An interview with Helena De La Torre

Posted by , on 18 July 2023

MiniBio: Dr. Helena De la Torre has been a lecturer at Universidad Técnica de Ambato since 2021, specializing in microbiology, molecular biology, immunology, and biotechnology. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL). During her research projects, she explored RNA interference in shrimps and the mucosa of the fish Dormitator latifrons. Subsequently, she secured funding from the Ecuadorian government to pursue a MRes degree in Infection and Immunobiology at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, focusing on the kinetoplastid parasite Trypanosoma brucei. Helena completed her PhD at the University of Glasgow, concentrating on the characterization of protein kinases necessary for cytokinesis in T. brucei parasites. In her current capacity, she undertakes various roles such as mentoring and teaching, where she highlights the significance of microscopy and imparts knowledge to the upcoming generation of scientists in Ecuador.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

Since I was young, my parents mentioned that I had a desire to become a teacher. Both my mother and grandmother are teachers, so it seemed to run in the family. While I don’t have a clear memory of this, I do recall wanting to be a journalist because I had a passion for seeking the truth. Interestingly, Biology was not my favorite subject in school since it focused mainly on learning cycles. Instead, I found myself drawn to Physics and even considered pursuing a degree in that field. However, my interest took a significant turn when I stumbled upon a picture of a two-headed cow in a dictionary. This image fascinated me, and I wanted to understand the underlying reasons behind such anomalies. In the 6th grade, I contemplated whether to pursue Physics or a discipline that would enable me to investigate the peculiarities of the cow. Fortunately, my uncle, who is a physician, introduced me to a scientist at a conference and sought advice on potential career paths. The scientist suggested studying Medicine or Biology with a focus on Molecular Biology and Genetics. Since I wasn’t particularly drawn to Medicine, I decided to pursue Biology but always with an emphasis on Genetics and Molecular Biology. Although Biology classes involved field trips for subjects like Botany, I must admit that I disliked outdoor excursions. The sun often gave me headaches, and I generally didn’t fare well in outdoor settings. I was born in the wrong country! Nonetheless, these circumstances ultimately led me to study Molecular Biology.

Helena with her colleagues at the Faculty of Science and Food Engineering in Ecuador, and with her colleagues at the University of Glasgow.

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

During my time at Glasgow University, my interest in Molecular Biology blossomed, leading me to pursue a Masters degree in research. While working on an RNA interference project with shrimps in Ecuador, funding constraints prevented us from completing the study as planned. However, we published an alternative study on the Pacific fat sleeper fish’s mucus, which deepened my fascination with parasites. Inspired by a documentary on Chagas disease by Mercedes Sosa, I chose to explore the intersection of immunology and parasitology for my Master of Research (MRes) degree. During this time, I was determined to explore the intersection of immunology and parasitology. For my first project, I joined the lab of Prof. Jeremy Mottram, collaborating with Fernando Fernandez, to study Trypanosoma brucei differentiation. Until that moment, I had never set foot in a cell culture room, and I remember gazing through the microscope, instantly captivated by these fascinating creatures. That marked the beginning of my research journey. Having developed a deep appreciation for the work I was doing on T. brucei, I expressed my interest in joining Prof. Jeremy’s lab for my Ph.D. I returned to Ecuador during that period to complete the necessary bureaucratic procedures and later returned to pursue my Ph.D. When I informed Prof. Jeremy about my intention to join his lab, he proposed a collaboration with another principal investigator, Dr. Tansy Hammarton, who had recently returned from maternity leave. Consequently, I completed my Ph.D. with both Prof. Jeremy and Dr. Tansy as advisors, conducting my day-to-day work in Glasgow at Dr. Tansy’s lab. Upon finishing my Ph.D., I returned to Ecuador. In Ecuador, focusing on T. brucei would be less relevant since this disease is primarily endemic to Africa. However, we have other kinetoplastid parasites, such as Leishmania and Trypanosoma cruzi, which cause significant diseases like Chagas disease. This has become the focus of my research. I hold a deep affection for kinetoplastids! Currently, I am facing challenges in publishing my work from the Ph.D., but that’s a topic for another discussion.

