An interview with Nicolás Martínez Alarcón
Posted by Mariana De Niz, on 13 December 2022
MiniBio: Dr. Nicolás Martínez Alarcón is a postdoctoral fellow at Fundación Ciencia y Vida, where he studies various aspects of the biology of neurodegeneration. Within the lab of Dr. Maria Soledad Matus, he is also a junior group leader co-mentoring various students and forming his independent research line. Nicolás did his early studies at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in the lab of Dr. Felipe Court, involving collaborations with the lab of Dr. Felipe Barros in Center of Scientific Studies (CECs, Valdivia). It was in these labs where he was first introduced to microscopy. Nicolás has an extremely versatile career, with a holistic view of what the scientific role involves including outreach, scientific communication, innovation, and public policy. He is also heavily involved in gender equity initiatives and firmly believes in removing socio-economic and gender barriers to the profession of science.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
I think this of course can only be seen in retrospect. I have realized I was a very curious child. I always wanted to know what was behind the obvious or the visible. I would put apart radios, mix all sorts of liquids in my house, detergents, etc. – anything I would find and see what changes would take place. Me and my family, we are from humble origins, so this sort of interest wasn’t exactly potentiated at the time into a scientific training or something of the sort, but the role of my teachers was key. I had teachers, especially in junior high school, who managed to explain exciting concepts of Biology in a way that was engaging and inspiring. I remember in particular the lectures in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and their connection to genetics. Although all this was inspiring, the decision to become a scientist wasn’t an easy one for three main reasons: 1: I had a huge range of interests and was skilled for several disciplines in school – I was skilled at learning languages, I wanted to be a writer, I also loved music, poetry, dance – so, truly, it wasn’t an early or easy decision. For example, besides studying my degree, I also studied two languages and participated in a professional artistic project.
2: Perhaps because of my socio-economic and cultural background I had zero clue about what it is to be a researcher, so I started my degree in biological sciences out of a genuine interest in the scientific ideas. But I had no mental map of where this career would lead me as a professional. Zero clue. I feel the need to highlight this because there might be other young scientists in the same situation, where this orientation is totally lacking. To have a mental map of your possible projections influences motivation and decision-making. And 3: Around the 3rd year of the BSc degree in Chile you have to start doing practicals in labs. For me, half-way through my first year I really wanted to experience participating in a lab. So I spoke to a professor who later became my PhD supervisor – Dr. Felipe Court, and I insisted that I didn’t want to wait another 2 or 3 years to start in the lab. He welcomed me to his lab, and around this time I started attending lab meetings. So I held my first pipettes when I was 17 years old. Dr. Felipe Court at the time was just starting his own lab – perhaps he was still very young and naïve and thus received me, a young student who knew absolutely nothing Another thing I want to highlight that made all the difference for me during my upbringing is that I received a lot of support and affection from my family as a child. As a neuroscientist I must acknowledge how important this is for one’s success and self-confidence. Despite being from a low socio-economic background, I know that this affection and support from my family was significant to my future performance. I really want to point this out as a key message in my interview. The neurobiological development of the child brain that leads to intellectual independence is directly linked to the affection and treatment peoples receive during childhood. This emotional stability precedes the intellectual performance, and of course later one can pave one’s own path, but this precedence of stability is key.
You have a career-long involvement in neurophysiology, image analysis and microscopy. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to choose these paths?
Since I was a child, I was always interested in the concepts around neurons and the brain. Once I did my practicals I confirmed that this world of neurosciences was fascinating to me. I think the environment where one develops one’s career deeply influences one’s choices. The lab members at the place where I started my career were very friendly and welcoming and thus it guided me well through this process. About microscopy, this interest came much later, as a need to answer my own questions about biology. My early research line focused on local mechanisms of homeostasis in neurons – this includes events and processes happening at the synapses or axons, things happening far away from the cell body, in very specific regions which have specialization on their homeostatic processes. By focusing on this, I was trying to assay events on the microscopic scale.
