic areas in the North West region, and the Iguazu waterfalls, it’s a very diverse country. In terms of research, besides of what is going on in Argentina, we have a permanent station in Antarctica, devoted to oceanographic and climate research. We have beautiful seas (despite being cold), jungles, and the Andes which we share with our neighboring country, Chile. If you like sports, there’s something for everyone! Water sports, hiking, skiing, climbing, etc. Food and wine are excellent too! Tango is great, we like dancing, going out, etc. We are very friendly and easygoing, and all my foreign friends that have visited fell in love with Argentina and its people. And last but not least we have, dulce de leche, alfajores and mate!!