An interview with Veronica Eisner

Posted by , on 13 June 2023

MiniBio: Dr. Veronica Eisner is a professor at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, where she leads a lab since 2015, focusing on mitochondrial dynamics and their link to physio pathological processes. In parallel, she is the Academic Director of the Advanced Microscopy Unit at the same University, and has been in multiple leadership roles of the Unit since 2016. Veronica studied an undergraduate degree in Food Engineering. She then did her PhD at Universidad de Chile under the supervision of Dr. Sergio Lavandero, where she first became interested in cardiomyopathies and programmed cell death. She then did her first postdoc at Universidad de Chile, with Dr. Enrique Jaimovich and Dr. Cecilia Hidalgo, where she developed an interest for mitochondria. As a result she worked abroad in Italy in the lab of Dr. Rosario Rizzuto to gain further expertise in the topic. Veronica then did her second postdoc abroad, in the lab of Dr. György Hajnoczky’s lab in Philadelphia, where she specialized on mitochondrial calcium. Veronica is also a member of the executive committee of LABI (Latin American Bioimaging). Altogether she has a vision that involves bringing vanguard technology to the region, but above all fostering the development of novel technology and expertise in Latin America itself. 

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

I think it all started when I was a child. My father is a Chemical Engineer and he would sometimes take me and one of my brothers to the lab. He would teach us how to weight a signature 🙂 we would sign on filter paper and notice how the ink used on a signature has weight. Later he would do games where we would see a change in colour of liquids with chemical indicators. I was amazed by this and I found it super exciting to try and figure out how things work, and what’s behind the observations that I was doing. In junior high school I fell in love with cell biology. I had two teachers (husband and wife) who really inspired my curiosity for Biology as a subject. I wanted to learn more, and while I hesitated sometimes about what I wanted to study as a degree, this was a wonderful experience all in all. In fact the  undergraduate degree I studied was not Biology, it was Food Engineering which I studied in the University of Chile  – I wanted to do something more applied and to have an impactful role on society. It had a very strong Chemistry component and this has been very useful for my career in basic science later on. Once I finished my undergraduate degree, I enrolled on the PhD in Cell Biology – basic science, which was something I’d been wanting to do for a long time. 

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

I first started studying cardiac science during my PhD, and my interest in mitochondria derived from my studies on programmed cell death – my PhD focused on programmed cell death and transcription factors. I had to decide during my PhD thesis, whether I was going to focus the project on applied science or basic science. I considered doing biotechnology at this stage, because I felt the future was heading towards this, but at the same time, I had been keen to learn about the fundamentals of cell biology for a long time. When I had to make this decision, it was a decisive moment for the rest of my career. Actually, I had accepted to do a PhD with a renowned biotechnologist here in Chile, but I was really hesitant because I was more inclined towards basic science – but I feared whether I’d do a good job, whether I’d be accepted at all in the lab. And I had an important conversation with my fellow PhD students and a mentor that would later become very important as a collaborator and colleague, Dr. Mario Chiong. He told me that if I didn’t do what I was truly interested in during my PhD (namely, basic science) it would be difficult to this switch later on. He told me I would always be able to do something applied but regarding basic science, the earlier I made this transition, the better it would be. I think it was great piece of advice. So after much thought, next morning I was speaking with Dr. Sergio Lavandero, who then became my PhD supervisor, and who was recently awarded a National Prize here in Chile. He accepted me in his lab at Universidad de Chile, and told me I would have all the freedom to learn, make mistakes, and get familiar with basic science. I am eternally grateful to him because I learned a lot during this time, and this path was defined ever since. My PhD thesis was on cardiomyocytes, I learned how to work on primary cells and various models early on. I got engaged in the topic of cell death and mitochondria. Then I did my first postdoc at Universidad de Chile, in the Faculty of Medicine, with Dr. Enrique Jaimovich and Dr. Cecilia Hidalgo – both had historically worked on excitation-contraction (EC) coupling and excitation-metabolism coupling. During this time, and deriving from my PhD work, I focused on the role of mitochondria on EC coupling, but I switched systems at this stage, from cardiac muscle to skeletal muscle. I introduced the component of mitochondria to the labs’ focus. During this time I fell in love with skeletal fiber. I then did a second postdoc in the USA – while I had introduced the topic of mitochondria in my first postdoc lab, I didn’t have a lot of collaborators over here. I wanted to specialize on this, so I wanted to join a lab whose expertise was mitochondrial biology. So I decided to go abroad. During my first postdoc, I had done an internship in Italy, in the lab of Dr. Rosario Rizzuto, an expert in mitochondrial biology, particularly calcium. For my second postdoc, I joined Dr. György Hajnoczky’s lab in Philadelphia. His lab, as well as Dr. Rizzuto’s lab, are at the frontier of knowledge of mitochondrial calcium. So this was an excellent decision and a great experience. From there, I came back to Chile in 2014, first as a senior scientist in the lab of Enrique Brandan at Universidad Catolica, and during this year I finished publishing all the work from my postdocs, and apply for grants to establish my own group. I did so one year later, in 2015. Now as an independent researcher, I work with both models: cardiomyocytes, and skeletal muscle fiber. Ever since, I understood that there’s a lot still to learn about sub-cellular biology in physiologically relevant models, and how muscles work, how the heart works, how mitochondria while, strategically positioned within the cell (differently in skeletal and cardiac muscle) provide energy for fundamental cell processes, including contraction-relaxation for example. Ever since, I’ve worked with models of health and disease. I’ve studied cardiomyopathies, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, now we are working on senescence. The latter is more and more understood as an adaptative process associated with aging, rather than pathology. At the moment one of the projects we are working on is about adaptation of mitochondria crests in heart tissue during senescence.  My love for microscopy started while I was doing live imaging, when I started working with calcium in mitochondria. A main way to measure it is by live cell imaging. I did this early on, and in a very intuitive and organic way. I started from zero with colleagues and theoretical courses. Then I started this voyage. I think the best is to start working on microscopy as a student. It’s like learning how to ride a bike. One learns this as a child and loses the fear to fall – it becomes natural. I started with epifluorescence microscopy, then confocal microscopy to do protein localization studies, and now we do high resolution microscopy in 2D and 3D. 