I also must add that while I was in that lab, in addition to being taught the technical aspects of microscopy, my supervisor and other members of the lab also emphasized the importance of learning about the history and principles of these techniques. So, I learned about Ramon y Cajal, about the findings of Golgi, about how different buffers, dyes, reporters, lenses, objectives were found and/or developed. It was impactful to learn about this. I also had the chance to work with histologists and technicians who had a vast amount of knowledge related to microscopy, and sample preparation. I feel that a lot of what I now know and do in practical terms, my criteria, I acquired it from my colleagues at the technical platforms. I was able to share a lot of time with them, and this also made me fall in love with microscopy as a job to dedicate part of my life to. I´m emphasizing that the personnel in facilities are essential for and plays a pivotal role for the work we do. Summarizing my career path, I did my PhD at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile with Dr. Felipe Court as supervisor and Dr. Felipe Barros as my co-supervisor. During my PhD I went to the south of Chile, to the city of Valdivia, where our country has a high-tech research center called Centro de Estudios Cientificos. I did some microscopy over there too: Dr. Felipe Barros’ expertise is nervous system metabolism studied trough FRET nanosensors, and we used these tools to explore the local metabolism of axons.
Now I’m working at Fundacion Ciencia y Vida as a postdoc where I have governmental funding for my postdoctoral research under the sponsoring of Dr. Maria Soledad Matus. There Dr. Matus sponsored me to participate of their research lines. Currently, I’m studying the role of the Integrated Stress Response pathway over the morphofunctional integrity of axons and synapses. It has been very exciting to have the opportunity to propose an ambitious project and actually have access to multiple genetic models and technologies. I invite people interested to put an eye on the work that Fundación Ciencia y Vida produces, with a particular focus on the publications that will emerge from Dr. Matus’ lab, which no doubt will transform the way we understand the stress responses of neurons. An important part of this research is based on microscopy, so I’m still learning every day, what is needed for the current questions of our research group. I consider the opportunity of working at Fundación Ciencia y Vida as a turning point on my career because it’s a place with the highest research standards and an open perspective to the many aspects of science such as outreach, basic science, applied studies and connection with the community.
They call this “Science 360°” and I feel very lucky because it matches with my diversity of professional interests.
Can you tell us a bit about what you have found uniquely positive about becoming a researcher in Chile, from your education years?
Chile has talented researchers, men and women who combine teaching skills with their intellectual work, under a collaborative spirit. It’s not hard to find this philosophy within research communities in our country. That’s a first positive thing, to be in places full of talented people. Its motivating. Probably, one interesting challenge is to generate the conditions and coordinate the efforts of these research communities on general transversal goals aligned with the interest of our country’s development.
Chile is a developing country and therefore there are a lot of things to solve. Personally, I have a very positive view of these challenges as motivation sources. Among them, we need to improve the recognition and support that is given to people who generate knowledge, the right appreciation to these people and the roles they play in society. For me this is a challenge – it’s an enterprise that I can join. These kind of convening initiatives are exciting for young researchers, and they give an ultra-meaning to our work, beyond academia. On this respect, Chile is having important political changes and social reflections that have happened both, within the scientific community and in our society. I think as researchers we must do a critical introspection and evaluation of what we can and must do, beyond our work at the bench. This realization gave me a guidance about which path I could follow as a researcher (considering both bench work and beyond – my service to the community as a whole). I consider this realization coming from challenges, which expands our roles, a positive aspect of becoming a researcher in Chile. It builds professional and personal abilities, and it demands a high level of commitment.
Another opportunity to do better is to diversify our field of action as researchers and extend it into outreach, public policies, economy and also to establish dialogues with our colleagues from the humanities and other disciplines. My opinion is that there is a huge room for improvement especially for scientists to propose or participate in interdisciplinary initiatives. Chile´s socio-economic and cultural spaces have complex problems that must be confronted with a broad range of disciplines working together. It’s a perfect environment to young professionals, to learn new things, to connect disciplines, and to discuss the relevance of being a multi-disciplinary academic with the younger ones. Challenges are perfect places for people with energy and ideas. I’ve tried to make the most of it in all these different “divisions”. For example, during my career in Chile I have had the experience of the canonical academic pathway, but also to participate of innovation projects with interesting results. Beside I have had the opportunity to be part of dialogues about science policies – most recently, about the possible modifications to our Constitution, and I will continue to do so. Scientific research is also tightly related with education accessibility, particularly neuroscience can be a fundamental player on the design of educational policies for accessibility to education on neurodiversity. Neuroscience can complement education diagnosis and criteria; neuroscience can suggest priorities and pedagogical practices. In this context, I have also had the opportunity of participating and propose initiatives of scientific engagement with schools and teachers’ organizations. Regarding accessibility to early education, to put it simple Chile has three types of schools based on their fundings sources: “colegios estatales” which are free of charge and state funded, “colegios particulares subvencionados” which have a specific vision and the state gives them funding to address specific areas of projects, and “escuelas privadas” – private schools. For several reasons, there is a direct relationship between where you study (which of the three systems) and where you end up studying after the school, your working positions, and how much you earn, statistically. In general, people graduating from private schools tend to have access to top tier universities and tend to earn more. This is a big problem, related with the social instability we have experienced in the last years. Researchers can play many roles on the analysis, discussion, mitigations, and solutions for these inequalities.
