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An interview with Mauricio Peñarrieta

Posted by , on 28 March 2023

MiniBio: Dr. Mauricio Peñarrieta is a group leader at the Faculty of Chemistry at Universidad Mayor de San Andres, focusing on food chemistry and natural products. He studied his undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the same university, where he first found his interest for organic chemistry, and where he first became familiar with natural product isolation and techniques like crystallography and microscopy. He was later awarded a fellowship to do his PhD at the University of Lund in Sweden, where he worked under the supervision of Prof. Björn Bergenståhl. During his postdoc in Sweden, he worked in asymmetrical flow fractionation- a technique he brought back and established for the first time in South America. Mauricio leads an inter-disciplinary and multicultural lab, with multiple collaborations within Latin American and European countries. He has overseen a technological transition in his institute and considers the use of microscopy as complementary to many state-of-the-art techniques in the field of Chemistry and food engineering.  

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

I think one finds one’s own way in moments of lucidity and setbacks during childhood. I used to like building things – and also putting things apart and back together. I also remember my mum saying she liked Chemistry a lot, and she was frustrated of not having pursued this as a career once she finished high school. So this resonated and it was important later on for my decision to study Chemistry. I was also a very curious child. During high school, I had several teachers who were very inspiring and one of them took me to the campus I currently work at, for a Biology expo. I fell in love with the place, and ended up joining the faculty of Chemistry not long after – despite considering Engineering at some point too. 

Mauricio Peñarrieta and his team at Universidad Mayor de San Andres.

You have a career-long involvement food chemistry, and microscopy. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to choose this path?  

After I started my undergraduate degree, I liked organic chemistry more, and I ended up doing my thesis in the group of a PI whose expertise was isolating compounds from plants, purifying them, and studying their structures by nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and other types of techniques. I loved this time, and I stayed for several years working as his assistant in the lab. We had lots of collaborations with Sweden, and several opportunities arose to go abroad and study there. I had the chance to apply for a fellowship and I had a choice between several topics, one of which was natural food products. I took this choice and I never regretted it. It was fascinating, and that’s what I did my PhD on. In terms of locations, I did my undergraduate degree at Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in Bolivia in the lab of Lic.Willy Rendón, and then my PhD in Lund University, in Sweden in the lab of Prof. Björn Bergenståhl. I then did one postdoc in his and Prof. Lars Nilsson’s labs. Around the time I was finishing my PhD my wife joined me in Sweden to do a Masters in Social Sciences, so after I stayed on until she finished her degree – and during this time I did a postdoc. I worked on asymmetrical flow field-flow fractionation – a new technique at the time. Thankfully this proved to be very useful once I came back to Bolivia – we managed to set up the first asymmetrical flow in South America. About microscopy, you need a microscope to visualize the compounds – the crystals, depending on their size. So in the lab it is routine to work with a range of microscopes to determine the forms of the crystals – if there were sharp “needle-like” structures, or hexagons. At the time I used to draw my observations. Now of course it has become easier to acquire digital images. We also use fluorescence microscopy to see fractions, granules, etc. One can obtain a lot of information from this microscopy type too. To be honest though, I work most with liquid and gas chromatography, and asymmetrical flow, at present. But I find all these techniques complementary. 

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

I went to a Jesuit school, which in general don’t have the conventional syllabus taught in other schools. For secondary school I had access to several lab practicals which were very exciting. I had several inspiring teachers, including the one I mentioned before, who took me to the University campus. There was also a Jesuit priest who had studied Biology in the USA, and who in addition of teaching at the school’s campus, he used to teach practical Biology in the bell tower of the church. He had a range of microscopes for everyone – he taught us the basics of microscopy, and this would prove to be a useful skill in my later career. 

At University, the degree was relatively new when I studied, but we had several collaborations with France, Japan and other European countries. This was around the time when we were setting up several new labs with novel tools and techniques. In the 1970s there was a project with the OEA (Organization of American States) which allowed us to equip several labs with tools that at the time were state-of-the-art, such as gas chromatography, magnetic resonance, infrared, etc. These were in use around the time when I was a student. What I experienced was a mixture of relatively old equipment that was still functional, and a relatively small group – not many people study Chemistry in general so there were practicals in which we were 2 students at most. This was very motivating. And I had the great luck of having excellent teachers, such as the one who became my undergraduate mentor –Willy Rendón, and is now a colleague in the same department. From him I learnt many techniques including crystallization in small glasses in 100ml or 5ml – it’s beautiful chemistry. I find it very inspiring. The postgraduate degree with Bjorn was also very inspiring, and we’re now good friends. 

Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as a group leader at Universidad Mayor de San Andres?

I am now a Professor at the University. I came back from Sweden in 2010. My wife is Uruguayan and we had two children, so the idea was always to come back to Latin America, while making this transition smooth for the kids. We therefore planned to come back to Bolivia first and try for several positions and if nothing arose, we would then go to Uruguay. Luckily a position as a group leader became available at UMSA in Bolivia, and I was accepted. Until now we have received a lot of funding from several European countries including Sweden and Switzerland. We went from having relatively few pieces of equipment, to having labs equipped with the current state-of-the-art tools. It’s always harder to do science in this side of the world of course. We’ve tried and I think to a large extent succeeded in staying up to date, doing science that is relevant, and making it available through publications. We’ve managed also to focus on Bolivian native natural food components, which is one of our strengths. So my schedule allows me to do research, and to teach: I teach both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels (masters degree – Bolivia doesn’t yet have PhD programs). The degree of Chemistry has grown, but not that much. Now instead of the very few students enrolling when I was a student, we have classes of up to 15 students, so it’s still not a lot. Nevertheless, we interact with other faculties, for example, I teach in the Engineering degrees, which have a lot more students. I also teach in the faculty of Technology and Biochemistry. We’ve tried to work in an inter-disciplinary manner, and in our lab we have students and fellows from faculties other than Chemistry. It’s still not comparable to the amount of students that the degree of Law gets!  

Dr. Mauricio Peñarrieta and his team doing field research.

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

Yes, I have worked with scientists from Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador. Outside Latin America, we have collaborations with France (Montpellier), Spain (Seville) and Sweden. Regarding the collaborations in Latin America, I must admit that they have been “satellite” collaborations, and short term due to funding constraints. Conversely, our collaborations with Sweden, for example, are much more solid and longer-term. Nonetheless, there is a strong collaborative spirit in the region: we will soon be receiving students from Colombia, and we have received students from Brazil in the past. Regarding networks per se, I belong to one called REDUNIA – focusing on agro-industry and food engineering. That’s where the collaboration with Colombia arose, and which also allowed us to be in contact with Chile, Uruguay and Peru. 

Cocoa samples from field research.

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

In Bolivia there are many researchers who have done lots of interesting things, which are role models. One of them is Dr. Alberto Jimenez, his expertise is Chemistry of Natural products. He studied and worked in many countries including Japan and Canada, and he came back to Bolivia to put together the Institute of Pharmacy and Biochemistry. I admire his work. There’s also Dr. Jose Antonio Bravo who is now director of the Institute. He studied in France and focused his PhD on magnetic resonance, he is a member of the National Academy of Scientists. I think they taught me that Chemistry has a very interesting bigger picture. In Sweden there is Björn Bergenståhl of course, whom I consider a great researcher. About other Chemists, I find admirable those who contribute to fields like organic synthesis – developing new molecules. 

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

That’s a very good question. Gender imbalance is a huge problem. If you go to official statistics, it seems that Bolivia has more female than male scientists. However, if you take a close look at the faculties of Biology and Chemistry, you will see a very small number of women. Academia is very closed and very male-dominated. I have colleagues (women) who have found it much harder that their male counterparts, to secure a position as professors at Universities. This is very clear. I have discussed it with the authorities. But I feel this conversation is only very recent, so we’re just beginning to take measures to counter the effect of many years of male-domination of many disciplines. At a leadership position it seems they must face the entire system to make changes, so those changes are currently very minor and very slow. However, there are now special groups who aim at increasing women representation, and at raising awareness of the importance of gender balance. I have seen a change in this sense: some years ago this topic was not even on the table. Now it’s there and it’s becoming hard to ignore by people in positions of power. But that’s not enough. It’s still a very patriarchal organization. 

Are there any historical events in Bolivia that you feel have impacted the research landscape of the country to this day?

I don’t know if we have seen an impact: if you have a look at the GDP, Bolivia invests very very little in science – about 0.08%. The dictatorship allowed the University to be led by the military. Like Mexico and some other countries in Latin America, Bolivia has a very large indigenous population. Universities in the 1960s and 1970s in Bolivia were really “aimed” at white, middle-class Bolivians. The idea of heterogeneous Universities is very recent. UMSA is heterogeneous partly because it’s a state University. Also, the idea of the University now, represents the transition to democracy. What I mean is that Universities are now “revolutionized” to become more inclusive, but also many scholars fought in the streets for democracy, and so had an important role in achieving it. But because everything is relatively recent, I feel we’re still in a political arena, rather than moving fully to a purely scientific one. I wish there was more research carried out in other fields, like social sciences, so that we can also move forward in these areas too. At the beginning of Evo Morales’ government, it being a socialist government, a lot of resources were invested in the Universities. This has changed with the years. I don’t yet see a big “boom” in terms of all we could do in terms of research in sociology, anthropology, science, technology, etc. Bolivia is a super diverse country – there’s plenty to investigate and explore, but it’s still relatively limited. 

