Interviews with Scientists: Carla D'Avanzo
Carla D’Avanzo is a Senior Research Alliance Manager at the Mass General Research Institute, Boston. She gained a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Naples Federico II, Italy, and now promotes translational science by helping to build partnerships and encouraging collaboration between academia and industry.
She is co-director of the Science Rehashed podcast and is also involved in postdoc mentoring, as well as other STEM youth projects.
We spoke to Carla to find out a little more about her work, her passion for problem-solving, her greatest role model, and more.
Thanks for speaking with us, Carla! Firstly, please tell us a bit more about your current role...
I’m a Senior Research Alliance Manager at the Mass General Research Institute, Boston. I promote translational science by preparing academic scientists for and engaging in interactions with potential industry partners. I work with academic scientists to understand important problems their research aims to solve; bring scientists together around common problems, work with teams of scientists to present their research vision to industry partners. Specifically, I manage three multi-lab, cross-functional programs: Neuroinflammation in Neurodegeneration, Cardiometabolics, and Rare Diseases. I’m the alliance manager for the collaboration between Amgen and Mass General Research Institute within the Cardiometabolics program and for the Gene Therapy program for Mucolipidosis IV (MLIV) funded by the MLIV Foundation.
What was the focus of your PhD research?
My PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Naples Federico II, Italy, was focused on the role of ion channels in the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease.
What do you enjoy most about working in STEM?
The fact that we push our understanding of diseases and new medical treatments. When I was in high school and I decided on my undergrad path, I knew I wanted to cure diseases but not by giving treatments, doing surgeries like medical doctors do. I wanted to know the “why” behind a disease and fix it starting from the initial cause. I also enjoy the problem-solving approach and the analytical thinking that can be applied in everyday life.
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so, why?
No. When I was young, until middle school, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was fascinated by investigative stories in both books and movies, and I would follow with excitement those long trials in court. When I started studying chemistry and biology in high school my love for biology took over and I changed my mind, pursuing a degree in Biotechnology for Healthcare. I guess what I really liked about being a lawyer was the possibility of asking the right questions, doing research and solving difficult problems.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists today?
A lack of open access to most of the science. Many scientific articles are behind paywalls, that’s what we are trying to solve with the Science Rehashed podcast. Poor science communication skills towards the public. Scientific findings are not easy to reproduce, there are no incentives to engage in data replication. Also, the peer-review system doesn’t work well. It doesn’t prevent poor-quality science from being published, and it can cause publishing delays due to lack of incentives for reviewers or due to peer-review bullying. Scientists are pressured to publish into prestigious journals. The stress and the pressure can cause research misconduct.
Who has been your greatest role model, and why?
Rita Levi-Montalcini, Italian Nobel Prize winner in Medicine for the discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor. Her perseverance and determination as a female Jewish scientist during the struggles of the Second World War have been very inspirational.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
As scientists, we never stop learning. I feel like each career experience I have had has provided me with new skills and strengths that I could translate in my next job. I found it very valuable to talk to people with different expertise and backgrounds and to be open-minded in getting exposed to as many opportunities as possible.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work/research?
I have been working from home since March 2020. All the meetings (and I do have many meetings during my workday) have become Zoom calls. No networking events, seminars or conferences in person anymore.
How do you see your career developing, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m interested in transitioning to industry, pharma, or biotech, and bringing my academic perspective with me. I would like to learn more about the business aspect of life science.
You are a co-director of the Science Rehashed podcast. Why is science communication so important to you?
Science plays a remarkable role in improving healthcare. We need to be talking about science with the public and communicating why it matters in a more accessible and engaging way.
You are involved in postdoc mentoring, as well as a number of youth STEM projects. Can you tell us a little about them?
I enjoy working with young people. I’ve helped organize TEDxYouth Boston, and also organized events with the MGH Youth Scholars for the Brain Awareness Week together with Genetics and Aging research unit members at MGH. I was the scientist “pen pal” for a middle school classroom in a small town next to Naples, Italy, last year thanks to the “Penne Amiche della Scienza” initiative. The school is the same I attended growing up. Regarding postdoc mentoring, I have been Chair of the MGH Postdoc Association for 3 years and I wanted to give back, so I became part of their mentoring circle last year. This year I will mentor European students through the IMFAHE organization.
Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most?
I like biking and I got into long distance riding during the pandemic, hitting 100+ miles in a day. I’ve biked for fundraising and awareness for the Alzheimer’s Association.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
Tough decision. Since I am a biotechnologist, I would say DNA. I had the pleasure to see James Watson in person at an event in Napoli when I was an undergrad, it was so exciting!
And finally… what’s your favorite science quote?
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie
Thank you so much for a fantastic interview, Carla! We wish you all the best for the future. You connect with Carla and check out the Science Rehashed podcast here:
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