Also, Chile has a tremendous potential for research based on local initiatives in our regions. This is another opportunity for improvement in which young scientist can participate. There is excellent science happening at universities and research centers throughout our country, with unique topics and perspectives. So, we can also participate directly or indirectly on the urgency of decentralizing our science. There are diverse environmental, social, and cultural phenomena happening everywhere that you can take as a basis for your professional career. At the end, all these challenges are intermingled, and when researchers asses them, communities are grateful. It comes to my mind how some of the researchers how have been awarded with National Sciences prizes have focused on scientific questions that are related with social challenges, such as the reality experienced by small groups of fishermen and the language complexity displayed by people of poor backgrounds. Later, some of this knowledge has led to the promulgation of certain laws. However, it would be optimal to have a body of laws particularly oriented to articulate local scientific research with local challenges and to promote evidence-based decision making.
Additionally, in the last decade Chile has become an interesting place for international capitals related with STEM and software, among others. So, there are growing opportunities to have a local career with potential interesting outcomes for people oriented towards innovation too.
Finally, I would like to point out that Chilean researchers perform their activities with the highest standards and there are growing international collaborations, so either you choose to develop your career locally or go abroad, it can be opportunities for experiencing vanguard.
Based on your previous answer, how did you realize that as a scientist, there was a chance to give back to society?
My mum is a teacher, so interest on social work has always been present in my life. This has more to do with my family and my upbringing, than with my education as a scientist. I think my background and my family, and the environment I grew up in, led me to develop a sense of commitment and empathy towards other people. I highlight this, because many of the aspects one has a researcher come from places beyond career training: some of them come from very personal experiences and interests. Young people should know that our mind works as a synthetic system, so many abilities and interests you have outside sciences will make part of your personality as a researcher. The books you read, movies you watch, dances you like, sport you practice, arts you enjoy, and general interests will modulate you as a scientist and this is very good.
Back to the point, I feel motivated about supporting anyone who wants to explore becoming a scientist, even if all I can do is a small part. I have had lots of trouble saying “no” to people who wish to join my research line. I have several anecdotes – I can share one with you: I’m about to become the thesis co-supervisor of a young student I met in the Uber – he was my Uber driver once and he asked me what I was doing as a career. I told him I was a scientist. He told me he had studied a technical degree, but that he had always been interested in research. A smart guy. I gave him my number, and we are currently planning his thesis project. I think the interest in science is everywhere and we should be supportive of one another. In Chile there’s a phenomenon in general, where a lot of students in the science and technology fields come from middle and low classes, a high proportion of them are girls and women. The Ministry of Education has made research on this, with such interesting findings. It is something interesting to analyze further and to address with concrete policies. Science is interesting for young people with economic challenges. If you connect that with the fact that investing on science and innovation is key for the human and economic development of our country, we have a critical point there. This cannot be overlooked by people in decision-making positions, both in the public field and for private investors looking to make contributions or as interesting targets to their capitals.
Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as a postdoc at the Faculty of Medicine and at Fundación Ciencia y Vida?
I’m in a transition position at the moment. I am doing my postdoc, but I have had a chance to establish a semi-independent line of research in the lab of Dr. Maria Soledad Matus – she allowed me to establish a line which didn’t previously exist on the lab. We study the potential roles of a homeostatic pathway called the Integrated Stress Response on the morphofunctional integrity of axons and synapses at peripheral and central neurons. So now I participate of student’s training, and co-supervision.
Fundación Ciencia y Vida is a research center which is financed by Chilean government’s funds called Fondo Basal – they finance centers for a period of 10 years as a macro-project. Ciencia y Vida has a unique approach within the context of Chilean academia, which they define as ‘Science 360’. With this approach, they cover, within the same umbrella, basic science, applied science, translational science, scientific communication, and the relationship with the general community. They try to make the scientific career very integrative. This is the spirit of the organization where I execute my everyday work.
