DEVELOPING AN ADVANCED BIOIMAGING CORE IN LATIN AMERICA
Leonel Malacrida is an Associate Professor at the Pathophysiology Department at Universidad de la Republica in Uruguay. He has recently established the Advanced Bioimaging Unit (UBA for its acronym in Spanish), a joint initiative between Institut Pasteur Montevideo and Universidad de la Republica. The UBA aims to providing access, disseminate and develop hardware, methods, software on state-of-the-art instrumentation in Uruguay, and across Latin America. Equally, Leonel has been a key person in the development of the Latin America Bioimaging (LABI) network, he is a founder member and member of the executive committee. LABI aims to promote and support the advancement of bioimaging in the entire region.
What was the inspiration for your project? How did your idea for the CZI project arise?
I started my relationship with CZI in 2020, with the second round for imaging scientists. This was one of the two projects, at the time, awarded to any Latin American institution. The original project I proposed was to establish a core facility with the aim of sharing advanced techniques and technologies, particularly within my expertise: spectroscopy combined with imaging – hyperspectral imaging, fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy, deep tissue imaging, multiphoton and light sheet microscopy. The plan for the Advanced Bioimaging Unit was to expand some of the technologies we owned, and to develop new technologies and offer them to the Latin American community. The 4 pillars of the UBA are service, training and dissemination, developing of methods/hardware and software, and applications of these tools. We set up several research lines based on these methods and instrumentation. Most of the applied research is done in collaboration with other groups, both in Uruguay and abroad. The first grant we got was specifically for a Uruguayan community, but in 2021 we received a second grant from CZI aimed at expanding access to the Advanced Bioimaging Unit, to the entire region. In this case, we expanded training programs and developed new ones. We provide support from Latin American students to come to our workshops and learn the latest topics in advanced microscopy. Besides, we established a tailored program, the ‘Train-the-Trainer’ program, which focuses on peers: colleagues from core facilities in the region, whom we invite for participation at the annual workshop and then an extended stay for specific training. Last year, for example, we focused on hyperspectral imaging and phasor analysis. We hosted seven colleagues from Latin America (Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay) who stayed 10-days after the workshop, during which time we trained them in HSI and phasor analysis. I believe this program is amazing, it’s changing the outreach and the power we can have in Latin America. The latest project we implemented through this grant was a program for first experience with advanced Bioimaging tools: we grant fellowships to come over to the UBA, and people can give it a try with projects they have (proof-of-concept an idea), which can benefit from the technologies we have in place. Then with this initial data, our compromise is to support them in applying for more funding to establish a more formal and lasting collaboration.
When did you first hear about CZI?
I am a member of the management board of Global BioImaging since 2020, and within the board, the information about the CZI Imaging Scientist call was discussed. The first cycle was already underway, but it was only available to US citizens. They were already supporting GBI members, and the feedback of the international community helped gain support for new research. Sadly, and surprisingly, for the second call, I was the only applicant from South America (Paul Hernandez from Mexico also got an Imaging Scientist grant), and at CZI they were very surprised about why there was so little engagement. In this respect, I have to say CZI has a unique capability, which is the capacity to listen to everyone, and to take into account what we as scientists have to tell. Before opening the next call, they asked me to introduce Latin American imaging people, and I pointed all colleagues and friends I knew from the many countries in the region. After a while I got a call from Vladimir Ghukasyan, saying that they had shaped a new call specific for Latin American, African, and Eastern European countries. That was the RFA – Expanding Global Access to bioimaging tools call.
Since your salaries are paid by your institution, and you were able to free some of your salary for a second person, what was the impact of that second person in your project?