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

I mentioned earlier on, this couple of teachers in junior high school who were husband and wife – I think something that was path defining for me from their way of teaching is that they were scientists themselves. This made their classes an extraordinary experience. But I think this could have happened anywhere in the world. I think that what makes Chile special is that doing science here and in Latin America in general, is that one has an excellent education with limited resources. By this I don’t mean that we don’t have money to do experiments, but one is lucky to have access to state-of-the-art technology, not to technology development. Another thing I consider important is that as a student you become aware of and understand the effort it takes to have things: from having buildings dedicated to research to vanguard microscopes of 2 million dollars. Perhaps in other parts of the world, this is easier. Although, truth be told, now that I collaborate with scientists from the USA and Europe, I realize it’s also not trivial for them to get this type of funding if you’re outside the radar of major funding organizations like the NIH. As a Latin American scientist, when one goes abroad as a researcher, one finds fully equipped labs, so all you have to do is dedicate yourself to your research – and do this with great access to resources. The other thing to point out is how quickly you can get access to those resources. In the USA, you order the reagents on a Friday, and you’ll have them with you the following Monday. In Chile and many other Latin American countries, you order the reagents on Friday and have to wait at least 3 weeks for them to arrive. This is in Santiago – the capital city, so you can imagine this is much slower in the North or South of the country, where the distribution channels are more challenging. One has to be creative, super-efficient and highly organized. I think these are great skills and virtues to develop. Partly due to this, I have been welcome everywhere where I’ve worked, as have my students. I think in general, Latin American scientists are very productive and make the most out of the resources that are available. 

Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as a group leader and Advanced Imaging Unit Director heavily involved in microscopy?

