An interview with Brenda Delfin

Posted by , on 6 June 2023

MiniBio: Brenda Delfin is a researcher at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, in Lima, Peru. She is a Biologist by training, and has specialized in Neuroscience. She is currently head of the animal house and interim leader of the Neuroscience of development lab at UPCH. Joining her expertise in neuroscience and her passion for teaching, learning and behaviour, she is currently doing a MSc degree in Psychology of Knowledge and Learning. Her hope is to bring together these two interesting areas in her PhD project, and in the long term, be able to contribute to public policies related to teaching. In this exciting interview, Brenda shares a holistic view on science and learning, the important of good mentors, and the uniqueness of us as individuals deriving from the uniqueness of our biology. She discusses the pivotal role that microscopy has played on this notion of uniqueness. 

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

Since I was very young, I used to love science. I already did very well in the courses of Biology, Physics and Chemistry. But beyond getting good grades, I was genuinely interested in those topics. I’m a very curious person and I want to understand why things happen and how they happen. I’m also very observant – I pick up details around me, and I place these observations in my brain in a way such that I can generate questions about them. This is naturally, the scientific method. That’s how my brain works, and it’s something that has been very helpful once I became a scientist. 

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

I studied Biology at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia – it’s one of the best Universities in Peru for basic sciences and biosciences. Within the degree of Biology you can specialize in specific topics, and I always showed more interest towards cell biology and genetics. The heads of laboratory are all very helpful and very open to take students as interns. When I had almost finished my undergraduate degree, I was looking for a lab where I could carry out my research project – which one needs to be awarded the degree of Bachelor in Science. That’s when the lab of Neurobiology of Development was founded – and that’s the lab I belong to now. The head of the lab, Edward Malaga, lived many years abroad, and had just returned to Cayetano Heredia – so he was recruiting students at the time to join his newly formed lab. In his lab we try to elucidate molecular and genetic mechanisms to better understand neurodegenerative diseases. We use zebrafish embryos as models. When I joined his lab, I realized a lot of the work was based on microscopy. Until then, I had only ever done brightfield microscopy. Working with zebrafish embryos and larvae is a huge advantage in the sense that for instance – embryo development is external – it doesn’t happen within the adults. Fertilization is external and development is external, so, what we do is collect the eggs and observe them under the microscope. Another advantage is that the embryo is transparent, so we don’t have to manipulate the sample a lot in order to be able to observe it under the microscope. Development is also super fast. Within 24 hours there’s already a lot of fully differentiated tissues, and within about 4 days all the organs are fully formed. As vertebrates, we have 80% homology with them, so they are extremely useful models. Their transparency is a huge advantage for various types of microscopy including confocal – which we use a lot. In the lab we have also many transgenic reporter lines which express RFP or GFP under promoters that are transcriptionally active in nervous tissue – since this is our topic of interest. So without any form of staining we can already see a lot of processes in the fish. During the COVID-19 pandemic I wanted to start my PhD, but I had to change plans. Originally I wanted to work on molecular and cellular biology of neuro-development, but I’m also very passionate about education. Since I finished my undergraduate degree, I started working in Education, especially at undergraduate level. With this newfound passion, my plan is now to re-orient my career towards neuroscience of education. It’s really interesting. While neuroscience on its own is a big passion for me, education is very fulfilling for various reasons. On one hand, the human side of education is wonderful, but beyond that, with my knowledge in neurosciences I have managed to accelerate my learning curve as an educator and am better able to apply pedagogy, and teaching strategies for the students. I find it’s been an advantage to see, as a scientist in neuroscience, that at a cellular and tissue level, there’s no two cells and no two tissues that are exactly the same. This has helped me have a solid point of view on neuroscience in different areas, such as education – how can two brains be the same? And therefore, how can two brains capture information in the same way? And touching on other areas, there are lots of stigmas on mental health for example, but when you see all the differences at the cellular level, this brings a whole new level of understanding. I’m currently doing a MSc in Psychology of knowledge and learning, to complement my training. The next step for me is to join both things together: neuroscience and psychology. I hope it allows me to study aspects of learning, at molecular and genetic level, with a more human focus. And in the long run, I hope this allows me to impact, say, public policy regulating teaching and learning, and education as a system of its own. 

