An interview with Gabriela Casanova

Posted by , on 5 October 2022

MiniBio: Gabriela Casanova is Head of the Electron Microscopy Unit at the Faculty of Sciences of the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay, a member of the executive committee of LABI, and president of the Uruguayan Society of Microscopy and Imaging (Sociedad Uruguaya de Microscopía e Imagenología). In 1979 she began her studies in Biological Sciences and almost simultaneously started to receive training with a first wave of experts in Electron Microscopy in Uruguay. She has been fundamental in the establishment of the Electron Microscopy Unit, which she heads. She is heavily involved in training a new generation of Uruguayan scientists in the expertise of EM. She is a strong promoter of career equality for core facility members, as well as being strongly involved in scientific communication and outreach. 

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

I was always very curious regarding nature – not just animals and plants, but nature and its phenomena: water, the sea, I love watching the sky at night, and storms. I was lucky that I had many uncles who had some form of connection with biology. My uncle Cirilo was an agricultural engineer, and I would travel a lot with him from Montevideo to Maldonado to see my grandparents. These trips were really enjoyable for two reasons. On the one hand, we would travel around the towns in-between both cities (because of his job). On the other hand, he would always tell me things related to the fields, the plants, the animals and the rivers. It was very entertaining, since I would learn and have someone who -if he didn’t have the answer- would guess and think with me on the most valid one. The other uncle, whom I referred to at the beginning, was my uncle Tito, who was a High School biology teacher in Maldonado and San Carlos. I would always have biology-related talks with him. I don’t know how this habit arose, but it was maintained up until our last conversation. He would always share his knowledge with an enthusiasm I will never forget.

There is also the influence of certain life events: when I finished primary school, the dictatorship in Uruguay was about to begin. Street clashes between the police and the students were frequent. In Montevideo, because it was the capital, the conflicts were more serious. This led my parents to make the decision of enrolling me in a high school in Maldonado, so I went to live with my grandparents and my aunt for a year. There, I had an amazing Biology teacher. At that time, there were fewer buildings, and our school was surrounded by nature. So, when the weather was good, instead of staying in the classroom this teacher would take us outside to explore nature “in situ”. This was great fun and reinforced my desire to become a scientist.

When I finished high school, I was concerned about which career to choose: I wanted to study Biology. I wondered if Medicine could be an alternative, but it wasn’t. Biological sciences were what truly appealed to me. I wasn’t alone with this “concern”, since a lot of my friends and classmates were wondering the same. It was cause for anxiety, since a number of those friends and I had been studying together for many years and wanted to know which of us would stay together during our Bachelor studies. One day, something extraordinary happened: my father came home and handed me a printed article listing all the careers that you could study, with a detailed syllabus for each subject and for every semester, together with the faculties in which they were taught. That’s how I discovered the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences and how I found a career called Bachelor in Biological Sciences. It comprised 36 subjects covering the whole field: Biochemistry, Biophysics, Cytology and Mathematics. That was the moment I knew this was the career I wanted to pursue. That article was very useful and the career of Bachelor in Biological Sciences truly captivated me.

You have a career-long involvement in cell biology and microscopy. Can you tell us a bit about this path and what inspired you to choose these paths?  Equally, what do you consider unique about the Uruguayan education system leading you to become a scientist?