About my day to day, it depends on the stage of every particular project I’m involved in. At the beginning of my postdoc, I would spend most of the time at the microscopy room or at the bench. Now I also play a role in teaching and supervising students, having meetings with them, reviewing their work (projects, texts, figures, experimental designs). So now I do this in addition to being at the microscope, helping at the microscopy facility, doing data analysis, and doing bench work. I try to always catch up with students – even just to chit chat every day, to see how they’re doing and how everything is going. Another part of the day is reading and writing, which is fundamental to be in touch with the latest references of our research lines and to generate our owns manuscripts. Our group leader encourages us to look for excellence in all the scientific work we are engaged in, so a careful revision of formatting and contents must be done.
Additional to these tasks, I also try to spend time everyday just thinking. This is fundamental and was emphatically transmitted to me by my mentor Dr. Jaime Alvarez Marin. To analyze my own thinking pathways, and their potential flaws. To really focus on one of the research questions we’re addressing, I analyze the methods we are using, the theoretical background of what we’re investigating, and other things that might be essential for the project. This introspective space is also important for creativity and to make room for the commonly overlooked place of intuition over science. To me, an optimal day-to-day performance as a researcher means combining a strict, careful, and technically elegant execution of the scientific method, with the fluidic open flight of a flexible thinking.
Did you have many opportunities to interact with other Latin American groups, outside of Chile?
I’d love to say yes, but in reality, not so much. I think because as and undergrad I joined a lab which was just being set up, in general the collaborations were mostly local (with other Chilean researchers). Later, I also decided that I would favor collaborations with other Chilean scientists, but recently this idea has been “under review”, especially after the workshop I attended in Uruguay called “Imaging Latin America” which was a joined venture with the imaging team from Janelia. There, they funded us Latin American scientists to attend, and I had the chance to interact with many other scientists from the region. This was a fascinating experience which brought together scientists with similar interests, similar ages, career stages, and objectives. This experience allowed me to grasp the potential of connecting with other scientists in Latin America, to progress together. Also, I was recently invited to present my work at the Argentinian Society of Neurosciences in a workshop for Young Investigators. This shed light on the value that other people on the region are giving to our scientific work. So I’m starting to explore the possible connections with the Latin American research community. But there’s a long way to go: talking about microscopy facility management, in Chile at least, technologies are often administered in micro-environments with each institute controlling its own microscopes. I think the aim of the host team of Institut Pasteur Montevideo, who organized the Latin America Bioimaging workshop is to promote this expansion of networks within our countries and throughout the region.
How did you find out about the course ‘Imaging Latin America’ which took place in Uruguay as a joined venture between Janelia and IP Montevideo, and how did you enjoy it?
I think this course has been one of the most enriching professional experiences in my career. There was great validation of what I had learned during my education in Chile, and appreciation of the work we have been developing over here. I felt that our work was valued. In addition to this, I learned a lot of new things: I was able to understand some critical aspects about the optics of different types of microscopes. I learned about new image analysis methods I wasn’t aware of. A lot of this knowledge had an immediate application on the research we are developing on Fundación Ciencia y Vida. I hope to also transfer this knowledge through training colleagues and students, so this course will have an impact beyond particular research topics and it will update the environment around microscopy on our institution.
Above all, what was great was the possibility of networking – the people I met over there is a great asset. I met participants from Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, and Uruguay – I hope I’m not forgetting any country. Organizers prepared the course at a thorough level and you could see this in all the details: it was clearly something that took months to organize in order to convey the topics and all the themes we discussed during this course. The hosts from Institut Pasteur Montevideo gave us access to the frontier technology they have over there with such a kind treatment and pedagogy that was ideal to learn. It was not only a great experience on an academic level, but also on a human level – they made sure we ate wonderful local food every day 🙂 it was a fantastic experience. I think this, together with LABI is an initiative that will significantly improve connections between Latin American scientists doing microscopy. Furthermore, it will promote the establishment of new local cultures of professionalized microscopy in different organizations. I am very sure this networking will foster new long-lasting collaborations. It was a real honour for me to be in the first generation of the Imaging Latin America initiative. 🙂
Beyond the specific techniques and topics of the course, a major concept about which I thought during the Latin America Bioimaging course is the following. Perhaps it’s rather a question: How much of our regional and national incomes depend directly or indirectly on processes where microscopy participates?I haven’t found literature about it. The critical analysis of this questions and its many possible outputs has haunted me since then, and my intuition is that the answers can open economic, social, academic and political arguments to increase efforts in promoting optical technologies in our developing countries. I don’t want to be excessively speculative, but there are clinical procedures, industrial procedures, engineering, hardware design, clothing design, microbiology, crystallography, and an eternal list of applications for microscopy. Additionally, there are all the necessary data processing capacities, which promote the generation of all sort of coded algorithms with potential applications in other areas. To me, the answer could strongly suggest that we should be putting more efforts into upgrading the optical technology we manage and how we manage it. and into producing our own optical technologies.
