'The best of both worlds'

Interview with new Lise Meitner Group Leader Silvia Portugal

July 20, 2020
On July 1st, Silvia Portugal started her position as Lise Meitner Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. The Portuguese scientist now heads the research group “Malaria Parasite Biology”. At the MPIIB, Silvia will continue the studies of her former Heidelberg research group, focusing on how malaria parasites survive the dry season in human hosts without causing malaria symptoms. Read the interview to find out why Silvia joined the MPIIB, what drove her to study malaria, and how the COVID-19 pandemic affects malaria research in hers and other labs around the world.

You just started your position, what are your plans for the coming weeks?

Besides the nice side of getting to know the new colleagues and the facilities, there are plenty of necessary things to do: getting equipment and permits to transfer samples; plus moving grants, and paychecks for some members of my lab in Heidelberg that will join me in Berlin. It’s the part of my job I’m least keen about, condensed in two weeks. But I am happy to do it so that everything else becomes easier.

Your former research group was based in Heidelberg. Do you feel acclimatized to Germany?

Yes, but I hear that Berliners are somehow different. I guess, I will find out what that means.

What made you excited about joining the MPIIB?

The MPIIB is a great opportunity: there is a broad composition of research groups, while everyone is still focused on infection biology. I did my PhD in an institute with research groups studying cancer, infection, development and many other things. Then in Heidelberg, where I first established my independent group, the whole department was focused on malaria–which was great for all the input, but I sometimes missed a wider spectrum. So here at MPIIB, I’ll have the best of both worlds. It will be exciting to translate my research to colleagues that are not in the same small drawer and thrive through their approaches and questions, too.

On top of that, I hope the MPIIB will give me the opportunity to design and implement my own field studies. Right now, I am very fortunate to collaborate with amazing people, but implementing field studies that are objectively designed towards my group’s research questions will be a real advantage. In the University system, it would probably be very difficult to get long term enough funds to do this.

And there will be a new team of young group leaders…

Which is indeed amazing! I was lucky enough to work in a parallel environment when I arrived in Heidelberg, as three other young PIs were also starting. So, I’m sure that having so many young researchers joining at the same time here at the MPIIB is a great opportunity for all of us.

What were the steps of your career so far?

I studied biology in Porto, Portugal. Then I took a gap year: I volunteered at an HIV project in Botswana. After this, I did my PhD in Lisbon with Maria Mota, that's when I started working with Malaria. Before my postdoc, I got a short visiting fellowship in Sao Paulo for three months, where I got the chance of working on penguin malaria.

After that, I moved to the US where I worked for five and a half years as a postdoc at the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, with Pete Crompton. There I started working with field samples from cohort studies in Mali with Boubacar Traoré’s team. In 2016, I moved to Heidelberg and started my own group at the Heidelberg University Hospital. And now I'm here, ten years after my PhD.

Could you briefly outline your research program?

We want to understand how the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum handles the absence of mosquitos during the dry season. In its lifecycle, the parasite needs to rotate between a human and mosquito. As long as there are mosquitos and humans, this cycle can constantly alternate. But, in most regions of the globe, transmission is seasonal: During dry season, it doesn’t rain for several months and when there is no water, there are no mosquitos. This could disrupt the cycle, but there are still new infections in the next wet season.

Our question is: How does the parasite survive the dry season and emerge again later? We know that Plasmodium “hides” in humans during the dry season, but no one presents clinical symptoms of malaria. So, we try to dissect the molecular mechanisms behind these silent infections and the strategies to overcome restrictions that are imposed by the surrounding environment. We want to know: How can people be infected the whole time, but only get sick when the mosquitos return in the wet season and how is the parasite able to restart transmission every year?

More than 13 years of malaria research: What fascinates you about malaria?

Naively, I wanted to work on something towards a better world–I have a specific concern to fight poverty-related diseases. And then, once you start with malaria, you find out that Plasmodium is an amazing parasite, (although I would probably feel the same about a different pathogen if I had a chance to work on it). Plasmodium is a complex eukaryotic cell, with a large genome–it is very challenging and at the same time interesting to work with. Most importantly, I can easily see interesting and relevant research questions on Plasmodium that my lab can address.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic influence your research?

Not too much. In Heidelberg, we were about three weeks away from the lab. But besides providing reagents and equipment to the virology diagnostic department, we barely had to do anything. That was enough, because the German health system was well equipped and quite prepared. We tried to keep calm in the lab, find individual solutions that would keep everyone as happy as possible given the circumstance, thought of some deskwork like data analysis, reading and writing, and continued with regular meetings online. And we tried to discuss a bit of our latest data while keeping an eye on COVID-19 research. For example the hype of hydroxychloroquine, which was used as an anti-malaria drug back in the day, and was now considered as a potential anti-SARScov-2 drug. After the three weeks, we returned to the lab, with masks and social distancing measures. Although this forced us to some extra organisation, we were very fortunate overall.

But, it can be all very different. In Portugal, researchers from malaria and other fields were a very relevant help in increasing testing capacity around the country. This meant stopping their projects and fully dedicating to do just that for a while. And in Mali the impact is likely to be larger and longer. The research force is smaller and now some has to move to the COVID-19 crisis response, so the toll on other research programs will be heavier.

What do you enjoy about science?

I enjoy most thinking of the experiment that really pins it down: You design a setup that allows isolating the variable you are interested in and you realize that you will know after this experiment. I think often I even enjoy this more than knowing the result.

Interview conducted by Christian Denkhaus

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