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

During my education, I had the opportunity to study at a religious school exclusively for girls. It was both fortunate and unfortunate because I never encountered the bias that certain subjects were more suitable for boys or girls. In our school, equality was emphasized, and we all wore the same uniforms, from the ribbon in our hair to the socks and the uniform itself. Our differences were based solely on our minds and abilities. The teachers and nuns provided us with abundant resources to explore our interests beyond the classroom.

One aspect of education in Ecuador that I didn’t appreciate was the limited range of professions that were promoted as highly valuable. The emphasis was mostly on careers in Medicine, certain Engineering fields, or Law. When I informed people that I intended to study Biology, the common response would be, “Why would you study Biology if you are a good student? You should study Medicine.” However, I had the opportunity to study in Belgium for a year as a Rotary Club awardee, where I encountered a different mindset. There, the focus was less on theory and more on fostering an inquisitive and curious mind. After returning to Ecuador from Belgium, I was fortunate to have many teachers with Ph.D. degrees who possessed a research mindset and encouraged it among students. I derived great benefits from this environment. It is crucial to have individuals who motivate and support you in pursuing a scientific career, assuring you that your dream of becoming a scientist is neither too wild nor unrealistic. They pushed us to learn English, travel abroad, and broaden our horizons. When you lack examples and role models, a career in science may appear out of reach.

Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as a lecturer at Universidad Técnica de Ambato?

Currently, I am residing in the Andes region of Ecuador, which is approximately a 12-hour bus ride from my coastal hometown. I work as a lecturer and teach three courses: Immunology, Molecular Biology, and Principles of Biotechnology. Additionally, I am actively involved in an Outreach program organized by the university. This program provides us with opportunities to engage with society and contribute to solving real social problems. In the past year, I participated in a project focused on Salmonella. This involved monitoring marketplaces in both urban and rural areas to assess the prevalence of Salmonella. This semester, I will be working on a fieldwork project aimed at identifying beneficial microorganisms for agriculture, particularly for crops that are economically important in the region. These projects enable young students to see the practical application of the theoretical knowledge they have acquired. We are also in the process of establishing other projects, such as partnering with an institution called Cedia to provide molecular biology training and conducting research on microbiota in indigenous populations of Ecuador, exploring the impact of their primary food sources on their microbiota.

Securing external funding is often necessary for conducting research, and part of my role involves seeking such funding opportunities. I also provide guidance and advice to students, especially when they propose projects that may be impractical to carry out given the available resources and time constraints in Ecuador. It is essential for them to remain focused, as there are now regulations in Ecuador that limit the duration of a BSc course (including the thesis). Overall, my job entails teaching, engaging in outreach activities, conducting research projects, seeking funding, and offering guidance to students, all of which contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge and its practical application in Ecuador.

Helena teaching a class, and with her students and colleagues at various events.

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

During my time in Glasgow, I had the opportunity to interact with many Latin American colleagues, including individuals from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and other countries. However, I must admit that Ecuador is not yet a prominent research hub, which limits the number of strong international collaborations we have. Bureaucratic processes can also be quite challenging and affect research endeavors. This is particularly true in public universities, where navigating through bureaucratic hurdles can be extremely difficult.

At present, I am not in a position where I can make significant contributions to foreign collaborations due to the lack of my own funding. Moreover, Ecuador faces significant limitations dictated by its constitution regarding genetic modification. The use of transgenic organisms is strictly prohibited. Unfortunately, decisions on these matters are often made by politicians without a clear understanding of the intricacies of biological research. Consequently, when we wish to work with certain plasmids in plants, we must consult lawyers to determine whether such activities are permissible. This can be a major obstacle and is often quite frustrating. In addition, I feel that the opinions of scientific experts are not always valued as highly as they should be. Another factor contributing to the limitations of research in Ecuador is the scarcity of resources. Basic research is not pursued extensively since it must be applied research to be competitive for funding. To secure funding, researchers are required to demonstrate tangible outcomes which is not always realistic. All of these factors, including limited international collaborations, bureaucratic challenges, restrictions on genetic modification, undervaluation of scientific expertise, and resource constraints, can pose limitations for research and collaborations, particularly in the region.

