An interview with Samira Vera

Posted by , on 8 August 2023

MiniBio: Samira is a PhD student in the lab of Mohammed Mostajo at University of California at Santa Cruz, in the USA, where she focuses on neurophysiology and in open science and open education. She started her career in Peru, where she completed her BSc in Genetics and Biotechnology at Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. As part of her studied she did an internship in Cuernavaca, Morelos, at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico. Early on in her career, she focused on virology and protein isolation, and during her PhD, upon switching to neurophysiology, she started getting exposure to microscopy. As part of her PhD project, she generates open teaching resources and websites for learning about different topics on microscopy and neuro electrophysiology.

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

It’s very clear to me! I actually wrote this in my essay for admissions to the PhD. I think I made the decision to study science when I was in 3rd grade of junior high school, when I was 13 or 14 years old. Every year, during the school’s anniversary, we prepared various special events, including a science fair. We were assigned to the different subjects – Biology, Physics or Chemistry. We had to think of a project or a presentation to do during this fair. But around this time, my brother was in a critical state. He was in hospital because he was super anaemic to the point where his heart was no longer behaving normally – he had arrythmias. It turned out that this was due to an infection with Helicobacter pylori, which resulted in a bleeding ulcer, which in turn resulted in his anaemia. At the time, when my mother told me what was going on with my brother, I wanted to know more. I didn’t know much about pathogens, and so the questions that came up in my mind were “what is a bacterium? How does it cause an ulcer? How does an ulcer lead to anaemia?”. I started doing my research at a local public computer – I didn’t have one at home. So I used the internet over there. I loved the process of looking for information to understand an action mechanism. I felt great when I understood the link between my different questions. At this point I thought “when I grow older, I want to pursue a career whereby I can look for answers that allow me to understand complex phenomena. Later on, when I was a bit older, and I started looking for the different available degrees, I had in mind Universidad de San Marcos, which is a public university in Peru. There was the degree of Biology, Hydrobiology, Zoology, Microbiology, and Genetics & Biotechnology. I was torn between Microbiology and Genetics & Biotechnology. I decided for the latter. 

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 used to love video-games. I am a big fan of Resident Evil. This was sort of an initial inspiration to study virology – specifically, genetic modification of viruses. This led me to choose Genetics & Biotechnology. Later on, I did a small internship at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in a lab specializing in viruses. I then went back to Peru for the last year of my BSc, and I was looking for labs where to do an internship. There was a project that involved the production of protein nanoparticles similar to the viral capsid in the Laboratory of Single-Molecules in charge of PhD. Daniel Guerra Giraldez at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia from 2019 to 2022. This was an applied research project, for the construction industry. As part of the project, I learned how to introduce a plasmid in bacteria to overproduce a protein, and standardized the conditions for expression and for purification. I worked with molecular exclusion chromatography, did many protein gels, many agarose gels to corroborate that the plasmids were accurate. I noticed during this time that doing research in Peru could be complicated – getting a reagent would take forever, there is a lack of equipment, etc. At this point I discussed with my boyfriend, which is a Biologist, the possibility of working abroad. We had a friend who told us that in the USA you don’t need a MSc to do a PhD, and that it’s possible to get a stipend. Up until this point, I didn’t know that this was possible – I thought that the only way to do a PhD abroad was through a fellowship, and I didn’t see this as a feasible option. After this conversation, I went ahead and applied to several programs, and among them, I was accepted at UCSC (University of California, Santa Cruz). Among the research labs there, there was a PI working in viral protein production, but with the purpose of vaccines. This was the area of virology I had always been interested in. Around this time I became friends with a researcher from my cohort, who is Spanish. He had already decided to go to Mohammed Mostajo’s lab, so he put us in touch with each other. My first rotation was in the virology lab, which was great, and it was on a topic I love. Afterwards, I decided to do the next rotation in Mohammed’s lab, and I felt super happy there. I felt it was a perfect fit, and since I had to make a decision on which lab to join for the next 5 years (for the PhD), I decided for Mohammed’s. I had never worked with neurons, and I never envisaged going into the field of neurobiology, so it was a surprise for me in a way. I found working with cell culture very interesting. Moreover, Mohammed is very involved in outreach and education programs. I have been engaged in outreach and education programs since earlier in my career, so this also made it a natural fit. I loved that he gave priority to both things: scientific research and outreach. That’s how I found my way to his lab! 

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

I think we are creative and resourceful. Since there is scarcity in our countries when it comes to resources, we have to get creative. While I’ve been in the USA, I realized there are problems they never face at all. I remember that in Peru, on one occasion, one of my reagents for the extraction of plasmids (miniprep) ran out, and I looked up the formula to be able to re-create it with “home-made” materials, and we were able to do our minipreps. I would say creativity and resourcefulness are the main things I learned. 

Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as a PhD student at UCSC?

