Beach, Bench, and Beyond


I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to a typical middle class family living in a big three-bedroom apartment just one block away from Ipanema beach. I guess that makes me the “Girl from Ipanema,” right? I became interested in science during my last year in high school, mainly due to the enthusiasm of one biology teacher. To the surprise of my family, I came home one day saying that I was going to major in biological sciences. I still remember my brother’s words: ?Mom, what’s wrong with her?”

Biology was not part of the background or interests of a family with a long track record in the humanities and social sciences. At the dinner table, the conversation revolved around my mom’s job as a journalist at a prestigious local newspaper or my brother’s exams at the social sciences school. Meiosis and mitosis never really triggered their interest. In hindsight I can see that choosing a different path was part of the search for my own identity.

In 1988 I received my bachelor’s degree in biology from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, a prestigious public university in Brazil. A few months later I started a master’s program at the same university. My research project was on ancient DNA from archaeological sites. There were three of us in the lab, plus our adviser. It was a small and poorly equipped lab. But we had lots of fun.

That project was going nowhere after a year, and my best friend Kika already had traded our poor lab for a better one in Philadelphia, so I decided to look for a new place, too. I started a new project at the Brazilian National Cancer Institute in Rio de Janeiro on DNA fingerprinting of small monkeys from South America. The lab was equipped decently, and the environment was exciting. I remember the rush while waiting for the x-ray with my southern blot results to come out of the machine.

Slow-Running Agarose Gels, and a Day at the Beach

During the summer, I shared my time between the lab and the beach. I remember going to the lab early morning on the weekends to start my long-run agarose gels. While the gels were running very slowly, I was at the beach indulging myself with a full-body dose of tropical sun. By the end of the day I was back in the lab, a shade or two darker, my feet full of sand and my head full of a belief that a scientist’s life wasn’t so bad.

One day my adviser was visited by a long-time collaborator, the director of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas. He spent only one day with us, but a few months after his visit I got a letter from him offering me a position as a research assistant. In San Antonio I had my first car, my first apartment, and a cat named Chuckie. My lab was small but was equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. Reagents and primers were delivered next day, and there was no long waiting for special orders. There was a PCR machine just for me, and not one but several gel boxes of all sizes.

I had great facilities and the support of a nice boss, but I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm I had felt in Brazil and didn’t have opportunities to be creative very often. Everything was ready and I was not required to do much thinking, or not the way I was used to. That rush, and the enthusiasm for the bench I had during those days in Brazil, I would never experience again.

I started a Ph.D. program in Rio and went back to the same lab at the National Cancer Institute to carry out my bench work. Soon enough I realized that going back was not an easy thing. Somehow waiting long periods for reagents and material and having to share a PCR with 10 other students had lost its glamour. My frustration with the slow pace in the lab made me apply for a fellowship from the Brazilian government to do my bench work abroad.

This second time, I chose an U.S. lab without making use of my adviser’s contacts. I was interested in working with X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy and contacted a group working on this disease at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Welcome to the East Coast

My lab at Hopkins was very different from my lab in Texas, not to mention my lab in Brazil. It was very well equipped, but the environment was stressful and full of conflicts. It was the kind of lab where you see people crying late at night or looking for alliances with other colleagues. I still remember my very first day in the lab. No one knew I was coming, not even my boss. The whole process had been arranged with the head of the department, who had failed to communicate my arrival to my future boss. I had no bench waiting for me, no pipettes, no nothing, just a disdainful look on everyone’s face. That was my introduction to the East Coast!

But it was at Hopkins that I interacted with a number of different cultures for the first time, and I became friends with a Dutch guy doing a program similar to mine and an Italian postdoc across the hall. There were also three Chinese and an Irish woman.

I worked very hard for almost 2 years to finish a research project that no one seemed interested in. Looking back, I now believe that they accepted me in the lab just because I had my own funding. But I didn’t care. I was so used to being independent that the isolation didn’t bother me. Most projects in the lab were on the creation of an animal model for X-ALD, and touching an animal was never included in my plans as a biologist. So in that sense the isolation suited me. In 1999 I presented my Ph.D. thesis, along with three published papers.

Back in Brazil, I became interested in science education. I developed a DNA hands-on program for high school students and carried out workshops in schools. It was a pioneer project and is still going very well. I was in the middle of what today I recognize as a transition period when a new offer fell into my lap.

My lab at NCI had people from everywhere. It was a quiet lab but with lots of different projects going on. Several times during my postdoc I caught myself browsing the Internet for information, contacts, and resources on science education. My English had improved, and I became interested in writing science articles for nonscientists. When I was making plans to go back to Brazil, something unexpected happened. I met my soon-to-be husband and immediately understood that you really can’t go home again.

On to Science Writing and Education

My postdoc training made me understand that I was done with the bench and it was time for me to start looking for alternatives. My search took me to an ad at the local newspaper for a position at Magazine to work with a project on science education. They were looking for someone with a Ph.D. in the biological sciences who was interested in science education. The match couldn’t have been better. After many years working in a field and environment so foreign to my family, I ended up in the editorial department of a prestigious magazine.

At AAAS and Science Magazine, I initially worked with Science Controversies Online Partnership in Education ( SCOPE) and later got involved with many other things and different groups, including Next Wave, GrantsNet, and AIDScience. I have learned a lot and developed new skills not usually taught in a Ph.D. program. More recently I joined Project 2061, working on science education.

On nostalgic and melancholic days, when I miss the life I left behind, especially the bench and my home country (including Ipanema beach), I go to my well-equipped kitchen and follow a detailed recipe for an exotic Brazilian dish. In all these years, the most important lesson I have learned is that when you’re too hungry for life, you just have to help yourself.

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From UK to Canada