What led me to pursue this path is very clear to me! It was because of a Cytology professor, Roberto García, who had trained as a physician, and who had the gift of knowing how to share knowledge in a very clear way. He was incredibly good at explaining cellular dynamics, and he would help us do something very important: connect the information we received from each subject to build a global view of the puzzle: the bigger picture. This would really help us understand everything much better. That same professor was a researcher at the Cell Biology Department of Instituto Clemente Estable. There they had a Siemens transmission electron microscope (which is now exhibited in the Institute hall as a historical piece). He showed us how it worked and we even got to observe some samples. Motivated by what I was seeing, I asked him what we had to do to learn how to prepare the samples and analyze them in the TEM. In a way, this showed our naivete: my friends and I had barely started university, we hadn’t even taken an exam yet, and we were already asking to work with an electron microscope. His response was: “Here’s what we can do. First you should pass the cytology exam, and then I’ll introduce you to the director of the Institute (Prof. José Roberto Sotelo, who had been a pupil of Prof. Clemente Estable), and we can start from there”. Of course, the first exam I took was cytology. I passed and, true to his word, I had the interview and started working as an honorary. I learnt a lot at Instituto Clemente Estable: from working with biological samples to light and electron microscopy image analysis. Since I was at the beginning of my studies, my main task was to process the samples and do almost everything else, except directly handling the microscope, since, they told us, “it was a very valuable and expensive piece of equipment”. They had a fear of young students working with the microscope and ruining it. However, Prof. Sotelo taught me a lot during that time: to observe, to analyze the samples thoroughly, to interrogate the sample, to try to find the answers in the images, and to dedicate time to all of it. He used to approach me with a sample (sometimes belonging to Prof. Clemente Estable himself) and tell me “what do you see? Tell me a story of what you see”.

At first, I was worried about not knowing how to do what he was asking, but he let me know it wasn’t a test.  The point was to learn to communicate and interpret what I was observing according to my previous knowledge, just like you do in science. It was also about enjoying the learning process. I was lucky to dabble into different areas within cell biology, and to be able to count on Prof. Sotelo’s guidance was amazing. There was a period of time when we would raise crickets to learn to dissect their gonads, in order to study meiosis and to recognize synaptonemal complexes. He would sometimes bring insect species I didn’t recognize to the lab. Once he brought a cricket species and asked me if I had ever seen anything like it. He said ‘they’re called mole crickets!’ Many of the things we did were not meant to be published, but to aid in our learning process. One of the things we studied was the role of innervation in the development of the uterus, which resulted in my first scientific paper as a coauthor. I did all of this as an undergraduate student. My job was mostly honorary, with my only income coming from a small scholarship from the Education and Culture Ministry. It’s important to mention this, since I came from a middle class family. My father was a professor at the Faculty of Architecture. My mother had trained as a nurse, but stopped working outside the home when I was born, in order to take care of me and my siblings, as was commonplace for women at that time. We didn’t have a TV or a car, so I used my scholarship money to pay for my bus tickets as well as my brother’s (who was helping me build a house). I wanted to have a house of my own, and so I had gotten into what was called a ‘mutual-help cooperative’ (the bank would grant the funding for construction, and we would provide the workforce). There I learnt how to read blueprints, while I continued my undergraduate studies and worked at Instituto Clemente Estable. Unfortunately, this all happened during the dictatorship, so there was a lack of positions open that would allow me to further my career. Democracy returned to Uruguay in 1985, and then different positions started to emerge to work at the University. Up until that point (during the dictatorship), most positions were appointed directly. The Dean of the Faculty was a representative assigned by the government, and he was the one who decided was to be given a teaching position. In any way, in 1985 (after the dictatorship) I got my Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences and, thanks to the years of work I had put in at Instituto Clemente Estable, I obtained a Tier 1 position at the Cell Biology Section of the Biology Institute at the Faculty of Sciences.

Can you tell us a bit about your path as a professional microscopist?