Can you tell us a bit about what you have found uniquely positive about becoming a researcher in Peru, from your education years? And can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as head of lab and animal unit at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia?

At school something that was very useful for me, was the Peruvian culture itself- and perhaps this can be generalized to Latin American culture: it’s the care and affection that is shown during the education years. We’re more expressive and warmer than other cultures. In my school I was lucky to have a very open and caring environment. The teachers were parent figures for us –for me my mentors at school played an important role for my development. For me, my school played a key role in my development. It was a place where I felt safe, and where I could grow and develop. This was extremely valuable for me, and has had long-lasting effects in my career of course. 

Another aspect, which perhaps is not 100% positive, but I’ve made the most out of it, is that the science we can do here is very limited – we face precarious conditions to do science many times. There’s not enough funding – we have to order reagents from abroad, and this translates into endless bureaucracies and expensive science. There are very few universities in Peru offering the degree of science at a level that is competitive with the rest of the world. Science disciplines also not very popular degrees, so it becomes a negative feedback loop: if there is not enough demand for these careers, then the State also doesn’t see the need to improve them or invest in them, and so on. I’m currently acting as a lab head in Edward Malaga’s lab. He applied to become a member of Congress and succeeded so he is now in fact a Congressman. Since I had worked closely with him in all the scientific projects and as his personal assistant, I was asked to assume leadership of the various areas he was in charge of, including the lab of Neuroscience of development, and the animal house (for zebrafish). I feel I have a dual role: the scientific and the administrative. As I mentioned, I see now more clearly all the barriers to doing science in Latin America, including all the bureaucracies. When one does science abroad, you see how it’s easier – even in other countries within Latin America. So, going back to your question, I personally feel I’ve been able to make the most out the deficiencies of the scientific system in Peru – note: neither I think we deserve these barriers, nor do I want to romanticize the precariousness in which we work in Latin America. Still, we have to think out of the box to be able to do science here. We have to get creative given the lack of resources. We have to prepare every salt and every buffer from scratch. So we become much more knowledgeable on how each process works. We have to be more aware of everything that could go wrong, and prepare accordingly. There’s no room for poor planning in our experiments, and little room for mistakes in general. I think, as long as this does not impact your mental health, this allows you to develop very useful skills, beyond the bench. 

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

Outside Peru, just conferences and workshops. But I’ve never done internships or directly worked in another Latin American country. But for example, I believe it was Prof. Flavio Zolessi who referred me to you. With Flavio, we are in the Latin American network of zebrafish. I met Flavio in 2018, due to a course that took place in Mexico, and from then on, I’ve been part of this great network of Latin American researchers. 

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

That’s a difficult question. Perhaps one of those role models might be Prof. Jorge Arévalo – he is also a Biologist, I work with him as a lecturer. For me, he is very inspiring because he is very disciplined and demanding, but without losing empathy. He puts a lot of effort to find the middle ground. At the university where I am, he is one of the people who genuinely cares about the students’ wellbeing. He has given me freedom to explore pedagogy which can work better in teaching, for example – and I truly appreciate this freedom. So for me he bring together the human aspect, the teaching quality, and the scientific discipline -which are all very important for me. 