Justifying the need for additional staff is a challenge in many Latin American institutions. When I got my Imaging Scientist grant, I managed to generate a position and we hired Andres Kamaid as Associate Researcher at the Institut Pasteur de Montevideo– he is now the principal investigator of the LABI grant. He is also the the current Chair of LABI, so having him leading this project was very positive for us. At Institut Pasteur de Montevideo, we handle all LABI administration, so we also hired a manager for the network, Andres Olivera. When LABI started as a community in 2020, our capabilities were very small, nevertheless due to a binational funding we secured with Andres Kamaid and Chris Wood in a cooperative project between Uruguay and Mexico, we were able to organize the 1st LABI meeting in 2022. After we got funding from CZI, everything started to grow very quickly and with a strategic plan.
How did integrating to CZI help you build networks?
The CZI grant allowed me to integrate with a huge global community that was not within my close network. I have had the chance to meet many people from all around the world. I knew the work of many of these people, but I had never had the chance to interact with them in person. During the in-person meetings we started to establish personal connections, which is an irreplaceable aspect of how science develops. For instance, in the 2021 meeting, another 2 grants were awarded to our unit. Both were derived from connections done during these meeting. Last year, we had the chance to host Xiaoyu Shi in our annual workshop and train-the-trainer program. She is an expert in expansion microscopy from UC Irvine. She developed some unique tools to improve label retention during the expansion process. Everything started by serendipity: we sat together in the bus for a trip to the bay of San Francisco during the special dinner at the CZI meeting. We started chatting about our work and I told her about our projects in Latin America. Weeks later, I got an email from her, asking whether I was interested in helping her to spread her technology in Latin America. I proposed to include her technology as part of our train-the-trainer program, and add a specific topic on expansion microscopy. This idea is now part of a grant awarded to us by CZI as a collaborative project. Within the same call, with Andres Kamaid, we got a second grant for the Flamingo project. This project also started during our first in-person meeting when I met Michael Weber, and I expressed my interest in the Flamigo microscope. During the same meeting I also met Alenka Lovy, Greg Kitten and others in Latin America, and when the next call came up, Alenka led the way of this project. We put together an application, and this gave us the chance to bring three Flamingo microscopes to Latin America: to Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. I could share many other stories like these ones!
You have helped spread the word about CZI in Latin America. What do you think would be important to increase the reach and visibility of this program and its impact in the region? One thing that has helped a lot is to have LABI. When we received 13 grants in the region within one year, my worry was how to coordinate it all. There were necessarily going to be overlapping activities between grantees. So, communication and strategy were key in order to avoid any competition, duplication, or clashes, and to make everything more efficient. Through LABI, we organize virtual meetings in which we ask grantees to share the details of the activities they plan, so we can best support each of those events as a community. This also helped us interact with each other, put faces to the names, and establish connections in the region. I therefore think that LABI is one of the most valuable creations for us. There are still some difficulties to address though: for example, it’s difficult for some institutes to receive money from international agencies. It was for us too. Even for Institut Pasteur de Montevideo, which is very well established, it was a difficult and combersome process. This needs to change, because there are opportunities we can’t take advantage of, because of these impediments. We also should change the mindset – sometimes we feel that because we are Latin Americans, we won’t stand a chance when competing for funds in an international arena – that we are not at the same level or with similar skill or scientific ability. But these are barriers of energy we build ourselves- self-imposed limitations, which result in us never submitting a grant. I believe this is radically changing, not only for us “the researchers”, but also how founders look at Latin America. LABI is also helping in providing funding to support a lot of Latin Americans to attend training, workshops, fellowships and job-shadowing opportunities. I think the success of many Latin Americans with CZI will contribute to a mindset change too. Another aspect which CZI is re-shaping is mentorship for management and leadership. They organize monthly meetings in which they help you understand things like how to pitch your ideas to funders, how to approach a funder before they even have a call, how to make programs sustainable, etc. Mentorship is for grantees, and considering there are many grantees in Latin America, they do have good representation of the various countries in the region. I also took advantage of a one-to-one coaching program they offer. They cover the cost of training with an an international organization, Better Up, and every 15 days I have a meeting with a personal coach to improve my management skills (the program lasts for a year). This opportunity changed a lot the way I work, the way I shape my day-to-day, how I plan my strategies, and the way I think and plan the teamwork. You don’t learn these skills in conventional career paths or education systems. Having these skills in the region is helping us to develop our ideas more deeply and tailor specific strategic plans.