If I had to pinpoint the start of my ‘professional’ career as a microscopist, it would be the year 2000. In that year, the Faculty of Sciences (through a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank) acquired several pieces of equipment, including a transmission electron microscope. Dr. Nibia Berois was familiar with my career and fostered my involvement in the Electron Microscopy Unit. By that time, I was an Assistant Professor (Tier 2) in the Cell Biology Department, and I had 10 extra hours a week to work in electron microscopy. We built the Unit from scratch. This experience was truly challenging, especially being a woman, since female involvement in EM had been limited up to that point. Ten years passed before I was in charge of the EM Unit. Throughout my career, I have worked towards the achievement of three main goals, which I consider absolutely vital for high quality research in electron microscopy. The first is the development of human resources through training, so that students can learn not only to prepare the samples and obtain the images, but also to operate the microscope independently, which would further their scientific and technical careers. The second is the elaboration of projects that allow us to compete for funding for equipment acquisition, in order to widen our research possibilities. The third is to promote collaborations between different researchers and units using various types of microscopy. All of this would allow for state-of-the-art research, as well as better working conditions for technicians and researchers, who can teach and help one another, supporting the scientific process from sample preparation all the way to result interpretation.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned during my time at Instituto Clemente Estable, was to be generous with knowledge. During my career, I have met group leaders who promote the intellectual and academic growth of the people working for them. I believe that is the way it should be. We have to encourage people to reach their maximum potential, but sadly this is not always the case. During my formative years I have been fortunate to cross paths with many generous people. It was not, however, an easy journey. Graduate studies didn’t yet exist in Uruguay at the time when I was studying, so you had to go abroad. I graduated as a Biologist and a mom almost simultaneously, and in the subsequent years I went through some delicate health mishaps (which I have since fortunately overcome). It was during this difficult period of my life that Masters and Doctorate degrees were first set up. With a lot of other responsibilities on my shoulders, I managed to get a Masters degree. There was a time when I couldn’t lead the EM unit because I wasn’t an Adjunct Professor (Tier 3), a position I didn’t have access to since I didn’t have a Doctorate. That hindered my ascent within academia. The glass ceiling really exists, and that is a tough reality.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience leading a microscopy Unit?  

When we started this Unit, we had to put it together from scratch. We even designed the furniture. Although this was a big challenge at the beginning, it also gave us freedom. I had the opportunity to work with a TEM (which cost U$S 320 000), which was initially only operated by me. I had a lot of responsibility at that time. Because there is no formal training in EM in Uruguay, everyone who learned to use this tool did so by working together with people who already had experience. Those who were in charge of performing the electron microscopy analyzes per se, were men. However, in the Cell Biology Department of the IIBCE there was a female colleague (Mónica) who was fighting to gain autonomy in the use of the equipment. Meanwhile, I took notes on everything the men did (Sotelo and Roberto), and I would ask questions whenever I failed to understand something. It was with this previous experience, the manual for the TEM, and the help of Miguel Fernández (the representative for the company who sold us the microscopes, whom I met at Instituto Clemente Estable) and Alberto Pérez (the technician specializing in electronics at the Faculty of Sciences) that I began to acquire experience. I also had the opportunity of going abroad. The most enriching of these opportunities happened in 2002, at the Electron Microscopy Department of the University of Würzburg, Germany, run by Professor Georg Kröhne, and in 2006, at the Electron Microscopy Unit of the National Biotechnology Center in Madrid, Spain, run by Dr. José Carrascosa, under the supervision of Dr. Cristina Patiño.

Even though I value everything I’ve learned along my own path, I know there is still a lot to improve regarding access to certain areas of knowledge. While we are going through changes relating to gender equality, it is necessary to put efforts into balancing the access to opportunities. Those who know me are aware that I do everything in my power, in my own field, to support not only women, but students in general. What I feel is important is that they train as independent users. When someone knows the equipment from A to Z, it is less likely for them to make a mistake that could damage it. Training the future generation of scientists specializing in EM is one of the activities that I’ve enjoyed the most throughout the years. I can proudly say that some of those people have surpassed me in their knowledge of the microscopy field. 

Another activity in which I’ve invested a lot of my time has been the design of competitive projects enabling us to obtain funding to acquire new equipment, which allows us to stay up-to-date with the tools for diagnostics and research. This is essential to survive and grow within science. For this, the creation of networks has been and continues to be indispensable.