Have you faced any challenges as a foreigner if you have worked outside Bolivia?

Sweden is a country of possibilities – in terms of science, we could do anything we wanted, and this was great. I didn’t find the language very challenging – I love to talk so I feel this makes it easier for me to learn languages. Still, I found that Swedes were picky when it comes to foreigners speaking their language – so if you mispronounce the words, they will switch to English. But this means you can speak in English too any time. My wife, though was able to learn Swedish better. It’s true that if you do speak Swedish, the cultural integration becomes much easier. But Sweden is a country with very open mind and a very inclusive social vision. I can only say I had a very positive experience. It takes a while to understand the culture but then again, even with my wife who is Uruguayan, I see different cultural traits to those I have as a Bolivian. So I had, to a smaller extent, faced cultural clashes before. My daughter recently finished her undergraduate degree in anthropology, and I read one of her essays where she says she always felt as a foreigner everywhere, because in Sweden she was seen as Bolivian – but she spent a large part of her education years over there. In Bolivia she is seen as Uruguayan, and in Uruguay she is seen as Bolivian. I feel we as a family have done a lot to adapt, and it takes a lot of effort and a lot of energy.  

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

I think fluorescence microscopy has had a huge impact in science, receiving several Nobel prizes. In Chemistry, in the field of molecules, it brings about many possibilities. I have also used electron microscopy, and I find it allows us to gather a lot of interesting data too, especially in the field of nutrients research. 

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

One of the most exciting things I’ve seen is the starch granule. In Sweden we managed to see a quinoa granule with a great level of detail and I found this fascinating despite its simplicity. 

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

Always try to be curious. Go beyond what you are taught in class. Ask people who are researchers if you can get involved in projects. Even if it is not part of your subjects. This curiosity will allow you to go into depth in a specific topic, and gain expertise which will be useful to you as a scientist. You might try out many different things until you find what you really like, but this is great. I sometimes feel that in Bolivia, students ask less and less. Sometimes I ask my students whether they understood and no one answers, and no one asks questions. This should change: you should ask questions!  

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

We’re in a complex position now. Technology has placed us in a very unique position – when I was young, I didn’t have access to cell phones, and I only had access to a computer when I was 17 years old. In the 90s we started to use computers and cell phones. Technology is allowing many fields to move at a very high pace, and microscopy is definitely no exception. I think Bolivia has to consider investing in science and technology, which is something which has the potential to change the country’s economy and development altogether. We depend on foreign cooperation for this, sadly. It’s a different scenario than in other Latin American countries like Argentina, Uruguay or Mexico which have national funding and national organizations which regulate and promote research as is the case of CONACYT in Mexico. We have to build something like this if we don’t want to be left behind. I am about to turn 50 years old this year – in the remaining 15 years of my work life, I will continue doing my best to train new generations of scientists, and promoting science among the young. Hopefully this, together with the efforts of other researchers we can at some reach a critical mass that allows us to do solid research in our country. On the other hand, I’m very critical about the system which allows tenured positions to be life-long (without retirement being mandatory): so I have many colleagues who are 80+ years old who are still taking charge, and don’t give a chance to the young generations of scientists. So I want to avoid this – I want to do my best for the next decade, and then leave through the “big door”, so that I can be remembered fondly as someone who brought about useful changes, rather than people thinking “when is this old man retiring?”. This much is clear to me. 

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

Bolivia is a very diverse and very rich country in terms of natural resources. While when you think of Bolivia you might imagine llamas and mountains, over 70% of the country is Tropic – it’s really a tropical country. I love the country! You can see a huge change at >3000 m of altitude and 1000 m. The Uyuni Salt flat is a natural wonder for example. We have over 50 different cultures and languages within the country. Many of them are not globally known, people usually identify the Quechuas and the Aymaras, but there are many many more particularly in the low lands. While in Bolivia, in the past there seem to be an exclusion of indigenous people, nowadays there are more initiatives to promote the various indigenous nations. It’s super interesting to get to know the different cultures within one’s own country. 

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews

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