My role(s) have changed with time. The level of demand from the Imaging Unit oscillates. My main commitment nowadays is as a group leader, and I am an academic coordinator of the Advanced Imaging Unit. There’s an executive director for the Unit now, but a year after I started as a group leader (i.e. in 2016), I was playing both roles simultaneously – I was the leader of a research group, and leader of the facility, dedicated to service. Now my role is as a guide in decision-making processes regarding maintenance of equipment, preservation of equipment (or when needed, putting it out of service), decisions on the upgrades that different equipment needs, on the acquisition of equipment through grants (so my role involves a lot of grant-writing), and so on. This year, 2022 was the first year where I did not take full leadership of this. We were just awarded an equipment grant for the unit, so I’m very pleased. This doesn’t happen every year, so it’s always a good thing. I also participate in decisions about hiring new personnel and their evaluation. There’s also a committee (other group leaders) of group leaders who are dedicated to microscopy. We want the facility to be open to everyone, so that resources which are scarce and difficult to obtain (like microscopes) are available to as many researchers as possible. We want that the equipment we have is in the best possible conditions and that we have the best personnel to train others and provide service at the facility. We are also aiming to link the country’s infrastructure better. We’ve remodeled the facility, put some effort on the webpage – in summary, my role has changed through time, but this is the spirit and vision of the unit. I think students in particular have benefited from this vision, and to me it has been a gratifying experience. Also, I’ve had a lot of support from the University, the faculty, and the colleagues who are also members of the committee. When we opened this unit, the dean of the faculty told us to envisage the ideal microscopy unit that we wanted to achieve and take it from there until it materialized. I became heavily involved in the Unit to make sure that the tools the academic groups need, are available, and so that we can do great science at home. We have the privilege of doing science in the place where we were born and grew up, close to our families. We shouldn’t have to go abroad to do high-quality science, and the vision is to be able to achieve this at home. To be able to do research and train the next generation of investigators in our own country, not to be forced to do internships or degrees, or postdocs abroad all the time. One thing I keep in mind all the time is that it doesn’t become an extension of my own lab. As a leader I want the Unit to be a useful platform to as many labs as possible. Hiring personnel is difficult- especially for electron microscopy -I think people who prepare samples for EM are craftsmen and craftswomen in addition to being scientists – it takes a huge amount of skill. In fact, right our EM expert, Alejandro Munizava is about to retire. We’ve hired a new scientist, Liseth Garibaldi, who trained as an electron microscopist in Venezuela. As a result of Venezuela’s political situation, many people have migrated out of their countries into the neighbouring countries. In a public call, she was by far the best candidate and has been key for the unit’s development. Now we’ve been searching for more people, but it has been difficult. It’s very challenging. It’s a very particular expertise. You can train people, but when you run a unit, you have to be able to deliver, and provide the services at very high levels of skill and demand right away. To train this skill would take 1-2 years. On the other hand, in optical microscopy, we have hired highly skilled scientists too – recently we hired 2 specialists. One of them is Nicole Salgado who is also a member of the imaging unit at the Faculty of Medicine, she has great skill and managing abilities, and is now the technical director of the unit. Now she is doing a PhD in Image Analysis by distance learning in parallel to her job, something that np doubt takes a lot of effort and personal determination. We also determined we needed a biophysicist – Dr. Fernanda Garate did a PhD and postdoc on biophysics. She has also been key not only due to her microscopy skills but also her teaching ability. The idea in the unit is that all users are able to use the microscopes. So the orientation is towards teaching. Altogether we have as a vision to keep the unit with the best personnel, best resources and best teaching possible, available for the local and regional scientific community. 

How did you become involved with Latin American Bioimaging, and what are your expectations with regards to LABI and microscopy in Latin America?

I first became aware of LABI as a result of my interaction with Uruguayan investigators – I am originally from Uruguay 🙂 so I visit Uruguay often. Since these colleagues knew about my interest in microscopy, they  introduced me to Leonel Malacrida, and Leonel invited me to form part of LABI, which mostly works virtually because we are all in different places of Latin America. The first LABI meeting recently took place in Uruguay -I unfortunately couldn’t attend, but Steffen Hartel was there as one of the representatives of Chile. My expectations are mostly to strengthen the capacities of the region. Similar to my vision for what I want for Chile, but extended to the entire Latin American region. Basically to combine our strengths and learn from one another. For example, Argentina has a well established system, whereby they have mapped all the systems available in Argentina, which anyone can access and thus identify the different skills and capacities across the entire country. I think it would be fantastic to have this for the entire region. A database and mapping across the whole region would be great, not only in terms of equipment but also in terms of technical and scientific capacities, and training. I fully support the vision that we can do frontier science from Latin America with vanguard equipment and top experts within the region, without having to look for resources abroad. I also think LABI will be fantastic for networking – you get to meet other researchers and lines of research that you might not be aware of. Sometimes this communication is fragmented, and so LABI I think will play a key role in bridging gaps that exist in the region. 

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

This is an interesting question. Not quite. The person with whom I’ve spoken most is Luis Barbeito from Uruguay. Luis works on neurosciences – with astrocytes, and he has a great interest in mitochondria. We’ve discussed science to great extents but nothing concrete has come out. I’ve also been in touch with Alicia Kowaltowski who is also an expert in mitochondria. We haven’t collaborated, but rather we have had great scientific discussions. Altogether most of my collaborations are in the USA and Europe. I have lots of local collaborators, but there’s some level of short-sightedness when it comes to collaborating within the Latin America region. There’s a lot of fragmentation. For the same reason, I’m very excited about LABI and other initiatives. It will open the door to realize we can do extraordinary science without having to move to a different hemisphere. My group is well-established and we achieved this with local effort and local collaborators. I feel there is more space and freedom to promote local and regional collaborations. 

