An interview with Manuel Forero

Posted by , on 12 September 2023

MiniBio: Prof. Manuel Forero is a professor and principal investigator at Universidad de Ibagué, in Colombia, where he focuses on pattern recognition, and the development of image processing and machine learning techniques for biomedical and microscopy applications. He graduated as an Electrical Engineer from Universidad Javeriana, in Bogotá, Colombia. He went on to pursue MSc in Electrical Engineering in the area of Biomedicine at Universidad de los Andes, also in Bogotá. After this, he completed his MSc and PhD in Medical Imaging and Biomedical Engineering at Université de Technologie de Compiègne, in France. During his career, he was awarded several fellowships to carry out research at Universidad de Salamanca and Instituto de Optica Daza de Valdes in Madrid, Spain. He did his postdoctoral work at the Universities of Birmingham and Cardiff, UK. Upon his return to Colombia, he has worked as a professor at Universidad Nacional and the Colombian School of Engineering Julio Garavito. He has served as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Universidad de Ibagué, and currently leads his research group as well as the “semillero” or seedbed, which facilitates research experience amongst undergraduate students. During his career, he has focused on promoting not only interdisciplinary science which allows combining Mathematics, Medicine, Biology, Chemistry and Engineering, but also international collaborations, especially within Latin America.   

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

I think already at school I showed this inclination towards science. It wasn’t me who realized this at first, but one of my teachers. She told me I had vocation to become a scientist. I loved doing research and finding out the ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’ of things. There’s a character here in Colombia called “El Sabio Caldas”, and this was my nickname at school, because I loved to investigate things, to design new things, and usually when we had to do creative projects at school I used to come up with novel things. The teacher would give out solutions to problems, and I would come up with different solutions that nonetheless worked. At this time, I started loving this type of process – I must have been in 3rd year of elementary school.   

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

I studied Electrical Engineering and later specialized in Biomedical Engineering. I didn’t study Medicine, because although I find it extremely interested I’m don’t like seeing blood or injuries. So when I was studying the career of Electrical Engineering I started becoming interested in Electromedicine, which is the discipline which allows the development of medical equipment. I joined a University for my MSc degree didn’t offer the masters in Biomedical Engineering. But they told me they had an area which was nonetheless fully focused on medical applications. A French PI came to Colombia and he offered a scholarship for a Masters project in biomedical image processing (imagerie medicale in French). I found this very interesting and I applied to this scholarship and my application was successful. As a result, I went to France, where I went on to do a PhD focusing on encephalographic signal processing and MRI. After this, I went to work with a PI at the ‘Instituto de Optica “Daza de Valdés” in Madrid, Spain. On my way to a congress in Portugal, I passed by Madrid, and a professor introduced me to him. We spoke about image processing, and he asked me whether I’d be interested in doing postdoctoral research in his lab. At first, I thought this wasn’t a serious offer, rather, that the he had just mentioned it as a formality. But the following year, I got an email from him following up, and telling me about fellowship possibilities to make it happen. I applied to this fellowship and succeeded, which allowed me to go to Madrid to do my postdoctoral work. Before this, when I was a lecturer at Universidad Nacional, there was a call for a fellowship to do an internship at the University of Salamanca, in the Faculty of Medicine. This call was for medical doctors, but I applied, and succeeded, so I was able to go to Salamanca. There, I worked on signal processing of rat and guinea pig brain images. That’s the first time I started working with microscopy images. My project aimed to reconstruct anatomical features in 3D based on microscopy of the brain of these animal models. Anyway, after my postdoctoral work in Spain, I applied to a call for a position at the University of Birmingham, UK, where I went on to work in microscopy. I was in charge of the microscopy unit, and I had the chance to work on Drosophila brains. After this, I joined the University of Cardiff, where I worked on microscopy, but this time focusing on plants, specifically, Arabidopsis thaliana. Then I came back to Colombia as a principal investigator. I joined Universidad de Ibagué, where I currently work. I was Dean of Faculty until last year. My main request when I joined the faculty was that I wanted to continue doing research, and to prioritize the internationalization of scientific activities. This has allowed me to continue to be involved in microscopy and research. I am still working closely with the University of Birmingham and the University of Cardiff. We are also working with the University of Milan, Italy, and with Universidad Cayetano Heredia in Peru. We work on images of pig brains to detect neurocysticercosis. This collaboration in Peru started with Prof. Luis Aguilar, but now the PI in charge is Prof. Laura Baquedano. We work with microscopy and MRI images. 

