Interviews with Scientists: Joana Ferreira
Joana Ferreira is an assistant investigator at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology, University of Coimbra, Portugal. She was awarded a Young Investigators Grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in 2021 which will allow her to pursue her research into trans-synaptic signaling mediated by glutamate receptors.
Joana Ferreira graduated in Biology in 2006 at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and completed her PhD in Biosciences, specialising in Neurosciences in 2012. After completing her PhD, she was given her first post-doctoral opportunity at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology as a research fellow, studying the role of the subunit GluN2B of the NMDA receptors in the trafficking and regulation of other glutamate receptors. In 2016, she joined the group of Laurent Groc at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Neuroscience in France, to further understand the role of synaptic NMDA receptors using state-of-the-art microscopy. Using diverse super-resolution microscopy techniques, she studied the dynamics and nanoscale organisation of NMDA receptors and their impact on synaptic plasticity mechanisms. In 2021 she joined the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology at the University of Coimbra as an assistant investigator to start her independent research, and plans to begin building her own team soon.
We spoke to Joana about the grant award, her future career plans, and her advice for early career life scientists…
Thanks for speaking with us, Joana! Firstly, please tell us a bit more about your current role...
I’m an assistant investigator (junior PI) at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology, University of Coimbra (CNC-UC), Portugal. I started this position in June 2021.
What was the focus of your PhD research?
I studied the role of the different subunits of the NMDA receptor (one of the most abundant glutamate receptors we have in our brain) on their trafficking to the synapse and on synaptic plasticity (the molecular mechanism thought to underline learning and memory processes).
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?
When I was about 8 years old, I got a microscope as a Christmas present, so I have always been fascinated by the things we cannot see by eye. In parallel, I always loved animals and I was always very intrigued by their behaviour. Early on I knew I wanted to graduate in Biology, and during my graduation years I discovered Neuroscience and became totally fascinated by this field.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I love the freedom to pursue our ideas. The fact that a day in the lab is never the same as the next one. Sometimes it can be very frustrating work, but the days where we make a new discovery makes up for the rest. I also love the fact that we work with a lot of students, and we have the opportunity to help promising young scientists to pursue their careers too.
You were awarded a BBRF Young Investigators Grant in 2021. What impact will this grant have on your research?
Being recognized by the Brain & Research Foundation (www.bbrfoundation.org) as a promising Young Investigator is very important and makes me very proud. The foundation is fully committed to support projects (including basic research) that will lead to advances in our comprehension of mental illnesses. This grant will allow me to pursue my independent research, and to start building my own team. The funds will be used to buy reagents and equipment that will allow us to study a new interaction between two proteins in our brain that we think may be involved in diseases like schizophrenia.
What advice would you give to other life scientists who are applying for grants or funding?
Applying for grants can be very frustrating since the success rates are usually very low. My advice is never to give up and to take each application as a learning process, making the most of it, even if you don’t get the prize. Whenever it is possible, ask for feedback from the funding agencies, it’s important to understand where you can improve.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists today?
One of the biggest challenges I would say is the academic career, since the field is very competitive and there are few permanent positions, you are never sure where you will be 5 years from now. On a personal level it is hard to make long-term plans. The pressure is very high, to get publications and funding, you need to be very resilient.
Women remain underrepresented in all fields of STEM. What can be done to improve the gender balance in science?
In my field, biology and neurosciences, women make up most of the researchers, unfortunately this equilibrium is completely lost when we get to the top/leading positions. I’m not sure what would be the ideal solution, but for now I think it is important to keep the gender-issue on the table, incentivize parity, both in meetings and in funding schemes. Hopefully in time we will no longer need them.
Who has been your greatest role model, and why?
I would have to choose Jane Goodall. She has always fascinated me, her courage, her dedication and patience. Actually, this is who I wanted to be when I was little, before I found out the jungle could be very dangerous and maybe it would be better to stay in the lab.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
Choose your supervisors wisely. I have been lucky enough that both my PhD and postdoc supervisors became my mentors, and were always very supportive of my research choices. They also helped me grow as a communicator and a leader, two very important soft skills in this career.
How do you see your career developing in the future/where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope in 10 years I’ll be fully established as a principal investigator, pursuing my research in Neurosciences, trying to understand how our neurons communicate and what contributes to their dysfunction.
Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most?
I love reading, romances, fictions, biographies… whatever book comes to my hands. When I go to someone’s place for the first time, the first thing I do is look at their bookshelf to check what book I can borrow.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
The internet, I know it has brought a lot of evil, but it is what has been allowing us to communicate from any place in the world. For a scientist who often travels to different countries it is very important to be able to communicate with people at home. On the other hand, you can meet people from all over the world and keep in touch no matter where you are. It allows you to work with your peers even from a distance.
And finally… what’s your favourite science quote?
"Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth." - Jules Verne
Thank you so much for a fantastic interview, Joana! We wish you all the best with your ongoing research. Connect with Joana:
LinkedIn: Joana Ferreira
ORCID: Joana Ferreira
CNC profile: Joana Ferreira
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