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

I don’t feel I faced huge challenges. Scientifically, I was well prepared to do my work. I was well received. Whatever challenges I can think of are more logistical. Perhaps the biggest challenge I can think of is access to technical support in labs. In the USA and Europe human resources are very expensive and scarce. I remember arriving to the lab in the USA and asking who was in charge of washing the glassware, and being told everyone washed their own. Of course one can do this, but there’s no service dedicated to everything. In Latin America there is a lot of human resources, at relatively low cost – which nonetheless talks about the poor payment that many people receive within the profession. Social movements that have taken place in other countries have demonstrated the value of a proper salary. I think realizing this was a shock for me. Beyond this, I feel I was in the best possible intellectual environments and in an excellent workplace. I am very happy with the time I spent abroad. In terms of discrimination I did not face challenges at the career stage where I was, but I imagine that if I had remained abroad as an independent researcher, I might have faced more challenges in this aspect. I started feeling them already at the end of my postdoc, but I recognize that how you are perceived (i.e. as ‘other’ or ‘foreign’) can play a huge role in career development. I myself am white, and my name is not necessarily easily distinguishable as Latin American, but my family is from Chile, my children’s dad is Chilean, my children are Chilean and they have more distinguishable Latin American features. Beyond the work environment, we have not suffered much discrimination except for once or twice, but I did sense that perhaps at higher levels in academia, this would be more of a challenge.   

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

This is a nice question. In Chile, Cecilia Hidalgo – she was a mentor during my first postdoc. She’s an expert in calcium and EC coupling. She did a switch relatively late in her career, from researching the skeletal muscle to the nervous system – she’s an expert in the ryanodine receptor. She has been a very influential scientist in my career, and she also has had a successful career in Chile, she received the National Science prize over 10 years ago. Nowadays she’s president of the Science Academy of Chile. She has been very important to me and to many Chilean women. Together with my other mentors, Enrique Jaimovich and Sergio Lavandero, they all gave me a lot of freedom to do science. This is a huge gift to any young scientist, especially in Chile and countries with limited resources. They all transmitted a key message: that it’s possible to do very high-quality science here in South America. Outside of Chile, my role model is Clara Franzini Armstrong -she’s an electron microscopist who is now retired. She was a member of the UPenn physiology institute. She discovered the structural basis of EC coupling through EM. One of her main discoveries was that the ryanodine receptor, which has a very specific pattern in EM, faces the dihydropyridine channels in a tissue-specific configuration (with its configuration in the skeletal muscle being different to the one in the cardiac muscle). In the skeletal muscle they are assembled and are activated in synteny, while in the cardiac muscle they are disassembled, side by side, and this gives rise to the calcium-induced calcium release. Clara’s contributions regarding structural biology allowed us to understand the physiological implications of these differences. She collaborated all along with cardiac physiologists, skeletal muscle physiologists and experts in EC coupling. I remember that the first time I met her at a Gordon Conference on EC coupling and skeletal muscle, every time there was a question from the audience, people would refer to her, or suggest that we should ask her – thus acknowledging her vast expertise. People listened to her. And she also mentored a lot of scientists who are now my colleagues, and experts in the field of mitochondria. I find it fascinating that she bridged this gap between structural findings and physiology. She still has material from which she is constantly making new discoveries, even though she is retired. She’s a role model for the type of science I like. 

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 consider myself a very privileged woman because I had people who contributed to my training, who never made distinctions based on gender. They made it very easy for me also when I became a mother, and made the link between this and being a scientist something very natural. But I do recognize that this is my personal reality, whereby I’ve also been lucky with my environment and my network of support – my family, my partner, who were always very supportive and this support was essential for me to continue my scientific career. I do see, however, that academic science is very aggressive and very male-dominated, especially as a group leader and other positions of ‘power’ and ‘decision-making’ privileges. I have never allowed myself to be intimidated- I navigate this academic world with a lot peace in my mind, but I do realize there are entire Departments in the Faculty which are 100% men group leaders. But in my Faculty there are about 5 women who are full professors, and over 30 men with the same position. When I arrived there were only 2 women so it’s been improving, but this gap is still significant. I do feel that the higher up you go in your career, the more pronounced this gap becomes and the more gender-based discrimination you face. We all have to be more conscious about gender equity. I feel in more recent years there have been more initiatives and instruments to provide support to women to develop their careers, for instance funds to hire women who are care-takers (of children or other family members). In contrast, when I did my PhD, my fellowship did not have pre- and post-natal maternity leave. Nowadays fellowships do. When I did my postdocs there were some pre- and post-natal maternity leave already existed and I benefited from it. I see that also now these fellowships also cover paternity leave for men so they can provide support to their partners in this difficult and vulnerable time. I think a lot of efforts are being made, but I should acknowledge that this has derived from a lot of feminist movements and a lot of struggle. I think things will continue to improve – it’s unthinkable that it will go backwards, at least in Chile. In Chile I feel these advances are beyond whatever political trend the country is dominated by, unlike other countries where sadly this is not the case. 