As a Chilean scientist, did you have any challenges working abroad?
I have not lived abroad 🙂 I have done my entire career in Chile.
Who are your scientific role models (both Chilean and foreign)?
I have a very self-demanding and holistic view of what a scientist can be – communicators, scientists, people dedicated to science policies, researchers, so it’s a hard question to answer: few people do it all.
For a more conventional answer, if I had to choose people whom we all know, I’ve always felt a lot of admiration for the work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, based on the historical relevance he had in the description of neuronal biology and the huge step it meant to realize that neurons were individual units in a web, rather than a syncytium. To a great extent, thanks to this histological realization we started to think about signal transmission between neurons. He received the Nobel Prize. Cajal´s work opened a junction between the comprehension of function and structure that led to a very significant leap in neuroscience. There was a publication called “Reticularismo o neuronismo?” by him which I think is very telling regarding this. I’m very interested in the history of neuroscience, and so I consider him a role model.
Probably, all the fundamentals of neuronal structures have been already described. However, one can look at the work of Cajal and understand how impactful it is to propose simple questions, and how influential it can be on the future of science. I use this as a mantra: simple, obvious unanswered questions hide milestones. There’s another scientist whom I consider an inspiration, whose name is Rita Levi Montalcini – she was an Italian Nobel Prize winner who made important discoveries on neuronal signaling. She found that neurons exist in an environment where they secrete and exchange chemical signals that allow them to sustain their homeostatic processes. She was a leader in her field, a fantastic neuroscientist, a woman in a time of war in Europe, and a woman scientist in an era when it was even more challenging in terms of gender balance, and the vast amount of literature she left behind, sharing her experience as a researcher. Also, she was involved in the politics of her natal country, Italy. We have a small library in the lab, and my students read her books: El Elogio de la Imperfeccion, Atrévete a Saber, Tu futuro, Cronología de un Descubrimiento, where she gives good advice to young investigators. I think as a neuroscientist, this is what I could say. My opinion is that Chile needs public intellectuals of this magnitude. We had them on the past, and they constructed our cultural identity.
As a Doctor in Physiology, and in a deeper intellectual track, I’ve always been fascinated with the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy who was a European mathematician, philosopher, biologist, etc., who first brought about the notions of systems theory, which is the basis of physiology. I’m also fascinated by the work of the Russian mathematician and physicist Nicolás Rashevsky, who was the first person who did mathematical descriptions of biological processes in the cell in particular. He published in the 1970s, several pieces of work which I always make reference to, where he proposed predictive models on how, because of the shape and size of neurons, this would necessarily result in specific regions with differential diffusion dynamics. This is in line with the work I do, which shows that different regions of the neuron indeed have different processes and play different roles in neuronal homeostasis. In the context of microscopy, I can think of Roger Tsien, because of his work on reporter proteins such as GFP – this has changed our world. A lot of the things I do today in my work, I wouldn’t be able to do without all the work from people like him.
In Chile, we have had the honor of participating from the heritage of two neuroscientists: Dr. Humberto Maturana and Dr. Francisco Varela, both of whom developed the concept of autopoiesis, and also further expanded the theory of systems biology. Finally, perhaps I couldn’t nominate this in a particular frame, but Chile is facing a revolution in terms of gender balance and the acceptance and integration of all genders. I admire young people who are dedicated to and are even spearheading this revolution. If young people are reading this, I’d like to tell them that these changes and this fight are extremely important. We have students who belong to all groups of genders in Chile, and many of them are very vocal. For me this is worthy of admiration, and it’s equally important to me as a researcher, as it is to discover new biology. People who are pushing change in all aspects, are modifying the destiny and the future of our community.