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

Oh, this question is coming at a very difficult time for me. We just had elections for district municipalities – local governments – and there’s been a wave of elections of ultra-conservative people. To the extent that some of them deny feminicides – they say it’s a pity there’s been many deaths, but that it’s not related to gender violence. They started their government since January, and they already started policies that are really anti-progressive, to the point that artistic murals that have any political connotation (even though art is almost always political) are eliminated because “they go against the values of the city”. So, I feel in Peru we’re currently regressing, instead of progressing, when it comes to gender policies. It’s really disappointing. Six years ago we were still progressing – with important gender topics reaching the political agendas, but the last 2 or 3 years these ultra-conservative groups are destroying that progress. Still, I feel there are more and more people bothered by inequality of gender. This tends to happen in cosmopolitan cities like Lima – the capital of Peru. I think this is to a great extent due to the large influx of different cultures and different points of view. But because Peru is quite centralized, perhaps many places other than Lima are still very conservative, and misogyny is still common. We face many challenges in this respect. The media and the politicians are also showing this regression, and this impacts science too at the end of the day. There are degrees with no women- some engineering degrees for example. In basic sciences, we are 50:50 or even more women. The collective mindset still perpetuates this notion that women are better suited for other jobs (not the hard sciences or engineering), and that we are more delicate and sensitive. In my personal case, I went to a girls-only school, so there was no difference: I was always in an environment where we were all encouraged to reach our highest potential, without any gender-based prejudices. Once I went out “into the world” I’ve been able to detect when people try to push barriers in my direction, based on my gender, and I’ve been able to reject these barriers. But perhaps there have been decisions that have affected me without me noticing. For example, I have seen a trend in some labs, in which women are assigned jobs of maintenance and organization, while men are assigned “intellectually challenging” scientific projects, perhaps with the excuse that men are less careful and more disorganized. But that’s no excuse: men should learn how to be careful and organized. To go back to your question, there’s a lot of gender imbalance. 

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

I did an internship in France. I think a big challenge came from the bureaucracies. Even my French colleagues complain about bureaucracies. One thing that came as a surprise is that often in Latin America we tend to think that life in developed countries is easy – and once you arrive there, you see that it’s not the dream world. They also have endless strikes, bureaucracies, inefficient systems, and so on. At the end of the day, we are all human, and the systems we develop have errors. While the systems in Europe are perhaps indeed more efficient, they are still not faultless. So this made me realize that my mindset is very colonized – we assume that we are the worst and that the “first world” is perfect, and it’s not. And I can’t generalize regarding the people I met. I met some that were very nice and helpful, and some that were very arrogant and unkind. I have no way of knowing whether this was based on racism, but that’s what I saw. I was discriminated against in shops for example, but I don’t know if this was because I was a foreigner or because I was a student (and they assumed I didn’t have enough money to buy at the shops). There’s also the language challenge! French people are not very keen on speaking in a language other than their own in their country. So I had to learn French of course, to be able to communicate at all. I must say, the University of Lille was very helpful and welcoming of foreign students- they organized events to promote integration, they offered language courses and so on. I feel Lille is also a very warm city. I have heard about different experiences by people who were in other French cities which were less welcoming. Fortunately in my case, there’s nothing negative I can think of. 

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

I’d say confocal microscopy! I personally find it fascinating that in order to be able to use it well, and obtain the best images possible, you need to truly understand the basis and the principles of confocal microscopy. I might not be a physics expert in optics, but I think a significant understanding is necessary. I feel this is not the case for some of the other microscopy techniques, like bright field, where you can operate the microscope relatively easily. In confocal microscopy there are so many details you need to know, that both, to obtain good images, and to solve problems that might arise while acquiring images, it’s necessary that you understand more about the principle of this type of microscope. The reward you get from this learning curve is of course the beautiful images you can acquire – a good focal plane, a good resolution. With our confocal microscopes, we can do 3D visualization. I think confocal microscopy has a huge amount of wealth. Here in my institute we have the Zeiss LSM 880.  

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

Everything I see is extraordinary  I take images of neurons and axons, which are fascinating. In general I find everything in the microscopy world fascinating, but something that has been hyper-valuable, even on a personal level, is that I’ve seen probably thousands of neural structures, and I’ve never seen two that are exactly the same. This observation and this concept, for me has been life-changing, even in the way I see life. Picture this: at a cellular level, there are no two structures that are equal – (and this is within the same organism – let alone between organisms!). It makes you think – why do we find it so difficult to accept that we (different people) are so diverse. People think, perceive, act and feel in different ways – and how could it be otherwise, if at a cellular level, at an anatomical level, and the interconnections between anatomical structures, we are so different. Being aware of how diverse we are at the most basic biology levels, is a super powerful concept for me, which has been brought about by microscopy. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have obtained from microscopy. 