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

I had to think about this question a few times, but I feel I’ve answered it. I feel live cell imaging is what I enjoy most because on one hand you follow objects or phenomena which have physiological meaning. It’s a very complete experimental setup which provides a lot of information. You can determine function from an image, and link this to location within the cell. For me this is fascinating, and to which we dedicate a lot of effort in my lab. Most recently we developed algorithms for complex image analysis for instance to go further in out work. On the other hand, EM is also a pillar in my lab to the organization of organelles – in particular mitochondria and their association with the endoplasmic and sarcoplasmic reticulum, and how this relates to function. This inspiration comes from Clara Franzini’s line of research – to try to understand how the cell is organized and how it becomes disorganized in pathological conditions. For me, understanding the structure-function link is pivotal, and that’s why EM has been key for our work. 

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

This is easy! It’s a phenomenon we still don’t fully understand which is also beautiful 🙂 When I was studying mitochondrial fusion dynamics in the adult heart I realized while analysing images that the kinetics of mitochondrial matrix fusion in the heart is particularly slow with respect to all other cell types I’ve studied- which includes plenty of other types (skeletal muscles, primary cell cultures and various cell types). I think there are a lot of mechanistic components that determine this kinetics. Me and my group are currently to understand what these components are, for instance if the inner membrane complexity plays a role – mitochondrial crestae are very complex in the adult heart compared to the neonate heart with respect to the skeletal muscle. We’ve also noticed events of transient fusion whereby mitochondrial briefly fuse, close the fusional pore, and then open again. This is something that also occurs in the fusion of exocytic vesicles. I’d say this is the most intriguing observation – which I did in 2012, which has guided a lot of the work we do to this day. I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this, trying to understand this phenomenon better, and how it might be linked to mitochondrial structure-function in the heart. 

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

The best way to learn is through practice- use the microscopes as much as possible – get involved in the learning process. Use different systems and microscope types – be open to using home made or commercial microscopes of any brand, be open to integrating home-made algorithms or software to already existing systems, and through this try to learn both from the technical side and the theoretical side. Join and learn from people with expertise in the subject – I think this is one of the best things in science-the opportunity to learn from others, which I think is vital in microscopy. Use the resources you have – that’s why I think as a Head of Unit, it’s vital to make the most out of the resources – human and hardware and software, and to make it all available to others. 

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? 

In the future I want vanguard technology to be available in Chile – that we don’t have to go abroad to be able to do the best microscopy or scientific work. My hope and dream for the future is to bring live cell super-resolution microscopy to Chile. I want us to have a live cell STED microscope – so I want to bring this technology within the next 5 to 10 years. I also want to support the development of structural biology, specifically to bring cryo-EM. But there we need experts in this field, which is something currently lacking here in Chile, so we have to develop this expertise. Finally, in the bigger picture a dream of mine is that we go beyond being technology users to becoming technology developers in Latin America. That we can develop new tools which can be used by other researchers in the world. I think this is a dream for the mid to long-term future. But it’s a dream that is already incubating. I think we will have to dedicate a huge amount of effort for this to happen and will require a lot of commitment from various fields, but I think it will happen. 

Beyond science, what do you think makes Chile a special place to visit?

I think Chile’s geography and its people. We have the most beautiful landscapes you can imagine! The desert in the North, the lakes in the South, the sea, the Andes… it’s a beautiful country. On the other hand, people are very warm! And finally, Chile is a land of poets. I you visit Chile it’s not unlikely that you end up visiting a poet’s house or a museum, or attend an open reading, and this is always enriching. Once my mentor György Hajnoczky asked my why Chile had so many poets, and I didn’t know what to answer. So I asked my children’s father why, since he is a poet himself. He answered that it doesn’t cost much to be creative. There’s a huge creative capacity here and this manifests itself in literature and the arts. 

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews, Blog series

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