Interviews with Scientists: Jose A. Morales-García
Our inspiring Interviews with Scientists series is back! To mark Brain Awareness Week 2023 (13-19 March) we were delighted to talk to Jose A. Morales-García of the Faculty of Medicine in the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), Spain.
Jose is a Spanish neuroscientist who received his PhD in Neuroscience from Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM), studying molecular and cellular targets for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. After conducting research at the universities of Würzburg and Tübingen in Germany, he returned to Spain to work at the Spanish National Research Council. Throughout this time, his scientific interest has been focused on the study in vitro and in vivo of the mechanism underlying neurodegenerative disease, mainly Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson’s disease, in order to develop new neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory and neurogenic compounds for the treatment of these disorders.
In addition to his research into neurodegenerative diseases, Jose is a professor of Neuroscience at the Faculty of Medicine (UCM). He is also professor of the Master's degree in Pharmacological Research at the Faculty of Medicine (UAM) and professor of the Expert Degree in communication and scientific dissemination (UAM).
Jose is a well-known science communicator in neuroscience who writes regularly in the written press and participates in radio programs in Spain.
We spoke to Jose about his career so far, his team’s Brain Awareness Week project, his hopes for the future of neuroscience research and his advice for early career scientists…
Thanks for speaking with us, Jose! Please can you tell us a little bit about your current role at the Complutense University of Madrid?
I like to refer to myself as a professor of ‘neurothings’ which is a colloquial term for the nervous system-related courses I teach in medical school. My expertise is in the field of histology. In fact, Santiago Ramón y Cajal established the Chair of Histology in Madrid, and my department is its academic heir. It is a tremendous honour for me to carry on teaching histology in the Chair that was established by our Nobel Prize winner.
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger?
I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life when I was younger because I enjoyed everything. I wanted to live in seclusion as a monk, to become an archaeologist, a doctor, and to tour the globe. When I grew up, not much changed, and when it was time to enrol in college, I was accepted into dentistry, veterinary, medical, biological, and philological studies programs. LOL. I enjoyed everything, which is the issue. Finally, I decided to major in biology.
What excites you most about the work that you do?
Discovering new things every day. For me it is very stimulating to get to the lab every day and go running to see the cells you left in the incubator the day before, or to go to the microscope with tissue slides and cells plates to see what's there. It's like opening a treasure chest every day.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I feel very proud to have reached where I am today because it’s been a very difficult road. In Spain the scientific career path is especially complicated, it is like a gymkhana. I come from a very humble family where I learned the value of effort and a job well done, something I learned from my parents. I love them the most. Thanks to them I achieved my goals.
You have studied neurodegenerative diseases for many years. What are your hopes for the future of this scientific field?
This is a very complicated field. Unfortunately we have waited many years, and are still waiting, for a new drug to help patients with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. I always say that these diseases are the price we have to pay for living longer. I don't know if I will ever see it in my lifetime, but hopefully we will find a way to at least slow down the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
You were recently awarded funding from FENS for a Brain Awareness Week project about Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Can you tell us a little about the project?
I am extremely grateful to FENS and the DANA Foundation for their financial support. This is the second time we have received an award and for me it is a real honour to participate in the dissemination of the nervous system. We have focused on the figure of Cajal because paradoxically he is a great unknown in Spanish society, despite being the international father of modern neuroscience. His discoveries marked a ‘before and after’ in the knowledge of the nervous system, but unfortunately in Spain this is not known by many people. There is not even a museum where people can learn about Cajal. Our intention with this project is to approach the figure of Cajal in all his facets: as a man, as a scholar, as an artist, as well as the histological school that he founded with a large presence of women who, despite the time, were dedicated to research and made great contributions in the field of histology of the nervous system.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
When I was a child I learned from Grover in Sesame Street that "everything is better with friends". And this is the most essential lesson I have ever learned. Without a solid support system, it is impossible to conduct scientific study. In my situation, I've been extremely fortunate because I've always had a fantastic team of professionals on my side, from my lab mates to my bosses, who have enabled the work to proceed. For me this is the most important lesson.
How do you see your career progressing in the future/where do you see yourself in 10 years?
"Virgin Mary, let me stay as I am" goes the Spanish proverb. I hope to achieve that in the future, to keep doing what I enjoy while being surrounded by my pupils.
What key piece of advice would you give to a young scientist just starting out in their career?
Knowledge is strength. Learn everything you can about a job in research using various channels. Query experts, close pals, or whoever. Obtain knowledge from various sources, and once you have it all, come to your own conclusions. Young scientists must be aware of the challenges they will encounter, so I always advise them to locate a mentor.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing life scientists today?
In my opinion, fake news. We are in a hyper-digitalized world, which makes communication easier instantly, and that is a great advance. But it is also a way of spreading hoaxes, especially in science. Every day we are faced with people spreading false myths in the name of Science, and that is a serious problem.
Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing most?
What I like most in the world is travelling. As soon as I have time, I take a backpack, pack the basics to be able to live and I take a plane with a one-way ticket but not a return ticket. I'll see later when and from where I return. LOL. Exploring new countries is the best thing in the world.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery or invention of all time?
The moms. A mother is the greatest creation ever made by humans. I want them to last eternally. They make the world a better place. Additionally, I believe that the development of antibiotics and vaccines is important for humankind.
What’s your favourite science quote?
“If you believe you have found a new structure while studying the nervous system, read Santiago Ramón y Cajal's writings; if he does not describe it, it is not real”.
And finally, is there anything else you would like to tell us?
I would advise the individuals who read this interview that "Your inner power is to love something". If you enjoy what you do and are passionate about it, believe in yourself and go after it. You will receive it.
Thank you so much for your inspiring words Jose! We wish you all the very best with your future research.
Connect with Jose:
- Twitter: @DrAstrocyte
- LinkedIn: Jose A Morales
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