For me, being in charge of this Unit has been very challenging, and has required a lot of dedication and ingenuity for problem solving, since we’ve never had the necessary resources for sustaining it. It’s our own work, together with the income from the services we provide, that has made its maintenance possible. I will give some examples: – the annual budget given per lab in our Faculty is 1000 USD, which in one particular year was used for buying 3 Gilson micropipettes. Every other thing needed during that year was acquired through the payments obtained for our service. – Even 22 years after its foundation, the positions in the Unit are funded in exchange for materials, since we are at a deficit. – We are lacking much needed personnel due to insufficient budget. – Despite the high levels of experience and training of our members, there are few professional growth possibilities and well-paid positions available for them. This has to change.

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

Yes, effectively, for many years the members of our Unit have actively participated in the activities and congresses of the Inter-American Committee of Microscopy Societies (CIASEM). We have integrated its executive committee and presented conferences and posters with our results. There are many, I will only mention some of them. We have met Mexican researchers such as Luis Felipe Jiménez, Silvana Andrade and José Reyes Gasga; Wanderley de Souza, Marcia Attias, Eliana de Medeiros Oliveira and Kildare Miranda (Brazil); Adriana Condo, Raul Versaci, Adrian Abal (Argentina), Gladys Ocharán (Peru); Caribay Urbina, Gema González, Zoilabet Duque or Alan Castellanos (Venezuela); Magnolia Herrera (Colombia), Charles Lyman (United States); Raynald Gauvin (Canada); Lucía Gonzalez Núñez, Sandra Rodríguez Salgueiro and Nelvys Subirós (Cuba). We have also established collaborations with some of them such as Francisco Capani (Argentina) and Gerardo Vázquez Nin and Olga Echeverría (Mexico).

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

With the support of Dr. Benavente, I was invited to the Microscopy Biozentrum at the University of Würzburg. With the financial support of the DAAD, I was able to finance the trip to learn about sample preparation techniques that I did not know before. I also had the opportunity to train myself in the handling of electron microscope models different from ours, in scanning electron microscopy and in other peripheral equipment. In Germany, the main challenge was the language, of course.

Three years later I obtained a scholarship from the Carolina Foundation to travel to the National Center for Biotechnology in Madrid, where I received training in cryo-techniques for processing biological material for immune-detection studies, which would later allow us to analyze that material in our TEM. For the first time I had the opportunity to see a cryo-EM in operation and also to handle a series of peripheral equipment that allowed samples to be vitrified and processed at very low temperatures (below 0°C).

Upon my return to Uruguay and with the knowledge acquired during this stay, we built – together with Alberto Pérez and Luis Inchausti – a vitrification system that we are now perfecting. I also wrote a project to present to CSIC and obtain funds to purchase equipment for cryo-substitution, which we were able to obtain (after several attempts!). I learned a lot during this time.

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

Among Uruguayan scientists, I had the valuable opportunity to work with Drs. J.R. Sotelo, Roberto Garcia, and Monica Brauer early on in my career. Working with them was key to my early scientific career in cell biology research and the use of TEM as a tool for ultrastructural analysis.

Roberto tutored my research work to receive the title of Bachelor of Biological Sciences. When I wrote my master’s thesis, Monica helped me a lot by giving me valuable suggestions. Sotelo taught me the most important keys to learn to “look”, to interpret the images and obtain the information of what I am analyzing.

Dr. Omar Trujillo-Cenoz is also an expert in the field of EM and has been generous: he was always available to answer my questions and has agreed to participate as a teacher in microscopy courses organized by us, and his classes are really nice. He once told us an anecdote that shows how sometimes learning in these areas can be very hard. He had just arrived at Dr. Porter’s lab in the US, and Porter had just received an EM that was still packaged. Porter then handed the EM manual to Dr. Trujillo and told him to start assembling the new microscope.

Outside the country I would also like to mention Dr. José Manuel García-Verdugo, biologist, neuroscientist and electron microscopist from the University of Valencia, Spain. He has also always been willing to collaborate by contributing his experience to the research team that we formed with Dr. Anabel Fernández.