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

My teacher at the university, Dr. Elva Camba, instilled in us the belief that we should never impose limitations on ourselves. She taught us that it doesn’t matter if you are a woman, Latin American, or 1.50 m tall – you should never let anyone walk over you. Another person who comes to mind is Dr. Monica Mugnier, a principal investigator in the United States who works on T. brucei. During a Gordon Conference that I attended, she shared that sometimes as scientists we tend to think that we’re the only ones who can discover something novel and that this capacity of discovery makes us better when in reality this is the wrong approach: the parasite does what it does, regardless of whether you see it or not. And if it’s not you who catches the parasite doing something, someone else will. We are not unique in what we can do. I found her philosophy very refreshing and candid. It is important to embrace new ideas and perspectives. In the UK, I felt there was a tendency to believe that only their way of doing science was correct. So it is always wonderful to hear different opinions and philosophies on life and science.There are other scientists whose work I admire, such as Luisa Figueiredo, and the contributions of other Latin American researchers like Juan Quintana. I find their work fascinating. I also greatly admire Jim Scott, a lab manager at the Wellcome Center for Molecular Parasitology in Glasgow. He was always kind and willing to help others. Whenever I had questions, he never made me feel foolish for asking them. I aspire to be like him. It can be challenging, though, because as a scientist, we are often driven to achieve and be the best. The field is filled with overachievers, but humility is a crucial quality to cultivate. I also struggle with not repeating patterns of treatment that I experienced in the past. For example, I was exposed to the philosophy that it’s either sink or swim, and at times, I find myself reacting in the same way. However, I constantly remind myself that this mindset is not healthy. For instance, I’ve witnessed PhD students quitting their programs, and instead of the PIs asking themselves what they could have done better as leaders and colleagues, their immediate response is often “the student wasn’t cut out for this career.” Kindness and compassion should always be prioritized. The most valuable person in the field is not the one who publishes the most papers or wins the most awards, but rather the one who embodies kindness and support. I believe this philosophy should be embraced and practiced more widely.

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

During interviews, I have encountered biases firsthand. One PI told me, “Your CV is impressive, but I already have too many women in my lab, which creates conflicts.” Conversely, another PI said, “I prefer you because women are always more organized and orderly.” These judgments were made without truly knowing us. While salary parity is not an issue in Ecuadorian public institutions, there are still challenges. Rude behavior from male PIs is often justified as “rigorous” or “demanding,” while the same traits in women are judged differently, leading to derogatory comments. Initiatives like REMCI (Red Ecuatoriana de Mujeres Científicas) aim to address these issues and increase women’s representation. As a female mentor, I often find my scientific opinions undervalued, while being expected to assist without recognition. Inclusivity must extend beyond cis-gender individuals, and cultural differences, such as personal boundaries, need to be respected. Attitudes toward women in leadership positions and the prevalence of misogyny still require significant progress.

Helena and her students and colleagues.

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

In recent years, Ecuador has faced various challenges such as dollarization, the El Niño phenomenon, an earthquake, and the white spot syndrome virus affecting shrimps. These events caused economic hardships and a brain drain. However, there was a new scholarship program that created a science boom, providing more opportunities for Ecuadorian scientists. Previously, access to education and working abroad was complicated and unequal.  There was a focus on promoting education aimed to bring back expertise and contribute to the country’s growth. While Ecuador hasn’t experienced recent brutal dictatorships like other Latin American countries, racism remains prevalent, with indigenous and afro-Ecuadorians facing additional barriers.

