Interview with Beatriz Fontoura, who focuses on the cell biology of viral-host interactions at UT Southwestern
After graduating from the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil, with a degree in Biochemistry, Beatriz Fontoura pursued a master’s degree in the Paulista School of Medicine in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She then moved to New York where she was awarded a PhD from the New York University School of Medicine. She stayed in New York during her postdoctoral training in the Laboratory of Cell Biology at The Rockefeller University until she moved to Miami to start her own lab at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Fontoura was recruited4 years later to join UT Southwestern in 2005, where she is currently a Professor of Cell Biology, leading a team that studies interactions of virulence factors from RNA viruses with the host’s processes of mRNA splicing and nuclear export.B
SPEaC: What drove your interest in viral-host interactions and in particular their highjack of the host mRNA splicing and nuclearexport systems?
BFontoura: During my post-doctoral training I identified nuclear pore complex proteins (also called nucleoporins) that mediate nuclear transport of proteins and RNAs. When I started my laboratory, we then found that one of this nucleoporins together with other transport factors are key targets of virulence factors and subjected to immune regulation. These discoveries led us to our research program on viral-host interactions with intranuclear processes (splicing and nuclear transport machineries) and also on studies of how this knowledge can be used for designing therapeutic strategies. There is an old say in the virology field: “If one wants to know about a cell, ask a virus because it does not lie.”
S: What events marked your scientific career? What were some of the hard decisions you had to make and what lessons can you share from those events?
BF: My post-doctoral training was an important step in my career. I was in a productive environment with respect to diverse thinking and scientific strategies, and freedom for testing new ideas and developing approaches. Importantly, I was able to take my projects to start my own laboratory. This facilitated the first grant submission, which is crucial for a starting laboratory.
The hardest decision was to choose the next step after my post-doctoral training. This is a moment that brings a lot of insecurities, which can be quite stressful. I was lucky to be surrounded by friends and professionals in the field who gave me strong support through discussions and encouragement for pursuing an independent scientific career. Fears about this profession need to be seriously discussed because they can be amplified. In addition, one can always change course when the choice does not work out.
S: Similar to you, many UT Southwestern postdoctoral fellows are international. What were the things you considered when deciding to drive your independent career in the U.S.?
BF: In my view, the United States is the place that offers the best opportunities, in quality and number, for someone who wants to work on basic sciences. Generally speaking, it has more funding than other places and, most of the time, one can find a job based on merit. If one seriously invests in the career during graduate school and post-doctoral training, there is a better chance to get an academic position in the U.S. than in other places such as Europe and Latin America. Asian countries are now investing more in basic sciences but still are not comparable to the U.S.
S: What challenges do scientists face at the moment? Do you think it is harder for female scientists?
BF: I think that funding is the most challenging aspect of the profession, for both men and women. My field, nuclear trafficking, is unique with respect to women representation. Approximately ~50% of the investigators are women. Therefore, I never felt discrimination in this context. However, it is obvious that women are less represented in basic sciences in general, in leadership positions at universities and companies, and it is also an issue the subconscious discrimination against women during grant review processes. These are matters that are currently being discussed in the community.
Another challenge for women is to combine this intense professional life with motherhood. This was my case. I had my son when I was a post-doc so to raise him I counted with child care professionals and with my husband who equally shared the work. It is key to have a supportive partner and other types of help to be able to succeed.
On a personal note
BF: I enjoy music, movies, museum and traveling. I have also played piano for many years as I graduated from a music conservatory in Brazil.