An interview with Zayra Garavito Aguilar

Posted by , on 19 September 2023

MiniBio: Prof. Zayra Garavito is a principal investigator at Universidad de los Andes, in the Department of Biological Sciences. She began her career in Colombia, where already at a young age she discovered her interest for processes and mechanisms of regeneration. She became a young investigator at the Institute of Science in Colombia, and later received funding to continue her career in the USA. She joined the University of New York as a research assistant and later completed her MSc degree in 2008, and her PhD in 2010. After a short postdoc at the University of San Diego, she returned to Colombia, to work at various institutions, until being appointed to her current position at Universidad de los Andes. Zayra has used a wide range of microscopy techniques since early on in her career, and hopes to be able to bridge knowledge between Physics and Biology to implement microscopy techniques in Colombia. 

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

I was very curious as a child, and I’ve always been attracted to nature and the natural world. I felt that it was all a mystery, when it came to what goes on inside a cell or a tissue, or in regeneration. I had an uncle who encouraged me to do scientific research. He would accompany me to the forest or to the field, where I could be in touch with the natural world and observe it first-hand. And then, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, my grandmother died of renal failure. This awoke a new interest inside me: to help humans too, but not from the point of view of medicine, but rather as a biologist understanding basic processes. 

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

I studied at Universidad Nacional de Colombia. I started to study the BSc in Biology there, but at the time this was too focused on Ecology and Conservation, so finding my own niche was complex. While I enjoy being in nature, I didn’t feel Ecology and Conservation was my passion – this wasn’t what I wanted. The courses on Cell Biology and Physiology in the first semesters were what I really enjoyed. At the point, our program involved deepening our understanding in Genetics and Cell Biology. That was the research line closest to what I liked. There was a course in Embryology and another in Histology – I was one of the few who took the latter. There were other courses, for example Plant Cell Culture, which although Botanics wasn’t really a field I wanted to pursue, was still very useful. That’s more or less how my career started. One then had to do a thesis, where ideally one selects already an area of specialization. I joined the National Institute of Health to do my undergraduate thesis, and there I worked on nerve tissue regeneration. We worked on Schwann cells and mammals (rats and mice) to isolate Schwann cells, which we could use to stimulate nerve regeneration in these models. I stayed there for a while – I was a young investigator at the Institute of Science in Colombia in what at the time was COLCIENCIAS. Thanks to the expertise I acquired in cell culture and the use of animal models, I applied to a call at a hospital for special surgeries in New York, to work in anesthesiology. I worked there as a RA for about 3 years. Then I started my MSc in Genetics and Developmental Biology, in the University of New York. I then continued in the same area and in the same University for my PhD. After this I did a short postdoc at the University of San Diego in California, and after this I returned to Colombia, in 2011. I was linked to Universidad Nacional, working as a non-tenured track professor, and then I worked at Universidad Militar for a short time, but they don’t have a strong focus on research. And eventually I got the position I currently hold, at Universidad de los Andes. 

All the things I research happen at the micron level, which of course is linked to microscopy. My love for microscopy began since I took the course in Histology as an undergraduate student. When I took this optional subject, it was wonderful – I was able to work with electron microscopes – which not many people had access to, and I learned how to do sectioning, tissue preparation, mounting on grids and everything. I found it fascinating. This was the first time I had contact with these tools and it was decisive for my future career. 

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

As a lecturer/researcher at Universidad de los Andes you have two main components: research and teaching. So that’s what decides how my schedule is divided. And of course as a researcher, I supervise several students. I currently supervise 2 PhD students, 3 MSc students, and 4 or 5 undergraduate students (who do rotations every semester). I usually have one-to-one meetings with my students in which we discuss advances of their projects and any doubts or scientific questions they might need help with. When it comes to lectures, I usually teach 4 courses, which means my week has 16 hours dedicated to lectures. And then there is an administrative component, like coordination of postgraduate programs for example. 

Moreover, my education included pedagogy, so I have training to teach children. While at present, because of time constraints, I haven’t developed specific programs to teach children about science and microscopy, this is something on my bucket list. I have participated in some workshops, and contributed to the organization of some activities, I hope I can do something bigger in the future, in this respect. 

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

That’s a tough question. I think in high school I had great teachers who were super encouraging and motivating. My Chemistry and Biology teachers were great and they were inspiring for me to pursue this career. That was the first time I had the chance to explore how living organisms “work”. They directed us to different books and material which awoke my curiosity. The other aspect was of course my uncle and my teachers earlier on, who were supportive of my interests in nature, and my parents of course, who supported my interests in pursuing a career in science. 

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

The scientific career is still very difficult. In my lifetime, something positive that has happened is that at a government level, a larger amount of funding was dedicated to scientific research. That’s when there was a huge step forward, in creating postgraduate programs in Colombia – this of course helps prevent brain drain, when the research capacity of the country has increased significantly. This happened about 30 years ago. COLCIENCIAS gave many scholarships and other forms of funding to allow scientists at the time, to go abroad and return. This generation of scientists were my teachers. I think this change at that specific point in time, is crucial for the research landscape we see today. It allowed capacity building and ensured that scientists returning from abroad, found a place to work and implement their knowledge at home. This happened during the 1990s government of Cesar Gaviria and earlier governments, which focused on fostering advanced education and research in the country. We have had dictatorships in Colombia, and this led to ‘importing’ scientists from abroad, who joined institutions such as Universidad Nacional, Universidad de los Andes, and Universidad Javeriana, which are the biggest universities in Bogotá, Colombia. This again allowed us to do capacity building in Colombia. But brain drain is still huge in Colombia – at present and for a while, it’s difficult for people who have studied or worked abroad, to find stable positions as researchers back in Colombia. Some vacancies arose in private universities, but in state universities, professors have tenure for life, so recruitment of new personnel and the overall turnover is very little. Some of these scientists decided to stay abroad, which is a pity. The possibility to come back depends really on how many vacancies exist in the country. This is one of the things that needs to improve. Another thing that contributes to the brain drain is that the only option for highly skilled scientists is academia. In Colombia, industries that require scientists are scarce, so this option doesn’t really exist – or not at the level that would really prevent the brain drain that is currently taking place. This is different in the USA and Europe, where there are vast options in industry and technology. 