What are remaining challenges for instance, in terms of funding?
The main challenge is the sustainability of programs that we have established over the past 3-4 years. CZI helped bring other funders to the table. In the last CZI meeting, we had a specific session on ‘Talking to funders’ and on that table, we had representatives of NSF, NIH, Wellcome and others. Wellcome announced, for example, that within the next 10 years, they will have several programs for bioimaging. In the last CZI meeting, we also discussed what the future of the bioimaging global landscape will be. In addition to the development of new technologies and research, we can all do more to help our community grow. We should re-define the role of the imaging scientists, to be more malleable and adaptable. In general, CZI has contributed to this re-definition. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the current landscape after I came back from UC Irvine to Uruguay. Before the CZI grant, we thought of the concept of the Advanced Bioimaging Unit, but the question was how to achieve it, because regional funding was non-existent. CZI was about being in the right place, at the right time!
It would be amazing to have a conference that brings together personnel from imaging centers worldwide. Do you feel the CZI program has helped you connect in this way too, to other people in your same position?
Absolutely. I think it would be great to meet together and fund programs to level the game. Last year, for instance, Leong Chew from Janelia was here, and we discussed how his visit program to his center in Janelia could have an impact in Latin America. He leads a program which opens Janelia to the world, to make their instrumentation accessible, and I believe in the past 10 years, he has had only one application from Latin America. Last year, after our joined GBI-LABI meeting in Montevideo, 24 students participated in a joined workshop with the AIC team. Equally, we are currently discussing other possibilities with Seeding Labs, which helps re-purpose instrumentation that is not broken but is being decomissioned in other centers, especially in the Global North. We are currently working together with Claire Brown, whereby her team is ‘retiring’ a confocal system capable of FLIM. The instrument will be sent to Uruguay, to the Hospital de Clinicas, where it will support clinical and translational research and make the best use of that instrument’s potential. So, coming back to your question, even having a pan-American network would be fantastic.
One of your priorities, both individually and through LABI, has been to democratize microscopy. How do you define this, and how has CZI helped in this overall picture?
Talking to Leong Chew, he told me at some point that claiming open access does not mean equitable access. When we speak of technology democratization, I think we should take care of all the different aspects that need to be fulfilled in order to transform access to this technology to be equitable to everyone. I can open the door to my house, but if you cannot walk to the entrance of my house, you cannot get in. Also, even if the door is open I cannot asume you are capable of getting there, so I need to provide you with a train ticket to reach me, and ensure you can enter. But once you enter the house, if you don’t know how to turn on the light, or use the washing machine, you won’t make the most of getting in the house. When we conceived the UBA, we thought of blending the development of technology and access to it by proposing specific programs for dissemination and adoption of these technologies, establishing networks to keep connections alive, and strengthening the interactions between people who pass through our center. For each of these goals, we require different types of effort and investment. To claim true democratization, we need to fill all the different aspects of the pathways from somebody’s office to our center, and back. There are a lot of asymmetries in Latin America, and this is another aspect to take into account, both in our program design, and in our long-term goals of things to address.
Regarding community-building, do participants of your workshop stay connected afterwards, and what role do you play in this process?
I cannot provide a specific number but a big porcentaje of them stay in touch. We promote that, and we try to make this can happen. We generated channels through different platforms to stay in touch and interact. Every time we release a new paper, we spread information in this network. There are also many examples in which our workshop immediately impacted a collaboration or a PhD thesis. We want to foster this, but the challenge is of course, the time and resources we need. We need more bandwidth to keep the connections actively alive and a strategic plan to generate mechanisms for people to connect with each other. Evaluating and quantifying this is very challenging and even though we have done efforts to do so, perhaps if we can think of the problems as a community, the solution could be better than finding a solution just for us.
Check out our introductory post, with links to the other interviews here