My research focuses on non-canonical roles of ribosomes and how they can affect stem cell fate. We have traditionally seen ribosomes as passive machines whose function relies solely on decoding genetic information to produce functional proteins. However, ribosomes are highly complex molecules that can respond to different stressors by fine-tuning a variety of cellular processes. In our latest article, we have shown that ribosomes can sense when we have a shortage of amino acids in the intestine, and they can alert stem cells that something is wrong, allowing them to change their identity and survive. Considering the importance of stem cells to cancer and other diseases, we are very excited to pursue the therapeutic potential of these findings.
Since I can remember I’ve always had a love for science. After doing a bachelor in Applied Biology and a masters in Oncology, back in Portugal, I quickly realized that my interests lay in fundamental research. I then moved to Barcelona to do a PhD, in which I characterized a new protein that plays an important role in aging and stem cell maintenance. Towards the end of the project, we discovered that all of this was happening via manipulation of ribosome dynamics. This non-conventional finding really got my attention and so I decided to move to Amsterdam and join Liam Faller’s group, at the NKI, to pursue these novel roles of ribosomes and help understand how we can use them to control stem cell fate.
It is an incredible honor to see our work recognized in this way. Liam had started his group just one year prior to me joining, and so I was incredibly lucky that he gave me all the freedom to incorporate my views and ideas into his line of research, while also supporting and guiding me through this process. To be awarded with an EMBO fellowship showed us that we were on the right path and, particularly for me, it helped me to feel more secure and confident in my ideas. These fellowships are incredibly important not only in the sense that they fund you, as a scientist, but also provide an amazing platform for international networking. As an EMBO fellow, I was able to present my work in renowned conferences and attend workshops on different areas like leadership, management and scientific illustrations, all of which greatly improved my work as a scientist.
While I think we should celebrate the progress we have achieved so far, I also believe it is important to acknowledge we are still quite far from equity and fairness when it comes to representation of women in STEM. This is a systemic problem that arises very early on, as a result of both societal expectations when it comes to gender norms, and an educational system which heavily excludes young girls. And systemic problems can only be fixed using systemic solutions. We need gender-equitable policies that foster and empower women instead of excluding them. It’s not only about getting the numbers up. It’s about fostering an inclusive culture where both women and men feel comfortable sharing their insights and opinions.
So very early on, when I was about 5 years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. The thing that I found most appealing about it was this adventure into the unknown and so even though I didn’t delve into exploring the macro universe that surrounds us, I ended up focusing on the micro cosmos which exists inside all of us by trying to contribute to our knowledge on how life came about. In my teenage years I also took an interest in investigative and political journalism, which still lies with me to this day, as I try to incorporate it in some of the science policy and communication initiatives that I am a part of.
Definitely. When it comes to STEM, particularly in academia, you’re led to believe that this is a meritocracy-based system where regardless of your background you have an equal shot to succeed. However, this is far from reality. Unfortunately, this is a system that still mainly values traits which are typical of the white hetero alpha-male, and thus end up excluding groups outside this circle. For instance, academia romanticizes “hard work” as a readout for success. You are often told that if you are ambitious, you need to put in extra hours (without extra pay) to achieve greatness. Besides being misleading, comments like this foster a toxic culture that excludes for example caretakers, which are mostly women. It’s important to mitigate these comments and create a more inclusive culture.