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

First and foremost – and this is just my point of view – I would have loved if someone early in my career would have given me this piece of knowledge: academia is unnecessarily perfectionist and competitive. I think in general, academia glorifies personal sacrifices for the sake of “the scientific career”, to a point where it’s unhealthy. For example, it’s not uncommon that people tell you, full of pride, that they spent all night doing an experiment, and people reacting to that as “wow, you’re amazing!”. Or people bragging about not seeing their family and friends for 5 years because they’ve been working very focused in the lab, and people reacting as “wow, you sacrifice so much! You’re so great!”. There’s a glorification to this, and there’s a glorification of attending the best universities in the world- as a necessary step to be a credible scientist, when this is not true. This competitiveness, and these notions of self-sacrifice, are very unhealthy. So, my advice to someone young is take all these notions with a grain of salt – be aware that you’re entering an environment that in general, is unnecessarily unhealthy. There’s also a pressure to find your niche immediately, but my advice is that there is no rush. Take your time to find what you’re truly passionate about. I’ve seen many people who never take the time to really do this introspection: they rush into one degree after the next – mostly because there’s also a glorification on how young you are when you pursue your various degrees- when in reality it couldn’t matter less. There’s a lot of pressure to overachieve all the time, but this comes at the cost of something else – and all this toxic environment ends up damaging your mental health: you end up second guessing yourself, being depressed and anxious, thinking that you’re never good enough. I feel that the system as it currently is, takes away the fun and the passion. I feel it’s not only a toxic system, but even a classist one: you’re not only valued from how much you publish, but also where you publish and where you studied. We live in a world where we all come from different backgrounds and have different levels of privilege. In developing countries we simply don’t have the same resources as the Global North, and so it makes no sense to be judged on things that are out of our control, or that we are judged as being less worthy because the work we did was done in Latin America, and not the Global North. There is a lot of prejudice in science – it’s very old-fashioned. So you can’t take it personal. Never take it personal. Be realistic, though. So, my overall advice is to think of yourself as a person first and foremost – your professional life is part of you, but it is not you. It doesn’t define you. 

Also, I would say, something that has helped me is to find people who are healthy in their notion of what science is, and with whom I can enjoy doing science. I think, for example, Flavio Zolessi is a very successful scientist, but he is very “human” and very kind. I’m currently collaborating with him in a research project, and he’s wonderful. He communicates very well, he’s very humble, he’s always willing to help others, to listen, and to improve the system. He’s a really nice person – so, my advice is: surround yourself with people whom you can trust and learn from in a way that makes science enjoyable, and a safe and pleasant endeavor, and not something you have to suffer. Find mentors with whom you feel comfortable. 

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

You’re also asking this question at a difficult time, when Peru is going through a very tough crisis. But anyway, focusing on the positive, Peru is a hyper-diverse country – in cultures, and therefore in everything else! We have lots of original people – there are over 40 native languages in Peru. And even if we speak the same language, each region has its own culture, its own festivities, its own gastronomy, its own personality – it’s like lots of micro-worlds within the same country. I personally love this. I think diversity is super enriching and valuable. I’m proud of being Peruvian because of this diversity. I think as a country (at the governmental level), Peru hasn’t always treated its citizens kindly. As citizens we are always competing for wellbeing, so this generates a survival mindset. Still, as a population, we care for one another, and in general we are a united country. Much more than what the media insists on showing. We also have a huge diversity of landscapes and an impressive cultural heritage. If you come to Peru as a tourist you’ll never leave 🙂 there are millions of things to see and do. We have mountains, jungles, forests, coasts, sea, etc. It’s a beautiful country! 

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews, Blog series

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