An interview with María Isabel Yuseff

Posted by , on 15 November 2022

MiniBio: MiniBio: Dr. Maria Isabel Yuseff is a group leader at the Pontificia Universidad de Chile since 2014 and is currently a member of the EMBO Global Investigator Network. Her lab combines cell biology and immunology to understand how B lymphocytes are activated. Maria Isabel studied her BSc in Biochemistry at the University of Concepcion. She then went on to do a PhD in Cell Biology in the group of María Paz Marzolo, after which she went to Institut Curie as a postdoctoral fellow. It was during this postdoc where Maria Isabel found a passion for Microscopy, which she has incorporated into her research since. 

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

It might be complex to narrate this and point out specific things, but I’ll give it a go. There were probably two main things: the first was the educational environment – the first time I entered a Biology and Chemistry lab, where we could not just learn the theory but also do experiments, this was extremely inspiring for me. This early on in my childhood, I realized I enjoyed observing nature, I loved asking myself questions and I loved experimentation. I found it stimulating to be able to predict the outcome of an experiment, based on observations, and to predict what would happen when we would change some variables. The second main inspiring point was my family environment – we were a big family: 4 siblings and my parents. Specifically, my father, who is a structural civil engineer and comes from the area of Mathematics, he would always encourage me to learn and to have fun learning. I embraced this very early on – as a child he would help me think, raise questions, test hypotheses. I think I was also inspired by the stories he would tell us about science in general – for instance the ancient astronomers, how planets were first observed, etc. I became fascinated with the idea of scientific discovery. I didn’t see this as something distant and foreign to me, but rather as something familiar which motivated me. My father always admired the new discoveries that emerged in the scientific field. When he studied at the University, there were no computers yet, but now at 80+ years of age, he is a computer savvy and loves computers and their impact in society. From this, I think I found a love for technology and pushing the frontiers of knowledge. I think all this was fundamental for what I ended up choosing as a career. I used to love both, Chemistry and Biology – perhaps I found Biology more intuitive, but I still found Chemistry fascinating. I think Chemistry is fundamental to understand cellular processes, but I didn’t want to study sterile Chemistry: I didn’t want to become a Chemical Engineer – I wanted to focus on Chemistry of Life. So, I ended up studying a BSc in Biochemistry.

You have a career-long involvement in cell biology, immunology and microscopy. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to choose these paths?  

In the early stages of my career as an undergraduate, I focused more on the Chemistry side of things. I used to work in Chemistry labs during my weekends or holidays. Then I started doing internships in labs focusing on Microbiology   . Afterwards, I did my thesis to obtain my degree of Biochemistry in a lab studying plants -intracellular transporters in plant cells. I finished my BSc degree, and then I decided to do a PhD. Like in the USA, the first year of the PhD is mostly lecture-based, and during this period I attended an inspiring course on Cell Biology, which intrigued me. I was very impressed to see life in cells. This motivated me and so I chose to do my PhD in Cell Biology – focusing on regulation of protein trafficking, how certain receptors are moved in response to stimuli, and how signaling controls these movements. I loved this world. At this point I was working with larger cells: epithelia, fibroblasts and other cells where one could see the various elements in motion. Here I used microscopy, but access to microscopes in Chile in those times was rather limited. We had perhaps a confocal microscope or so but not the range of tools that exist nowadays. I finished my PhD and looked for a postdoctoral position. During my PhD rotations, I had been in an Immunology lab, and the PI was great! At this point I needed new challenges and this PI introduced me to a Chilean PI, Ana Maria Lennon, who works at Institut Curie, and she offered me to do a postdoc in her lab. Here I worked on B lymphocytes. I suddenly went in my career from giant cells to the very small 🙂 B cells, which are very difficult to study from a structural level. I was inspired because I was learning something new and I was applying all my previous knowledge in Cell Biology to address questions I thought were fundamental in immune cells. At Institut Curie is where I got fully immersed in the field of Microscopy. I had accessibility to a huge range of microscopes, and I gained expertise in sample preparation and labeling. This was the point of no return for me in my path towards Microscopy. I was there for 6.5 years as a postdoc and then I applied for a PI position in Chile and was successful. I became a PI towards the end of 2013, around the time when I was expecting my 2nd child. So actually, we can say 2014. I’ve been leading my own lab for 8 years 🙂

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

I had a hybrid education. I studied my primary school up to 8th grade, in Canada. Chile around that time was facing difficult times and my family moved to Canada. At school we were lucky to be in labs with the infrastructure and resources of a developed country. I was lucky to have had access to all this at such an early age. When I came back to Chile, in my BSc in Biochemistry in Concepcion, I also had access to good labs, and I have good memories of having had excellent professors. Although for instance I would have loved to study more cell Biology early on in my career, but I feel I had the chance to approach this area of research later on. And the University was beautiful, with a multi-cultural environment, and very diverse areas of knowledge. Now my young daughters are in primary school, and I ask them whether they have practical labs. They do, and they love it, but I think more could be done at this early level in Chile. We need to invest more on this. The focus is still on the theory because of the limited resources. 

Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as a group leader at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile?

It’s very challenging! I must say the Pontificia Universidad Catolica has excellent infrastructure, and its faculty of sciences is one of the best in Latin America. The microscopy unit is very well equipped, we have enough space, and excellent resources. But when I arrived back in 2014, I had to start my lab from scratch. I had a lot of support from my colleagues and the University. Also, during my first year as an independent researcher, I was lucky to be able to recruit a PhD student. This is uncommon for a young incoming PI – usually you can recruit undergraduate students, but not PhDs. This student has now graduated and is now doing a postdoc at Institut Curie 🙂 This was a nice experience. In general, I have been very fortunate in being able to recruit very good scientists among the students. However, I don’t have postdoctoral researchers and all the research in my lab is done by the PhD students. It’s hard to recruit postdocs here, because it seems that many students, after their PhD, prefer to go abroad rather than explore local options. It’s difficult to retain talent here. I’ve just had one postdoc who is excellent and is still linked to my lab, but she’s now looking for independent positions.

Maria Isabel Yuseff and her group.

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

I think there’s room for improvement. I feel in Latin America we have excellent research groups. I have colleagues that I know from my time at Institut Curie, who were from Argentina or Brazil, but even though we are working in similar areas, we don’t collaborate as often as I’d like to. We have meetings in various Latin American countries, covering the various disciplines of biology, but a solid network is missing. We need to make those networks more robust in Latin America. 

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

I try to value all the experiences I had in each lab I have worked in. I am grateful to have joined each of those labs, rather than stayed in a single one for all my career. In every group I found leaders and mentors who gave me a very valuable scientific education and exposed me to different ways of doing science They also shared their life experiences as scientists and gave me very good advice. I recognize in all of them valuable attributes that have helped me in my career. Nowadays I also see great value in women role models. There’s Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz whose work I follow and really admire – she’s a microscopist and a cell biologist who studies organelle dynamics, and who has brought the study of cell biology to a whole new level by pushing the frontiers of science and technology. She’s an inspiration! I have heard her talks several times in congresses and I admire her confidence, especially as she works in a field largely dominated by men. One of her studies which was very inspiring to me was one where she worked with an Immunologist, studying immune cell synapses. And like her, I have several other women role models. 

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

I feel in my career, I’ve always worked with women leaders. I did my PhD with a woman – Dr. Maria Paz Marzolo, and then my postdoc with another woman, Dr. Ana Maria Lennon-Dumenil. In Chile I think currently there is an acknowledgement that we must do something to close the gap between genders. And I think we recognize more and more that we need concrete measures to achieve this rather than some abstract wishful thinking. We know that we need to do more. I think in Chile we have the same leaky pipeline as in other places: there’s a high proportion of women early in the career up to the PhD, and then during the postdoc there are less women, and even less so at the PI level. In the Department of Cell Biology, we are very proud that we have reached a balance, but this is not widespread in all departments or faculties. We also have an office dedicated to gender equity, which is strategically directing these efforts, and addressing the ‘glass ceiling’, including for instance, evaluating how women scientists are evaluated. A punctual experience I can share is that when one has the opportunity to occupy a position of leadership, one should really try to do so. What I mean is that I was offered the position of Director of Postgraduate studies at the Faculty of Biological Sciences. It’s a demanding position which requires a lot of time commitment and responsibility. I first wondered whether this would not distract me from my scientific career, but soon concluded that being in this position I could really have an impact and be a role model. It would be a position which would allow me to inspire and help the students in a way I would otherwise not be able to. These opportunities are not always available, so when we do have this chance, we should be involved and engaged. Beyond this, I personally don’t feel I have faced major discrimination as a woman. It never prevented me from studying the degree I wanted or doing the research I wanted. I think what I have faced is more subtle, and we should try to remove these ‘subtleties’ nonetheless. 

Have you ever faced challenges as a Chilean scientist working abroad?