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

During my time in Glasgow, I encountered challenges with the Scottish accent, which, combined with my own English accent, made communication difficult at times. While some people I encountered like Jim Scott were incredibly helpful, others were not as accommodating. Another struggle I faced was scientific writing in English. As a non-native speaker, I often felt inadequate and doubted my intelligence because I couldn’t express myself as proficiently in writing. This had a profound impact on my mental health and self-confidence. Additionally, I was unaware that writing doesn’t come naturally to everyone or that writer’s block is a common phenomenon. Negative feedback from my PhD supervisor made me fear that I wouldn’t be able to graduate, which was particularly worrisome since my parents’ house was used as collateral for my scholarship. Instead of constructive guidance, the feedback I received on my writing felt destructive and discouraging. It seemed as if I was the problem, as no one openly discussed their struggles during my time as a PhD student. Only now, through more open communication, have I discovered that many others were silently suffering. I believe this needs to change.

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

During my microscopy experience, I’ve primarily worked with light microscopes, rather than electron microscopes. Although I don’t have a specific favorite among the light microscopes, I find them all quite intriguing. Overall, what I truly appreciate about light microscopy is the ability to explore the sub-cellular realm of the micro-world.

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

The moment that ignited my passion for microscopy was when I first laid eyes on T. brucei through the microscope. It was a captivating experience. As my project progressed, I had the opportunity to label various proteins associated with the parasite’s life cycle and observe their behavior. The ability to integrate data from diverse experiments was truly enthralling, even down to the meticulous counting of kinetoplasts and nuclei.

Trypanosoma brucei – DIC and fluorescence images showing the nuclei and kinetoplasts (cytokinesis).

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

I always encourage students to take the leap and give it a shot. Embrace everything: apply for every opportunity, learn English, and constantly pursue new knowledge to stay up-to-date. The possibilities are boundless. One of my students applied for the Sanger Prize Competition, and I’m thrilled and proud to share that he made it to the second round of applications. It’s a reminder that knocking on all doors can lead to unexpected opportunities. I must emphasize that this career path can be challenging, requiring resilience and adaptability, even necessitating leaving your comfort zone. But remember to keep your spirits high and keep progressing. If you discover that this path doesn’t bring you happiness, it’s okay to pivot. Regardless, the experiences you gain along the way will leave an everlasting impact, so go ahead and give it a try.

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

During one of our conversations, you asked me about notable microscopists in Ecuador, and it saddened me to realize that I couldn’t think of many. While following your interview series, I noticed the active involvement of microscopists in neighboring countries like Bolivia and Argentina. It made me reflect on how we often look beyond our own expertise and seek collaborators elsewhere. I genuinely hope that microscopy in Ecuador can flourish in the coming decades. In my classes, I strive to showcase the incredible possibilities microscopy offers, aiming to inspire the next generation. My aspiration is that in your future interviews, perhaps years from now, we will see a significant increase in the number of microscopists here—a testament to Ecuador’s scientific growth in relation to microscopy. I am aware that funding availability remains a significant barrier, and there is a need for stronger connections and outreach to the general population. As scientists, we have a responsibility to bridge the gaps and engage with society. To address this, I have been advocating for initiatives such as “Pint of Science” in Ecuador. Science should not be limited to formal settings with dignitaries and formal attire. It can and should be discussed in various contexts, particularly in friendly and inclusive environments.

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

Ecuador offers a captivating tapestry of landscapes, from the enchanting Galapagos islands to the stunning coastal areas, majestic mountains, and the vibrant Amazon rainforest. Despite its small size, the country boasts incredible diversity. What truly sets Ecuador apart is its warm and resilient people, who welcome visitors with open arms. The gastronomy is a delight, with unique culinary traditions that vary from region to region. This diversity is a testament to Ecuador’s rich history, spanning from colonial times to recent waves of immigration, leaving their mark on the country’s vibrant food culture. Moreover, Ecuador is home to a wealth of indigenous peoples, each with their distinct traditions, clothing, and captivating history. A visit to Ecuador is an immersive experience, where you can immerse yourself in an incredibly rich and diverse culture. I highly recommend paying a visit!

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews, Blog series

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