Finally, in the electron microscopy area I have mainly three more people in mind: two that I already mentioned, Dr. JoséCarrascosa and Prof. Cristina Patiño (head of the EM service and who has taught me everything about cryo-EM) . The third is Prof. Wanderley de Souza, from Brazil, who is not only an expert in various types of electron microscopy, but also a great communicator in this area, always willing to share his experience.

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? 

Although Uruguay has made progress in terms of gender politics and gender equality, as a country and as a society we are still far from achieving true equality. In daily life, there are still endless situations of imbalance, of what is expected of men and women. This extends beyond interpersonal relationships to employment relationships, including the positions available to men and women. In the collective ideology, there are still professions more suitable for men than for women and vice versa.

In the 1960s and 1970s in Uruguay, men were in charge of handling the microscopes and “doing science” and the women’s work was limited to preparing samples and washing the laboratory material so that the men could investigate. Although women have succeeded in reversing this gender imbalance to a large extent, there are still important gaps, for example in the number of women who access higher positions (despite carrying out for years tasks that exceed in responsibility and type of activity those inherent to the position they hold), as well as the age at which one accesses the 3 higher positions in the teaching scale (G°3 Associate Prof.; G°4 Aggregated Prof. or G°5 Titular Prof.).

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

I really don’t have one. Rather, microscopy (both light and electron) is my favorite tool for research. I believe that different types of microscopy provide different types of information. But overall, I love to see the cells, their organelles, their associations, etc. An example that I have of this complementarity is the collaboration that we established for years with a colleague and friend, Dr. Anabel Fernández, who trained in the laboratory of Dr. Omar Trujillo Cenoz. She was studying the nervous system and innervation regeneration in turtles (a longevity model). I was still working in the Cell Biology Section in the Faculty of Sciences and was part of the research group on embryonic development in fish of the genus Austrolebias These fish, called annual fish, are born, grow, reproduce and die in the course of just one year . So I proposed to her to work together and investigate neurogenesis in these fish. In 2006, another colleague, with experience in chemistry and molecular biology, Dr. Silvia Olivera, joined our line and simultaneously proposed us to collaborate in hers. By putting together our expertise, and analyzing the same topic from several different angles, we have enriched the interpretation of the results and the quality of our publications.

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

I’m not sure I can choose something as the most extraordinary because I have seen many extraordinary things. Nature always exceeds our imagination and always surprises us with new forms and answers. By working in a Service, I have had the privilege of analyzing a wide variety of samples. That’s where the amazing pictures come in: membrane formation in unexpected places; viruses or other microorganisms that we did not expect to find; the myriad forms that mitochondria take; the complexity and beauty of intercellular junctions. In reality, the “Eureka” moments arise when we understand the importance that what we are seeing has for the functioning of a cell or in the organism’s life. For example, by being able to observe and interpret the disposition and internal organization of the progenitor cells in the ventricular epithelium of the fish brain. It is also fabulous to discover the recovery capacity that cells can experience after a damage situation, and the data that the images provide us to demonstrate this effort is amazing.

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

If you can choose between working alone or in a team, always choose the latter. And when you do, choose to work with people you trust, and with whom you feel happy exchanging ideas and discussing science: people who know how to listen. In addition to this, the dedication and care you put into your work will be reflected in the fidelity and beauty of your results. Do your work with love, respect and dedication.

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 am concerned about the signs that indicate times of economic recession (and this will affect everyone but more so in countries where the economic situation is already difficult). However, I also see that in recent years many of us have made an effort to network and work together both locally (in Uruguay), regionally (in Latin America) and globally. The opportunities provided by CZI and the Gates Foundation have facilitated this and are opportunities not to be missed. We are people who work in science and we agree that together we can reach higher. I feel good to see that the various people who lead this effort agree on long-term goals and on the importance of working together and in coordination, of sharing knowledge and developing projects for collective benefit. I hope to be able to enjoy the coming years working for it and I will be very happy if I perceive that our goals are closer.

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

             Charles Darwin chose our coasts during his passage through Rio de la Plata to do many of his observations. Isn’t this a great reference? 🙂

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews

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