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 see this from a lot of points of view, both personal, and based on studies I have read due to my involvement in various initiatives and facets of science. However, I think these questions can be better addressed by women researchers. I’ve read reports that document the existence of sexist educational practices in Chile, and within this context, the effect of this in scientific knowledge acquisition in girls and boys. Several authors suggest a sexist tone in the Chilean educational system – and the gender differences arise already at very young age. It has been documented that girls have the same sense of curiosity towards the processes in nature as boys, but they feel more anxiety when expressing these types of ideas. Something about our education system causes detriment in the expression of these ideas by girls. I think this is something urgent to address. Otherwise, we start already at a very young age with a significant gap. There are also studies focusing on slightly older students, showing that it’s mostly women who want to pursue a scientific career, and this numerical majority does not correlate with numbers of woman who obtain PhD degrees and higher academic positions in Chile. There are more men than women graduating with PhDs. The gender ratio between deans in faculties of science is 1:10 – there are 5 female deans, and 55 males. The percentage in PIs in the different areas of knowledge also shows a difference between men and women at this level, also shows this: it’s 40% women, 60% men at least. So, at decision-making and power positions there is still a difference. Beyond numbers, people who produce knowledge build our culture. Male-dominated work environments tend to be static in terms of gender composition. People on these types of positions also appear as role models for younger generations. So, a feminist narrative of science is needed to be discussed publicly. Academia has been reviewing this trough the work of many feminist philosophers. I think it’s important to take a look at this kind of literature. On a local perspective, I think that female Chilean researchers from humanities and natural sciences can articulate a powerful group. I recommend readers to have a look at the work of “asociación de red de investigadoras” de Chile.
Gender disparities are bigger if you focus on the area of science innovation. One could assume that in this area, compensation is much better than in academic science, therefore it would be more attractive to women pursuing better compensation and job stability, but the proportions of men and women in top leadership levels in this area also shows a lot of imbalance. So, we have a massive challenge in this respect. The Chilean Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge, and Innovation (addressing gender equity) was recently founded, so what I have seen is mainly this kind of diagnosis and new proposals to address gender imbalance in this area.
About how this topic impacted my career – it impacts me directly because it allows me to recognize and react to the existence of these differences. Now I understand a lot better that a portion of what I have achieved is due to this gender imbalance which is advantageous to men. I think we can all do something to address this within our own environment. I try to address this in my own group – for example now I am much more aware of micro-misogyny (microaggressions done by men): how many times men speak during meetings, for how long, if they interrupt women, and other things that perhaps sound small but are impactful for people from genders who face the disadvantage (i.e. that they cannot express themselves, or cannot even have access to PhD education). Another very relevant aspect of this gender disparity is beyond the access of women to become researchers, but women as relevant targets for the study of their particular needs and characteristics. I have a friend, Dr. Claudia Muñoz from Universidad de Chile, who is currently working in a model for a metabolic cardiac pathology that is particularly aggressive to women. This gender related clinical problem, had been obliterated by the experimental designs which do not consider potential sex differences. Examples as this one are common. Based on this, I think we as biological science researchers should at least discuss a certain criterion about when to replicate your experiments in both sexes is recommended.
Moreover, now I work for a researcher who is a woman, Dr. Soledad Matus. To have her as a sponsor is a constant depiction of the capacities of women as leaders in science. Before, I had always worked for men as heads of lab and working now for a woman has been an enriching experience for me. We live and learn, and we learn and grow. One thing I always tell my female students that because I’m a male researcher, I am limited in what I can transmit to them of what the experience as a researcher is – I always suggest to them that they speak with female PIs who are at more advanced stages of their careers, and who can transmit different experiences. In this context I’d like to mention in particular another investigator – perhaps mixing this with the previous question on who my role models are I’ve had the pleasure of working with a young Chilean researcher, Jennifer Alfaro, who is one of the most accomplished people I know. She studied in the public education system and decided to pursue a scientific career. She is now a successful leader in the context of scientific innovation, she works as a director of a biotech company here in Chile, having surpassed the gender imbalances that I mentioned before in the science innovation area.
You mentioned earlier on, the impact of socio-economic background on you and your scientific career. Can you expand on the importance of this?
I think there’s no direct selection on a personal basis based on your background, but the effect of socio-economic background on the quality of your education and the opportunities you have access to is very noticeable and evident. The result of this is that people in leadership positions within the scientific community tend to come from a homogeneous background. For example, to study a science degree you must take an admission test, and you must reach a certain score. It’s been documented how people who study in some types of school -correlated with specific ranges of family incomes – obtain a certain range of scores. Basically, a relation between income and accessibility to higher degrees of education. Despite public policies that ensure free university education, students that come from lower incomes, in general terms have different performances and greater difficulties in the first years of their degrees. I have had the opportunity of noticing this phenomenon as a teacher and mentor of several undergrad courses of biological sciences. Another component I observed and experienced personally, is that the amount and quality of information about scientific careers that is accessible to students from low-income backgrounds is insufficient. Also, for someone who wants to move up the socio-economic ladder, by dedicating themselves to science, it’s a risky bet in Chile, given the amount of time that you have to dedicate to obtain a degree and post degrees before actually improving your income and the comparatively low incomes you receive regardless. Families from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have more debt, specially women, and so families tend to look for solidity and certainty in their career options– in this respect scientific careers in Chile are not perceived as the top choices at all. There are opportunities for improvements in this respect.
