Joana Faria is a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Professor David Horn. Joana’s research focuses on understanding how african trypanosomes (parasites responsible for African Sleeping Sickness) try and avoid detection by the human immune system.
Joana has just been short-listed for a SULSA early-career researcher prize. As Joana prepares to impress the judging panel we asked her a few questions to learn more about Joana’s life as a scientist and how she relaxes and recharges so her research benefits from a sharp mind.
Question: What is your earliest science memory ?
Answer: I think my interest in Science began at the age of 9 when two older cousins offered me a ‘microscope’ as a birthday gift. For a month they instructed me to collect flies and other insects otherwise I would not get my present. Those would be the first specimens I looked at down the microscope (it was a magnifying lens really but very exciting for an 9-year-old). And 22 years later I am still passionate about ‘bugs’ (unicellular ones these days) and microscopy.
Q: Did a particular person(s) or event start your career as a scientist?
A: I don’t think there was a particular person but I can think of several people who inspired me along the way. I had an amazing Maths teacher and two outstanding Biology teachers who were excellent communicators, very passionate about their subjects and very effective at explaining how Science impacts our day-to-day life. And later at university, I was very lucky to have fantastic lecturers that made it really hard for me to choose which field I wanted to pursue.
Q: What characteristics make a good scientist?
A: A scientist should be passionate, driven, hard-working, rigorous, creative and a good communicator.
Q: Do you think being a scientist impacts the way you approach everything in life?
A: Definitely. I think I approach life in general as an ongoing experiment – with way too many variables I cannot control and therefore a bit frustrating at times. But I think I approach life with the same rational look and the same ethics I apply to my work. Interestingly, one of my favourite things to do is cooking, which I think in a way reminds me of lab work, although I improvise a lot more than in my experiments.
Q: Do non-science life experiences contribute towards success in the lab?
A: I think so, even if not directly. I think that having hobbies and doing other non-work-related activities is vital for our mental health, which is critical to sustain our productivity and creativity in the long run.
Q: What motivates you to come into work every day?
A: The thing I love the most about my work is not knowing where I am going next, every experiment raises mores questions and drives me out of my comfort zone, constantly opening the possibility of using different technologies and collaborating with other scientists. I still get butterflies in my stomach every time I turn on the microscope to see the result of an experiment or while anxiously analysing sequencing data to see what is changing in my cells – I hope those butterflies never go away. A good friend of mine, Catarina Marques, once told me that she loves the idea that whatever new observation we make, that protein, that structure, that response, it has been there all along for millions of years but we are the first ones to ‘see’ it and study it. I could not say it any better myself, what motivates me to go to work everyday is filling gaps in our knowledge, Biology is just waiting for us to catch up.
Q: Is there any part of human lives where science can’t help or inform?
A: Not that I can think of.
Q: Was there a ‘sliding doors’ moment when you could have chosen a different career path?
A: When I was 17 I found myself in a dilemma, I was undecided on what to study at university as I loved Science but I also loved arts and languages. I was undecided between Pharmaceutical Sciences, Architecture and Law (it sounds bizarre, I know). I guess it reflected my broad range of interests, which is a good thing (I think), but when I thought about the job itself I realised that Science would be the one that would make me the happiest. And hopefully when I retire I will still have the energy to pursue another degree.
Q: As an early career scientist what are the most important thing the more senior scientists can do to help you?
A: I think that sharing their scientific knowledge and experience can definitely help us improve our work and our manuscripts. However, there is much more to a scientific career than Science itself and sometimes that is where we need a lot of guidance. I think that mentoring schemes are really important so that more senior researchers can share their experience on grant writing, interviews and general advice on career progression.
Q: Do you think the current research environment needs to change to a) improve life for the scientists and b) to adapt to the way research is now such a team and international effort? ?
A: Regarding the first question, I think there are still many things that have to change to improve life for scientists but I am happy to see there are already many changes in place. There is a growing interest in mental health and general well being. I think that now more and more Institutions encourage their researchers to have a good work-life balance instead of working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and convincing you that is the only way to have a successful academic career. Of course this depends a lot on the institution, the country or the lab itself, but I think it is improving. Additionally, I think that many Institutions are now putting measures in place to deal with bullying (in its various shapes and forms), but I believe we still have a long way to go in order to deal with it effectively. Regarding the second question, I would say this is one of the things I like the most about Science, I think that the more multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural the better, the critical aspect is communication, as with everything I think.
At WCAIR we believe public engagement is a key priority.
Q: How do we help the science community and general public understand each other better?
A: Communication with the general public is something that scientists are not trained for by default. We are trained to communicate our Science to other scientists. I recently attended a workshop where we had to communicate what we worked on and why it was important for the community. Everyone had a different background, some were scientists but from biologists to physicists or mathematicians, others were engineers, others worked on linguistics or history. At first we had to do it with our peers from closely related subjects, there was this small biology ‘gang’ and that was easy, I did not have to think it through very much. As we went from that to people further and further from our background, it got so much harder and it clearly showed me how unprepared I was for this type of communication. I think that this type of training should start early on, at the undergraduate level for example.
Q: How do we encourage people from communities where there a few science role models (under representation in the working science community) to train as scientists?
A: I think schools are an excellent platform for that. During my PhD I participated in this program where people with different professions went to schools to talk about their jobs and their importance for our society. I think our profession is an easy one to sell, how cool is it?
Grew Up: Porto, Portugal
Favourite Book: Crime and Punishment
Favourite Film: I don’t have one… Inception, Memento, (most things Christopher Nolan has directed really), The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lord of the Rings, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, by Francis Ford Coppola) among others.
Favourite Box Set binge: I could not choose just one, some of my current obsessions are Dark and West World, some of my all time favourites are Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful, Borgias, Rome, House of Cards, Homeland, Lost, Peep Show, The Thick of It and many more…
Favourite computer game: I was never into computer games…Oops
Favourite thing to do at the weekend: Reading, painting, cooking or walking (all of them while listening to music, always!).
Desert Island Luxury: Some music device, I cannot imagine life without music or at least not one worth living.
Which record would you save from the incoming Tay tide: “Spiritual Instinct” by Alcest.