In the mornings I usually go to the gym – I like to get started in the morning. I then head to the lab. At the moment, I am participating in different projects.  One of then is the designing of  mouse stem cells  line with CRISPR-Cas9. It’s complex, but I’m working on it. I also provide some support in electrophysiology experiments. We have Microelectrode Arrays (Chips) in which we place organoids, and we measure their electrical activity. This is a collaboration with engineers – this is actually one of the great things about working with Mohammed – how interdisciplinary the research projects are. So I get to collaborate with people from multiple disciplines. We try to understand each other and have efficient communication to be able to do research and troubleshoot. I usually have classes in the afternoon. I also work a lot on the laptop – because a bit part of my project is dedicated to education. I am designing a website where we will upload different educational modules that will be available to teachers and students, with courses directed at people across all levels of education – from high school to undergraduate students. We expect to have all these resources available in both languages – English and Spanish. I’ve never before worked with websites, so it’s still in an exploratory phase. I’m very happy to learn so many things. 

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

I haven’t had the chance to work with other Peruvian colleagues in the USA, nor with other Latin Americans other than Mohammed, who is Bolivian. 

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

Hmmm, it’s the first time I think about this question. No one is coming to mind. 

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? 

During my career, I’ve worked in San Marcos, and in Cayetano Heredia –  the former is a public university and the latter is a private one. I noticed a disbalance among the lecturers and professors. Women are a minority, at least at professor level.. In my country, the organization that regulates science is PROCIENCIA. I know that for any open calls for research projects (basic or applied), they give additional points when the applicant (PI) is a woman, with the aim of reverting the gender disbalance. I am not sure how I feel about this measure, because I know that the intention is to achieve balance, but I don’t want to get additional points just for the fact that I am a woman. But I remember when I was doing my undergraduate degree, we were 50:50 in terms of gender proportions. The gap appears and widens at later stages of the scientific career.  

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

I started university in 2015. By the time I joined, there was more funding available for international travel for internships and conferences. When I would speak with people that had already finished their degree, those who started in 2004-2006, it was super uncommon for scientists (young or otherwise) to be able to travel abroad for training/workshops/conferences, especially with government funding. In the 1990s it was even more uncommon. I was born in 1998, but in the 1990s, Peru went through an “era” of terror. This resulted in a major gap: when I went to University, there were professors who were either older (i.e. they finished their careers in the 1970s or 1980s) or otherwise, very young (with careers spanning the 2000s). There is a gap in the 1990s when it comes to scientists. At the government level, it was thought that professors at universities were terrorists and instigators. So there would be military personnel infiltrating the universities. I heard many people who were scared of going to University, or that their children would go to University, because you could get mistaken for a terrorist. The president at that time is in fact condemned for crimes against humanity, because there was trouble at a University and many professors and students were assassinated. These were dark times in Peru, until 2003, when there was a change of president. From here onwards, Peru started to raise from the ashes if you wish, so in general, these years resulted in a gap in terms of scientific personnel and scientific output. 

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

I don’t know if it’s because I’m Peruvian or because of my academic background, but when I went to Mexico, to the Genomic Sciences program, I felt I was quite far behind when it came to programming skills, compared to my peers, so this made it challenging. It was a shock, but on the other hand, it became very helpful to have gained this skillset. Working abroad helped me realize also how the bureaucracies and funding limitations put researchers in my country at a disadvantage. I’ve seen now in the USA that people can order reagents and get them next day. I once had to wait for a reagent for over 9 months in Peru. 

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

The one I love most now is confocal microscopy – one can take beautiful images, and I feel I’ll make these pictures part of a calendar. Right now I’m working together with another colleague who has more experience on it than I, so I’m learning from him. But I love it – especially the fact the different colors that I can use on  cells and organoids.

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

When I was in Peru, working on bacterial proteins that self-assemble as a viral capsid 25nm in size, we sent this sample to Brazil to the CNPQ in Campinas, for cryo-EM. They sent us back the negative staining images, and it made me feel that everything I had worked for was worth it. It’s incredible! This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my career. 

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

My first piece of advice will depend a lot on each person’s context. In my case, at first I didn’t have a lot of support from my family, to study a degree in science. They told me it’s a profession that simply doesn’t pay well, and there’s little work opportunities. If you face this situation, perhaps the best way of showing interest is to attend scientific events and make the most of any opportunity to get exposed to research and the scientific environment. My parents were convinced that this was something I really wanted and became more supportive. My second piece of advice: something that was difficult for me at the beginning of my career, because I’m a very shy or quiet person, is networking. I have a friend who helped me to network because she’s much more sociable than I am. The first time I went abroad was to a workshop in Mexico, and I traveled with my friend. This was the first time I spoke to people of other countries, and she helped me a lot in giving this step. This is probably the most important part of your career. Try to network with people both, within your area, and other areas different to what you do, so you get novel perspectives and new ideas. 

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

I think the government is starting to favour research more. I see more calls for funding, allowing the acquisition of new equipment and pursuing novel research lines. For example, I’d love to have better equipment for structural biology, like cryo-EM. In Peru I didn’t have a chance to do confocal microscopy, but the number of microscopes to do this are limited. You might find them in private centers or in private universities. I’d love to see this infrastructure growing in public universities too. 

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

For me, Peru is special because my entire family is there. My heart belongs there! In general, I’d say the Peruvian culture – for example, my father is from Puno, and every year my family goes to a festival of Candelaria in Puno – and we love this festival. We Peruvians are very welcoming – no matter where you are from, people will welcome you, they’ll invite you for a meal, etc. We are not ‘cold’ at all, we have a culture of sharing and I think this makes us special. Same with regards to food – we have an enormous variety. 

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Default, Interviews, Blog series

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