I've a wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. But what kind?
As a little kid, I would often get bruised and hurt playing sports. I remember marveling at the way in which wounds seemed to heal so seamlessly as if nothing had happened. Fast forward to high school and it was time to pick a major for college. I enjoyed both biology and chemistry, one for its fascinating processes and the other for its rigor in describing entities. I went to the public library in my hometown (Coimbra, Portugal) quite often. One day, I walked into the college textbook section and opened a biochemistry textbook. The atom by atom structure of cellulose left such an impression on me that I picked biochemistry for college.
I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. There, I had the opportunity to work in three different laboratories, on topics ranging from organic chemistry to cancer biology. My advisors were Ana Urbano, Rui de Carvalho, and Carlos Faro. I couldn’t help but notice that all our textbooks were American and most articles given to us as reading assignments were written by American scientists and published in American journals. So my decision of where to go for my Ph.D. was rather simple: America.
My interview at Harvard University, which I joined for my Ph.D., was my first time in America. All I remember was a snowstorm, many talks and social events, and some of the most interesting people I’d ever met. I’m still friends with some of them to this day. For my Ph.D., I worked with Jack Strominger and Chad Cowan at Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. We are all here today thanks to successful pregnancies. So I focused on the study of immune tolerance in human pregnancy, where a fetus is hosted by the mother for 9 months even though it expresses foreign antigens of paternal origin that would lead to immune rejection in almost any other circumstance. In part fueled by our proximity to MIT and the Broad Institute, we were also the first to use CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the genomes of human hematopoietic stem cells and T cells. At the time, we picked CCR5 as the gene to delete, as individuals with homozygous mutations in CCR5 are protected from HIV infection. I was caught by surprise when four years later, in 2018, Jianku He announced that he had edited CCR5 in human embryos.
I am currently a postdoctoral scholar and the Jeffrey G. Klein Diabetes Family fellow at the University of California San Francisco in the laboratories of Qizhi Tang and Jeff Bluestone. I continue to focus on immune tolerance, even if from a different angle. Many people die every day waiting for a matched organ for transplant. For those with autoimmune disorders, even a matched organ will be rejected by their immune system. What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we could reeducate the recipient’s immune system to accept an organ from anyone or cease-fire against his or her own tissues? I am designing and developing therapies using engineered regulatory T cells (Tregs), antigen-specific suppressive cells, as living drugs for autoimmune disease and organ transplant rejection. Specifically, I am utilizing chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), originally developed for cancer immunotherapy, to redirect these cells – CAR Tregs. The road has been rather tortuous in the past three years, but I’ve learned an immense amount and the future looks bright.
I am a biochemist.
To me, this means I am attuned to the ways molecules "know" what to do, "tell" each other things, and "remember" what happened - these words that people use to anthropomorphize biochemistry. I am not scared by what some see as intangible: I challenge molecules to show me how they work, using tools like structural proteomics and fluorescence microscopy.
Being a biochemist means that I walk the line between chemistry and biology - the space where molecules come to life. For me, I can't imagine anything better than being a biochemist, and I feel like I have been a biochemist since I was a child making my own secret invention book and loving Jurassic Park. Being a biochemist brings together my predilections like drawing from observation, understanding equations and graphs, collecting and organizing things, and public speaking. As a biochemistry core facility director, I basically spend my days playing with fancy toys and sharing them with other smart biochemists - in fact, today I'm elbows-deep in an NMR imager for small animals. I can't wait to find out new creative ways to show the next generation the excitement of hands-on research. I love seeing the discoveries that my grad students go on to make using the skills I teach them, that have far-reaching impact on understanding how life works and maybe even helping people (and animals) live healthier lives.
My faculty position is somewhat unusual, since I don't have my own lab, and rather work with a whole building of labs. But my path to get here somehow was fairly standard: college then grad school then post doc number 1 then post doc number 2. Between these four labs, I was exposed to a variety of sectors: a beautiful small college with a dynamic young research advisor (Lewis & Clark and Greg Hermann' s lab), a large university with a well-established advisor and lots of collaborations (Hopkins and Phil Cole's lab), a private research institute with a bubbly husband-wife PI team (Seattle Children's and the Morgan-Sedensky lab), and a huge government institute with an influential forward-thinking advisor (NIH and Bob Balaban's lab).
The most unusual aspect of my background is probably that I exposed myself to a huge variety of techniques, avidly applying whatever I could get my hands on to the question I was tackling at the time. And that I further exposed myself to a variety of career tracks related to science, including biotech industry, medicine, outreach, science journalism, science illustration, and education development. I think this all prepared me very well for the multifaceted job of a core facility director, where I must be highly familiar with literally hundreds of pieces of equipment and dozens of projects I help apply them towards.
I was asked to include my "successes in scientific research" and my first instinct was to say that I am still alive. But as I mull over it, I am shocked with the accomplishments that my 15 years of toil in science research has yielded. By the time I got my bachelor's degree, I had a first author paper in a top journal and a poster prize and travel award from presenting my work to an international audience, by the time I got my PhD I was on the cover of a journal and writing a book chapter, by the time I finished my first post-doc I had received my first grant as well as a prize for an oral presentation that came with hard cash, and by the time I finished my second post-doc I had been flown to Europe to present supercomplex structures from the first interactome of intact mitochondria and I had accumulated 20 peer-reviewed publications.
Most shockingly, I just realized that I have accomplished one of the first things I set out to do, when I started in biochemistry: to observe molecular activities in their physiological context.