What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?
Electron microscopy is something fascinating – it allows us to see things we cannot see by light microscopy. Seeing electron-dense objects allows a resolution that’s otherwise unachievable. It also fascinates me for how long this technology has been useful. I think this type of microscopy is also emotionally related to me: during my undergraduate degree I had a mentor, who often sat with me at the microscope and taught me the theoretics and practical tips to obtain excellent images of electron microscopy (EM). In my very first paper, I did lots of EM. I have still in my mind the images of axonal microtubules, axons, myelin, axonal mitochondria, etc.
Afterwards, during my PhD I was trained in FRET. and I was fascinated by the physical concepts behind the transference of energy between fluorophores and how this became a fundamental tool for science. This was also an opportunity to comprehend something very relevant to every microscopist: there is a path beyond being a user of microscopes, and becoming a tool-developer for microscopy. This simple idea can enrich your perspectives as a microscopist. I internalized this during my PhD internship at the Center of Scientific Studies (CECs) in Valdivia, where I worked under the supervision of Dr. Felipe Barros. He showed me not only the practical use and rationale of FRET sensors, which we used to study neuronal metabolism, but also how a research group dedicated to developing genetic tools for microscopy worked. It’s a different type of focus to propose the specific goals of your projects, with a tremendous impact on the biological questions you can ask to the tool you have developed, later. I try to transmit this rationale that I took from my internship with Dr. Barros to the students I’m in touch with now: to propose improvements and modifications for the protocols, techniques, and technologies we have, that would enable us to transition between being users and developers.
What is the most extraordinary thing you have seen by microscopy? An eureka moment for you?
During my PhD thesis I explored the effect of a drug called Metformin, which is used on diabetic patients, on the neurotoxicity related to cancer chemotherapy. It’s a bit verbose and difficult to understand, but in brief, cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy, suffer as a secondary effect, dysfunction, and degeneration of the peripheral nervous system. This side effect causes patients to feel pain, and doctors tend to stop anti-cancer medication prematurely, impacting the life prognosis of patients. Currently, there is no successful treatment against this side effect of chemotherapy. So, during my PhD I hypothesized on the potential effects of Metformin on chemotherapy neurotoxicity on the nervous system. To this goal, one aspect was to document the effect of Metformin on chemotherapy toxicity over the sensing neural structures. Particularly, the toxicity chemotherapeutics have over intraepidermal nerve fibers inside the skin, which transduce and transmit sensory information related to temperature and touch.
I remember the specific place and day at the Biological Sciences faculty at Universidad Católica de Chile, when I observed the staining of intraepidermal fibers of animals treated with chemotherapy or Metformin in an epifluorescence microscope. I saw that chemotherapy eliminated the nerve endings as expected but samples from animals co-treated with Metformin had a tremendous level of preservation. This correlated with the data I was producing with sensory tests. So, I found evidence that Metformin not only preserves sensory structures but also sensory function in animals, which became the main topic of my doctoral thesis. This was truly very exciting for me, because up to then I had had lots of predictable results – I think this tends to happen when you’re working in someone else’s theoretical framework, but this hypothesis was something that came from me, and to see this result was fascinating. It’s an indescribable feeling.
What is an important piece of advice you would give to future Chilean scientists? and especially those specializing as microscopists?
I’d say – be open minded to imagine different paths as a researcher. You can potentially be a science communicator, investigating in a lab, a science politician, a lecturer, a more traditional academic. Another suggestion – and something I did not so when I was younger – is that you should find out what are the career progression possibilities with all these various paths: find out if you have to move to a different country, at what age you should take different steps and so on. For students pursuing a PhD degree (or thinking about this decision) I’d like to say that beyond the research topic you choose, the group you choose to join will have an enormous impact and influence on your future career. So, find out, for example, where are the alumni of the labs you’re interested in, now. What are they doing? What’s the employability of the program you’re pursuing? Where in the world, are the alumni working now, and what positions do they hold? Does this coincide with your life plans? I don’t think many of us did this analysis when we were younger and chose a PhD program. So, I think it’s an important piece of advice.