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

I feel my colleagues at school, although they made fun about my interests in science, they were very supportive, as was the school I attended. When I was in 5th year of high school, there was a science fair, and my Chemistry professor encouraged me to participate and gave me access to the Chemistry lab. Not many of them worked, and I remember one day before the fair, I told my teacher that I hadn’t yet managed to make things work, but that I had a project from the previous year, which I had developed for my electronics class. I asked her if I could use this project for the competition, and she agreed. I won the competition. I got lots of support at this time, I received a prize and a scholarship as a result of winning at the science fair. That was the first time I was highlighted in the newspaper. The next year I competed again, and received great support from the school too. It’s funny because although I was in the final year of high school, I was also appointed as lecturer, so I was teaching younger students. The teacher in this year had quit, and they needed someone to take this position. Since I was underage, my mom signed my contract, and in return for my work, I wasn’t charged the bus service. I didn’t receive a salary, in order to avoid any legal complications from being underage. They also gave me money to buy equipment and tools to do electronic things. I felt really encouraged. 

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

I have my private office where I have powerful computers, and I have another office which I share with my students. I think without my students I wouldn’t be able to do anything. One person doesn’t have enough heads or enough hands to explore science at its fullest. I work a lot. Together with other lecturers from the University, we work at what we call “semillero de investigación” (seedbed for research). This includes researchers not only from Engineering but also Mathematics and other areas. The idea is to work with undergraduate students exposing them already at this stage, to strong research components. Together with my undergraduate students, we have published in high impact factor journals, which is rather uncommon. Usually, most groups only achieve this with postgraduate students or postdocs, not with undergraduates. There’s been about 50 undergraduate students who have been authors of papers in this program. I feel that being in the same space interacting accelerates science. Sometimes students, specially undergraduates, are shy to approach more senior scientists and ask them questions. So sharing this space allows me to ask them questions directly and exchange ideas. I am clear with them, when they join the team, that I have high expectations, but that this will be a rewarding experience. I think many of them enjoy the program altogether, and every year there are more and more students joining. Now that I am no longer Dean of Faculty, I feel this has removed some pressure, with the amount of work it involves. With the research I do with my undergraduate students, I tend to propose the topics, which allows us to integrate projects. We also collaborate with a University in Peru, Universidad Señor de Sipán, where I have students too. This started during the pandemic. It started with an offer I got to teach courses in Image Analysis, and they taught my students courses in programming. The next semester, we joined the online courses, so 1/3rd of my students were Peruvian, and the others were Colombian. When the COVID pandemic stopped, we continued to collaborate. So, the “semillero” we have here, we tried to replicate in Peru. I have had students from many countries: Mexican, Chilean, Bolivian, Indian.  

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

Yes, like I mentioned before, one of my strongest collaborations is in Peru. When I was in the UK I really thought it would be truly important for me, to share all the knowledge I was acquiring, in my country. And while I continue to collaborate with my colleagues in the UK, I also place great value in collaborating with colleagues within Latin America. So I started interacting with Peruvian and Bolivian scientists mostly, especially with undergraduate students. 

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

I always admired a professor I had in my undergraduate studied. He was Lithuanian, and he move to Colombia during WWII. He was heading to the South of the continent, but the ship in which he was traveling arrived in Cartagena and he felt so welcome that he decided to stay in Colombia. He was a person who was always very helpful. He didn’t work in the University where I studied, but he was always open to help everyone. He had open office hours on Saturdays. I looked up his name on the directory, and called him, and he was truly bright. He was very humble. Once he asked me to look for some papers in the journals (physical journals in the library), and bring him back some photocopies. When we returned with the papers, he asked how much he owed us, and we said nothing. He refused. He gave us much more money than it was worth, and he said the change was for our own needs. He was always available for anyone who needed his help. His area of expertise was radiofrequency. I attended once a conference where he gave a talk and upon receiving applause, he said “this is not politics, please don’t clap”. I’ve had other role models. For instance, when I was very young, my father gave me a book about Marie Curie. Although I of course didn’t know her, I find her work fascinating, and I also find it admirable that she succeeded despite all the difficulties that she surely faced, being a woman in that time, and a Polish person living in France. She obtained 2 Nobel prizes in two different areas of science, which no other person has achieved. 

