Marina, where are you from? And where did you find out about RECETOX?
I am from Brazil, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, and I focused on new therapeutic strategies and finding early biomarkers for drug-induced nephrotoxic compounds during my master's degree. For my Ph.D. studies, I wanted to study abroad to get some international experience. When I was searching for the best Ph.D. opportunities, I found a RECETOX Ph.D. position offer shared by one of the professors I knew. I liked it, so I sent an e-mail to associate professor Pavel Babica at RECETOX, who is my current supervisor; I applied for the position, and I am happy that I got it.
Was the whole application process complicated?
I don´t remember; it has already been three years since the process started. (laugh) I sent my curriculum vitae and motivation letter about why I decided to apply for the Ph.D. program at RECETOX. Then, Mr. Pavel Babica invited me for an online interview. We discussed the project together, my research interests, and why I wanted to continue in in vitro toxicology area. At that time, the team of Pavel Babica started to work in a new international consortium called Oberon, which is a significant European project with RECETOX and other universities and research centers involved, and he offered me to be part of it. Plus, the project deals with the role of endocrine disruptors in developing metabolic diseases, which is one of my research interests. So, it came nicely together.
And now you are in Brno! Did you hear about the city before you moved here?
No, I hadn´t heard about the city before applying for the Ph.D. program. (laugh)
So, you moved to a completely unknown city! That´s quite brave!
Thank you! I found Brno on Maps, and it looked like a lovely city to live in. In addition, I read a lot about Masaryk University and RECETOX center, and I knew that it would be a great university to study at.
Was it your first time in Europe when you came to the Czech Republic?
Actually not. During my bachelor’s degree, I took part in an Erasmus program in Portugal, it was an eye-opening experience, so it was one of the reasons I have decided to do my Ph.D. abroad.
Let´s go back to your research. What is your area of scientific expertise?
In my Ph.D. studies, I developed a 3D Human Liver Model to investigate the effects of contaminants, such as food toxicants, environmental pollutants, and pharmaceutical drugs, also known as disruptors of the endocrine system. I explore how they are connected to the development of metabolic diseases. Also, in my team, we study the molecular and cellular events relevant to the development of chronic liver diseases. My main research interests are connected to the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is a condition when the liver, for various reasons, accumulates more lipids than usual. It can lead to more severe stages of the disease like fibrosis, cirrhosis, or even cancer. It is super interesting to study how environmental pollutants can lead to the development of such severe conditions, and many times we are even not aware of them.
Why did you want to study this particular topic?
Since my master’s degree in Brazil, I have been interested in the development of new approach methodologies (NAMs), specifically studying in vitro models to reduce the number of animals in the research - a principle called 3Rs: Replace, Reduce, and Refinement - an internationally accepted approach to minimize the use of laboratory animals in research by, wherever possible, requiring studies to use alternative models and making refinements to the methods to reduce any distress when animals are used. In addition, we know that animals are not entirely physiologically relevant models for humans, and it makes less sense to use so many of them for research purposes as we still do nowadays. At this time, we have technologies advanced enough to work with cells and computational models to construct even the 3D human cell and tissue structures that are more physiologically relevant and can be more predictive compared to animal models. Here in RECETOX, the SECANTOX group focuses on In vitro advanced models for assessing the effects of chemicals and links these effects to human adverse health outcomes, which matches my scientific interests.
If we can go back to Oberon, you recorded a short video about yourself and your work and published it on Twitter. I have to say that it was cool! How did you come to this video? What is the story behind this?
It was a challenge that we got, as young scientists involved in the Oberon project, to produce some materials for the popularization of science to prepare videos introducing ourselves and giving some background about what we have been working on as Ph.D. students. The video had to be straightforward, and its main goal was to popularize science, so people without any scientific background should understand it. Now we are even planning to produce longer ones, with a bit more information related to our research projects, so stay tuned. (laugh)
What are you working on in the Oberon project?
I work in the in vitro working package, which focuses on developing human-relevant test systems to identify endocrine disruptors relevant for metabolic disorders. Specifically, I work with human liver models, but different collaborators work with varying types of cells such as adipocytes, pancreatic cells, and OMICs and more advanced technologies. The OBERON project aims to establish an integrated testing strategy (ITS) to detect endocrine disruptors-related metabolic disorders by developing, improving, and validating a battery of various test systems. It is a consortium of many research centers and universities in Europe, and the project receives support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020.
And what about the Czech language? English is a language of science; on the other hand, you need a bit of the Czech language if you live in Brno.
Luckily, here at RECETOX, everyone speaks English, so it's not so hard to communicate during my working hours. Still, daily life is complicated sometimes because not everyone speaks English, although Brno is a very international and friendly city, so I cannot say I had problems with communication. But I've been studying a little bit of Czech since I arrived, so I think I already know the essential words. But to be honest, it's not easy. And to get better at my Czech, I attended Czech language courses at the Language Centre of Masaryk University.
Do you enjoy learning new languages?
Yes, I do. But this is the first time I have been studying something so distant from my mother tongue. English was easier. (laugh)
What was the most challenging obstacle you had to overcome while you were moving to the Czech Rep?
Well, I was in touch with the international department, Center for International Cooperation, here at the university. They helped me with my visa and finding the first place to stay. When I arrived, I stayed for a while in the dorm; it was the easiest thing for me to go around the city and find an apartment to live in. The hardest part was getting a visa and renewing it every year because I have to deal with a lot of paperwork, but once it’s done, it’s OK.
And another challenge I have been struggling with here in Brno is the winter season. (laugh) I am from a hot country, and the Czech winters are cold for me!
Overall, I am thrilled that I am here; the city is excellent, and RECETOX too. I am enjoying being here a lot.
You came to Brno before the COVID-19 pandemic. How did it affect you?
This period was definitely challenging because I came to a new city, and with the restrictions, there was not much to do around. Fortunately, I had moved to Brno six months before the COVID-19 started, and everything shut down, and I already knew the city and the RECETOX colleagues a bit. But of course, I hope that such a situation will never happen again.
Did you find anything you didn’t like? You can be honest, something like "this is not my cup of tea" or "how can they do THAT."
I don’t know; I just think if something shocked me so much to remember that (laugh). I don’t know, this is not a bad thing, but for example, in Brazil, it’s not standard to remove your shoes everywhere you enter. Here at RECETOX, we always change our shoes when we go into the lab, and in Brazil, I’ve never changed my shoes at work. But I see it as a good thing. At first, I found it strange but then I understood it’s cleaner and better, especially in the winter when the outside is muddy and dirty. I learned this, and I think I will bring it with me forever (laugh). Even in Portugal or Spain, I don’t remember removing shoes, so it was my first experience.
And how many years do you have left in your studies? And do you have any idea where you would like to continue later? Would you like to come back to Brazil?
Still, I have one and a half years to finish my Ph.D. Of course, I have already started thinking about what I will do afterward, and I believe I want to stay in the research area and look for postdoc research positions. And I would like to continue living and working in Europe too, but yeah, we never know what can happen in the future (laugh).
And my very last question… Do you have a favorite coffee place or a restaurant in Brno?
Oh, there are so many. Recently, I’ve been trying to reduce the quantity of meat I consume. There is one nice restaurant in the city center, the name is Vegalite, and it’s vegan and super delicious. They serve vegan versions of Czech traditional dishes, and I totally recommend it!
Marina, thank you for such a pleasant interview. I wish you all the best in your career and also in Brno.