Working abroad can be challenging, mostly because of the different cultural environments and being away from family. In my case, because of my upbringing, I am somewhat accustomed to interacting with people from different environments and the fact that I am fluent in English makes everything easier. I have fond memories from my time in Paris. I met so many great collogues, scientists and people outside the scientific community. At the institute Curie, the staff and everyone in general was very helpful and respectful. 

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

I love microscopy in general! Since I discovered this discipline, it has inspired the way I do science. Every time I look down the microscope, I find something new 🙂 I do this less and less now as a PI, but when my students show me their findings, I haven’t lost the capacity of wonder. I am more familiar with optical microscopy rather than electron microscopy. I think optical microscopy has experienced revolutionary changes to an extent we couldn’t have imagined. Now with super-resolution we go every time further and further. Lattice light sheet microscopy is something I find fascinating because I love to work with live cells – cellular dynamics is something absolutely fascinating. We don’t have lattice light sheet microscopes in my University, but I’d love it if we did!  Intravital microscopy might be the second favorite- it’s fascinating to be able to see the cell in situ, in its true environment. 

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

My fascination with microscopy began when I started my postdoc. I was looking at B cells and I could see all its structures. One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen was the activation of a B cell upon contact with an antigen –  to see all the architectural reorganization taking place before my eyes was unforgettable. It allowed me to pose a ton of questions while I was watching this live! I realized that this level of architectural re-organization means this process is highly regulated. It’s unbelievable that the cell is ready to react almost immediately, and this required a high level of coordination. I wanted to know more about how this process is controlled. The second eureka moment was already as a PI with my PhD students! We’re currently studying how B cells react upon different environmental physical cues – for instance the B cell response is very different in a rigid surface as opposed to a softer one. Here we found there’s another layer of information which is picked by the cell, and which will affect its immune function. 

Activated B lymphocytes stained for a) CD36 and microtubules, b) actin, SWAP70 and Lamp1, and c) actin and Lamp1.

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

My first piece of advice: Don’t stay stagnant nor limit yourself to a single area or discipline. Be bold and don’t be afraid to explore new areas. For instance, I began in plant science, moved to cell biology, switched to immunology, etc. Join different labs – don’t stay in the same lab all the time. Each different topic you study will bring something new to you: a new skillset, a new perspective. It will also make you more creative. Challenge yourself, and don’t stay forever in the comfort zone. 

The second piece of advice: The basis of being a scientist is to remain motivated and to ask questions. Find the centre of what you want to know – don’t get distracted with peripheral things. Something I wish someone had told me earlier on in my career is collaborate a lot. Science should be open. The results are not just for yourself/your lab – they are there for the scientific community. Finally, make the most from your PhD in terms of your chances to do experimentation and get training. Go to a microscopy course abroad. I give this chance to my students and I see they come back inspired and keen to move forward with their work. I see nothing wrong in taking the time to train. The PhD is an excellent time for this. Later in your career you will have less opportunities and less time. So as a PhD student, expand your horizons! The PhD is not just about doing thousands of experiments.

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

I think nowadays we are in a better position than we were 10 years ago. I also think that microscopy occupies a central position in science – whether everyone recognizes this or not. Before there weren’t many centres or resources dedicated to this. Nowadays we have excellent Microscopy Units, with excellent technical support who help our students gain hands-on experience. Microscopy is a quantitative science, not only nice images, so I try to teach this to my students: explore, but also obtain information in order to study specific phenomena. We have excellent centres not only in Santiago, but also in the North and South of Chile. I think it is important that science is not centralized to the capital of the country. Moreover, I think many talented researchers from home and abroad, have come to Chile to develop microscopy. This is very stimulating because we generate critical mass to answer different scientific questions. The challenge is to strengthen the networks between the different microscopy centres in the country. I participated actively in our Microscopy Unit, and tried to encourage collaboration between centres across the country. The other goal is to promote and strengthen collaborations with the neighbouring countries, where excellent work is also done.

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

I’d say Chile has a beautiful natural landscape. This attracts a lot of people. In the north we have the Atacama Desert, and in the south, Torres del Paine, Patagonia and we also have Easter Island, etc. The entire country is truly beautiful. Moreover it’s like a natural laboratory. The north is attractive to astronomers world-wide with our incredible night sky. People studying natural areas, volcanoes, and so on, find in Chile a fascinating country. Natural resources are also incredible, for instance plants with translational medical potential, also rapamycin was originally discovered in soil samples from Easter Island, in Rapa Nui. We have beautiful mountains, coasts, forest, desert, and more, so this is attractive beyond science. 

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews

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