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

Yes, in the field where I work, I have had great collaborations with people who use different animal models for developmental biology. I work with zebrafish, and I feel the global community of scientists working on zebrafish is very collaborative and very open. I’ve had the chance to work with many Latin American colleagues, and there is even the Latin American Society for Developmental Biology and a network of scientists working on zebrafish. That’s in fact where I met scientists like Flavio Zolessi. I’ve had the chance to share some experiences in courses and workshops around Latin America, which allows us to network. I’ve been to Valparaiso (Chile), São Paulo (Brazil), and was about to go to the congress in Peru, but sadly it was cancelled because of the COVID pandemic. But this network has allowed us to collaborate and exchange resources and expertise in the region. 

I think institutions in Latin America often hire one specialist per field, which means you’re relatively isolated – you don’t have a huge niche of people working on the same field as you. So if you’re a Cell Biologist, you’re the only cell biologist in your Department. So the possibility to interact with people with similar interests to yours is not very high. This can become limiting to how well we can interact at a local level. But at a regional level, I think the network has facilitated collaborations, which is great. 

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

In Colombia, Hernán Hurtado was my first tutor. He now lives in Santander, and has retired. In his lab I learned about regeneration and cell biology. He is a role model, and he encouraged and supported my career, including my application to work in the USA, when I first went as a research assistant. I really admire him. In the USA, my supervisors were also great. I was associated as a student to Skirball Institute in New York, so a whole floor was working on developmental biology, including people working with C. elegans, Drosophila, zebrafish, mice, etc. There were at least 2 people representing each model, so we used to have weekly seminars and breakfasts. This work niche was wonderful and super enriching. At the time I was working with Prof. Deborah Yelon, and she was also a great mentor. In fact, she is a great mentor, not only in terms of science, but also personally. In fact I recently met her in Chicago at the recent Cell and Developmental Biology meeting.

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 both at home and abroad? 

I feel that in Colombia the majority of people who pursue a scientific career are women. If you look at the productivity of researchers, and who are Heads of labs, it’s mostly women. So up to this level I did not feel discrimination. Perhaps when you look at higher positions of leadership, you do see differences, in processes of financing, networking, etc. But in general, in Biological and Biomedical sciences, it’s very egalitarian. Research groups in our Department are 50:50 led by men and women. And since this balance was achieved very organically, we try hard to keep it that way. In Colombia, I never felt there were discriminatory processes against women in science. Perhaps there is discrimination, but I just never felt it blatantly happening. It would be interesting to hear the opinion of other women. In my case, I don’t feel my gender was a barrier to my aspirations or my career. 

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

I’ve only worked as a foreigner in the USA. I think despite learning the language and even being proficient, there are cultural things that will be different in one’s own country and some other country one visits. This is a clash of course. Another shock was the hyper-competitivity. I feel this was a bit extreme in the USA. Those two things were challenging. But I had the possibility of expanding my horizons and overcoming my limitations as a scientist. I think it’s important to challenge oneself to grow. I feel that since in the USA we had much more resources, this allowed me to push those boundaries (of my knowledge, proficiency and expertise) further.  

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

Optical fluorescence microscopy in general. You can use many techniques: epifluorescence, confocal, super-resolution, everything. You can see full organisms (in our case zebrafish), and I feel that it joins two worlds together: the scientific and the artistic. 

What is the most extraordinary thing you have seen by microscopy? 

I think one of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen is a fluorescent heart in vivo. We did this in zebrafish, in the team I joined in the USA. Seeing a beating heart within a fish is a true wonder. 

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

You have to be sure that this is something you really want to do. Microscopy images look great, but the work and expertise involved in achieving those images is huge. It requires patience, perseverance and discipline, and a lot of technical expertise at all stages, from sample preparation onwards. If you’re not ready for this, it might be a frustrating experience. And you have to like what you do – it’s hard to do something challenging when you don’t even like it. 

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 have collaborations with the Physics Department in our University, and they are developing microscopes, and implementing techniques such as light sheet. I feel that the main achievements of microscopy have so far centered around improved resolution, which has brought us closer to see events at the nanoscale. Some techniques are very very rare in Colombia, for instance multiphoton microscopy. Light sheet has been used to some extent, but it’s not widely available. A lot of the work is done in vitro. I think at some point a main limitation is the funding – it limits the range of techniques we can explore and implement. What many universities have done is to form consortia and collaborations to gain access to novel technologies existing elsewhere. So consolidating collaborations is something I see as vital for the next decade of Colombian research and capacity building.

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

For me it’s special because it’s my country! I was born here, where I grew up and it was here where I was encouraged and stimulated to become a scientist. I think the people make it a special place: Colombian people are very warm-hearted and very perseverant. It’s fun to work here. 

1 Star (No Ratings Yet)

Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews, Blog series

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get involved

Create an account or log in to post your story on FocalPlane.

More posts like this

Blog series

Filter by