Have I convinced you that scientists some in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds and have all sorts of interests yet? Well, regardless of whether I have or haven’t, I love sharing the stories of inspiring scientists from around the world and highlighting the incredible things they are doing. So, without further ado, it is time to introduce you to another inspiring woman in STEM who I have had the pleasure of meeting through social media. Let me introduce you to Mafalda A.
Originally from Portugal, she grew up in a small town 30km south of Lisbon. She has always been a science geek, being part of science clubs and trying to get friends to go. She used to love chemistry but ti was biology that really blew her mind when she started to learn genetics and inspired her to pursue a Bachelors in Cellular and Molecular Biology and a Masters in Biopharmaceutical Sciences in Lisbon. She has always loved exploring and spent some time living in Amsterdam before deciding to to a PhD abroad here in the UK where her research looks at how viruses escape our defenses. But, let’s get to know her better.
Let’s start off by talking about your research. What does it involve?
Mafalda: I study the molecular mechanisms by which flavivirus escape the innate immune response. Flavivirus are a family of viruses to which dengue and west-nile viruses are a part of. Over the years, these viruses evolved to develop ways to silence the cells anti-viral defenses, so they can replicate inside the cells without being noticed. Knowing the mechanism by which these viruses do this is important because then we can develop drugs to prevent it. In the case of dengue, although there are 3 billion people in risk of infection – that’s 40% of the world’s population! – there are currently no treatments and the developed vaccines are not very effective.
What fascinates you about viruses?
Mafalda: It’s a really weird thing to say, but I love diseases. I think it’s super interesting how these tiny things can have such an impact in a complex organism like us. Viruses are super small, basically just DNA or RNA encapsulated by proteins. They are not even considered alive, since they cannot replicate by themselves, but they seem somehow ‘intelligent’. It fascinates me how they are able to trick our immune system and use our own cells to make copies of themselves and keep thriving. Plus, they do not only take advantage of us humans,many have complex transmission cycles in which they jump between species. Aren’t they smart? Furthermore, infections by viruses have had a huge impact on humanity and helped shape our history. For example, smallpox ‘helped’ Europeans in the conquest of the Americas since it killed many natives who were never exposed to it before. Maybe that would never had happened if it wasn’t for this virus.
What have you been up to in the lab most recently then?
Mafalda: I have been preparing for an upcoming conference where I will be presenting a poster. Unfortunately, I am heading to my last year of paid PhD and I still don’t have a lot of results. So, I am rushing through experiments trying to get some good data to present at the conference.
What has your grad school journey taught you so far?
Mafalda: It has taught me a lot. I don’t know if I’ve learnt more about science or myself, to be honest. It is a really tough and lonely path. I realised it is not easy to make science. It is not always fun. It takes a long time and a lot of failures to move a small field further. Having this knowledge of the process of how science is made, from getting funding to publishing. It made me appreciate the amount of work that goes into finding treatments and cures for diseases. I don’t think that many people know how much effort is put into it. The PhD also made me question myself and my capacities hundred of times. But it made me realise that I am stronger than I thought, and if I can do it, I can achieve anything.
Would you have any advice for wannabe PhD students? Particularly those that might be looking to study abroad?
Mafalda: If you enjoy learning and are super curious, then a PhD is for you. I would advise you to get as much experience as possible. Find a research group at your uni and ask them if you can help with something. They will most likely say yes, and it’s a win-win: you get to learn and they have one more pair of hands. Doing this you can learn some different techniques, see if you would like to actually have that job, and have contact with a field, so you can decide if that’s really what you like or if you would rather change to another. If you are already thinking about it, do not rush into any PhD. Make sure you like the place you will be living for the next few years and that you like the project. Plus, do some research on your supervisor, reach out to someone that did their PhD with that supervisor and don’t be afraid to talk to them. I have heard some serious horror stories regarding supervisors, so please get informed before making this huge decision.
Might be a bit early for this question but what do you think your next step after your PhD will be?
Mafalda: I still don’t know. I realised that I would like to have a more direct impact in people’s lives than I do now in research. I would like to try science writing or science journalism because I really enjoy writing and communicating science in a truthful way.
Let’s head back to the beginning then way before grad school. Who or what inspired your interest in science?