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

I think in Engineering you can really tell there’s a huge difference. Especially in Electrical engineering, in Computational engineering, and Mechanical engineering, there aren’t many women at all. But at the ‘semillero’, there have been many women. I always emphasize the achievement of women in our area of expertise, especially to my students who are women, to let them know there are role models they can look up to. Last year most of the theses defences in my lab were from women. But I think at a country level, we need to do more to close the gender gap. There is a lack of women engineers, and I don’t see why, because I think women and men are equally capable. Despite programs aimed at girls to promote STEM disciplines, I think there’s a mentality that begins at home, where many families convince their young daughters that they should pursue careers such as nursing, or medicine, while engineering is seen as a career for men. I think this is some cultural/ideological prejudice, which simply needs to change. 

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

 There was a dictatorship in Colombia many years ago, when I wasn’t yet born. I feel that when I left to France to do my PhD, Colombia didn’t have graduate programs. There was no chance to do a PhD at home. There was not a lot of information also – I remember I told a friend of mine that I was doing a Masters degree, and he told me this didn’t make sense, since I was already an engineer. Many people thought that the MSc degree was below the Engineering degree, because postgraduate degrees were so rare. During the time when I was a student, not many people thought about doing postgraduate degrees (neither masters, nor PhDs). Maybe the arrival of the internet changed things. I left Colombia in 1996, and when I came back, I saw a great difference. Universities started offering PhD degrees, and this changes the scientific landscape. Around 2000, it was more common to do PhDs at home, rather than having to go abroad. I think also University rankings consider research and postgraduate components, and this has further promoted the establishment of postgraduate programs in Colombia too. The funding that the country has for research is very little though, which I think it’s a common problem in Latin America. Still, I think it’s important to be able to generate good ideas, and to have a thorough scientific practice. In my case, whereby my expertise is image analysis, we can collaborate to acquire the images from other labs that have access to advanced imaging equipment. But on our side, we need to have the ideas and the creativity to address the scientific questions that are posed. I remember one particular study whereby a research group was addressing scientific questions on a particular disease which is very rare. They were having difficulties finding enough patients, and they posted an announcement in a journal, asking for patients to participate. In Colombia, plenty of people suffered from this condition, which was a surprise to the scientific community. As a result, a Norwegian commission was sent here to verify this. It turns out that because of the armed conflict that has been ongoing here, this has influenced the incidence and prevalence of this condition. I tell my students that this is an example of us having unique clinical and scientific problems that need to be addressed, and what we need is brainpower and ideas to address them.  I also try to emphasize with my students, that we are not inferior to researchers in other countries. I think this imposter syndrome is common among Latin American scientists, and it’s something we should eliminate. We are just as capable as any other scientist anywhere else in the world. And we should be pursuing collaborations with our neighbours to foster development in the region. 

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

Work hard and find your passions. I always tell my students that working hard in something one likes, and is passionate about, is something enjoyable, as opposed to having to work hard in something that one is interested in nor passionate about. I love what I do, and I really enjoy my work, and I hope that this sets an example for them. It’s true that science is poorly paid, but it brings other benefits. I also emphasize that they shouldn’t feel inferior to anyone, regardless of nationality, gender, race, etc. I encourage them to collaborate and network, but at the same time, I really think one should pick collaborators carefully. Pick people with whom you feel comfortable working. For instance, I prefer to work with people who are humble, rather than arrogant. Knowledge should make us humble and should make us share, because there’s so much to discover still. 

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

I think the microscopy infrastructure is improving greatly here in Colombia. We now have AFM, confocal microscopes, etc. But I think a lot needs to still be done in the area of image analysis. I think we are still a bit behind. I think we need to promote collaborations and form stronger teams. For us in Latin America to become competitive at an international level, we need to work together. 

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

I think people are the best asset of the country. Colombians are very nice people, very welcoming and very dedicated. Furthermore, the country is beautiful – we have beaches, deserts, mountains, jungles, etc. It’s a super diverse and beautiful country. You should definitely visit!

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews, Blog series

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