As a microscopist, my advice is don’t waste the opportunity to learn from the members of platforms (technicians). Many of the things I now know are due to my colleagues at technical platforms. Finally, I’d tell all young researchers to spare no tool when it comes to doing research and generating your hypotheses. Our job is focused on the scientific method, but I’d share a little secret: a lot of the ideas that have arisen in my mind during my career have their inspiration in other fields like painting, poetry, architecture, design, social problems. Keep an open mind and expand your wings as wide as possible. See things from multiple perspectives. Enrich your mind and put a lot of rigor in the application of the scientific method. I have found this combination of open-mindedness and rigor, most useful in my career, and I hope it’s useful for anyone reading this too.
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 that in the future, our tasks as Chilean scientists will become more complex. Thus, we will have to put great efforts to achieve the scientific community agendas, particularly due to economic instability. I also believe that, we have important opportunities for improvement in probably three main lines: social legitimacy, increasing the value society gives to people who produce knowledge and how people perceive their quality of life in relation to the scientific research done in our country. Also, to couple the diversity of research lines that the scientific community performs, with the human and economic development model of our country. Probably a third one would be to adapt our practices and research topics to the changes imposed by environmental challenges.
I also think that the ideas we have previously discussed of different scientific profiles will become more prominent in plan.
Additionally, I think private universities will continue to invest in innovation-oriented science and it’s likely that in the future Chile will have a stronger focus in scientific innovation than in basic research. I think this is a normal stage in a country’s path for bigger economic growth. This represents an additional challenge for basic science researchers. Later on, it will hopefully equilibrate. At least this is what I have read regarding the trajectories of scientific funding of countries on their path to development, which first invested heavily in innovation, and only later basic research played a more prominent role, once the country’s economy had reached a more stable status. I think Chile is entering this process now.
I think it’s important that we enter the next decade with a clearer idea and projections of what are the main strategic meta-research targets for our country, based on a pragmatic criteria that could combine the natural resources we have, our local challenges and global interests. When I say this I’m thinking on big themes such as renewable energies, also in human, animal and microorganismal biodiversity as a base for innovation and additionally, wellness as a concept where care, aging neuroscience, mental health and tourism could participate. In this changing panorama, I think I’ll continue to focus on basic research, because fundamental questions will keep being valuable and I don’t think I have real talent for something else. But ways in which I hope to contribute I want to participate in the discussions about education and bridging the gaps between social and scientific policies in Chile. I would also want to potentiate the agency of public intellectuals. This is something that existed before the dictatorship in Chile. There were intellectuals who had great relevance in the development of Chile in various areas. An example is Gabriela Mistral. one of the Chilean Nobel Prize winners. I think there is a lot we can do. Also, I hope to play a role as a mentor of younger scientists. I also think I can contribute to scientific development: I would like to construct networks to facilitate the entrance of technologies that are currently non-existing in Chile, particularly microscopy and optical technologies. Finally, my personal interest is to produce basic and applied science on the tremendous potential that the knowledge about peripheral neurons has to contribute to the understanding of age-related neurodegeneration, genetic based diseases, and also as an interesting field for the innovation in human-electronics interphases.
I don’t have an unequivocal answer because I hope to be able to participate in all these various aspects.
Beyond science, what do you think makes Chile a special place to visit and go to as a scientist?
Chile is a unique country because it is a place with a huge diversity of cultures and landscapes. We have several hotspots of biodiversity and of cultural diversity, not only current, but also from the historical and geological past. So, if you are a researcher from the humanities or the natural or exact sciences, you will find in Chile a place of great interest. Within the same country we have enormous natural diversity, we have deserts, salt flats, intertidal, rich underwater environments, Valdivian jungle – which is unique in the world, and the central zone. Also, the social and political processes happening in Chile might be interesting to people coming from the field of sociology or other humanities. Additionally, the Chilean language is also very unique- there are studies showing that the biggest modifications to the Spanish language have happened here in Chile which is something interesting to learn about.
Chile has also an interesting combination of traditions and modernity. If you visit the right places you can find traditional folklore, indigenous culture, indigenous innovation and international status quo in terms of technologies.
Finally, what it is interesting about Chile is the people. Violeta Parra was told in Geneva during an interview, that she was a poet, musician, documentalist, potter, etc -and she was asked if she had to choose one of these professions, what would she choose. She replied she would abandon everything and she will choose to stay with the people, because it’s the people who inspired her to do all other activities. I completely feel her point, and this radical answer has guided me through my career, and that is why I have explored so many distinct aspects of the scientific career. The people around me inspire me to do all this. I would invite foreigners to come to Chile because of the people.