Mafalda: I believe I always had a love for science, I don’t know when that started though. No one in my family was into sciences, so I never met a scientist until I was older. I think I was just naturally curious. I remember I used to spend afternoons at my grandma’s garden mushing and mixing leaves and flowers to make perfumes. Besides, I think TV shows had a big role in awakening my curiosity about science. My favourite cartoons were ‘The Magic School Bus’ and ‘Once Upon A Time…Life’. They used to show what was happening inside our bodies and that was fascinating to me. Later I joined the science club at school, and I would try to reproduce the experiments we did there at home and to show them to my little brother. It usually ended up in a big mess though for my mom to clean – ahaha sorry mom!
What sparked your interest in science communication particularly using Instagram?
Mafalda: I had no idea scicomm was a thing. I discovered it by chance. I somehow bumped into @science.sam and she inspired me so much. At the time, I was really worried about the world and the rising anti-science movement and general science disbelief. I felt like I could use this platform to have a voice, and to try and teach others and get them excited about science. The modern life we have nowadays is all thanks to science, how can someone have such disregard about it? Instagram allows spontaneity. It allows me to show, even in real-time, and with transparency, what I do as a scientist, how science is made and share my knowledge. It can be a window to an environment that most would never have access to.
I love that more and more accounts are now sharing science in multiple languages. What made you start sharing science in your native Portuguese as well as English?
Mafalda: I believe that the system we have nowadays is unfair. Only 1 in 7 people speak English. This means that the other 6 will never have access to the same information that English speakers will. This turns science, which I believe should be accessible for everyone, into a privilege. Much of the research is done in non-English speaking countries, paid by non-English speaking tax-payers but there is no return. Even if these people find a scientific paper, most won’t be able to read it. Scientists should share their knowledge in their native languages. Give back to your countries and be the one who gives them access to your science. I started to communicate science in Portuguese after receiving a message from a Brazilian that said ‘I love your Instagram, even though I cannot understand what you say’. This made me think of how I was marginalising Portuguese speakers and depriving them of the same knowledge. Portuguese is the 6th most spoken language, so it made sense to start using my native language for scicomm. I do like sharing science in Portuguese, but its funny because the majority of my public is from Brazil. Brazilian Portuguese is slightly different from the one I speak, like the American English is to British English, I guess. The difference is that Brazilians are not used to hearing Portuguese people speaking.So in the beginning, I got some messages asking where I learnt to speak Portuguese or offering to help me if I had any doubts. I don’t get much of those anymore, so I guess they are getting used to my accent ahaha!
Where do you get your content ideas for Instagram from?
Mafalda: Everywhere really. From things I read on the news, to my own research and doubts as a scientist. If you look close enough, science is everywhere. I don’t have a particular topic I focus my scicomm on. Whatever makes me curious and makes me read about it, I have the need to share it with people because science is awesome!
When you’re not in the lab, where would we find you?
Mafalda: On holidays abroad. Besides having to travel to see my family and friends, I love to travel. I go to Portugal at least twice a year but I have also been trying to do a big trip every year. This year I have already been to Portugal, South Africa, Netherlands and Poland, but I am still returning to Portugal and the Netherlands and adding Costa Rica to the list before the end of the year.
Wow! That is a lot of travelling that I am super jealous of. Which leads me nicely on to my final question. Where in the world should I be visiting next?
Mafalda: My hometown. It’s just next to paradise. It’s called Azeitao and it’s the nearest village to the Nature Park of Arrabida – which is also my surname. Just google it! It’s full of white sand beaches and crystal clear waters next to the green mountains. The place is magic. You can do some canoeing, hiking, watch the dolphins, cycle up the mountain, explore caves or just chill at the beach. If you get tired of this, just go wine tasting in our many amazing vineyards or have one of our traditional pastries. Plus, Portuguese people are really warm and chances are you will be invited for something 5 minutes within the start of a conversation. Have I convinced you yet?!
Yes! Absolutely sold! I want to book those flights and explore right now. I have been to Portugal myself so can completely agree with how beautiful this country is. Massive thanks to Mafalda for taking the time to answer my questions. I feel inspired by your answers and want to better myself and my scicomm. Best of luck with your final year of PhD and evrything else you have passion for.
If you want to follow Mafalda’s science journey and learn some science and Portuguese in the mean time, make sure to follow her on Instagram.
S P O T L I G H T S E P T E M B E R 2018 is in full swing, and I am very excited to bring you more stories from scientists across the world. Make sure to check back in every Monday and Friday in September to meet another scientist and learn about their story, and to catch up with our previously featured scientists too. Did you enjoy this story today? Is there anyone you would love to see featured on my Scientist in the Spotlight features over the next year?
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