Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Catia B.

Anyone that knows me will know that I love three things – science, talking about science and travel! I do obviously have loads more interests and hobbies, but these are three that I share with this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight. Let me introduce to you – Catia B.

This morning I’ve woken up in my post-Super Bowl daze after stayed up and watched (nearly to the end!), but this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight had her first opportunity to watch it live in the United States. Catia is a proud and driven Portuguese gal and originally from Lisbon, but right now as you read this interview she is trying to stay positive and survive the cold in Boston, USA after touching down after the big move a mere 72 hours ago! Catia writes an awesome blog called ‘A Pulgarita’ – you might have seen the interview Catia did with me on her blog recently! The name of this blog stems from her childhood nickname where ‘pulgarita’ means ‘little flea’. She was a very active child and very interested in travel and jumping. These traits have followed Catia through to adulthood where she blogs about travel and her PhD journey – and she is obviously still jumping around the world with her recent transatlantic move!

Catia and I connected over our shared interests in stem cell research – although we still do very different things – and our love to travel, where much to my disappointment Catia has been far more successful than me fitting small trips in around her PhD research. But both Catia and I both like to collect postcards from the places that we have visited – you can see my collection on my sister blog Soph talks Travel here. So I jumped at the chance to share Catia’s research and PhD journey with you where her research aims to improve stem cell manufacturing and commercialisation through process, economics and reimbursement modelling.

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Tell us a bit more about your science journey.

Catia: I did an Integrated Masters (BSc and MSc) in Biomedical Engineering at Instituto Superior Tecnico, University of Lisbon which I completed in 2011. During my degree, I had a part-time experience in a lab that were working on hydrogels for drug delivery and I did my MSc thesis on interactions of anesthetics with artificial cell membranes. I also had the opportunity to complete a semester-long Erasmus exchange period at the Czech Technical University in Prague. This marked the end of my lab work and I transitioned into computational work. I worked for one year on malaria transmission modelling, two years on computational modelling of tissue engineered cartilage growth and in 2015 I started my PhD in Bioengineering from the MIT Portugal program. We had some professors from the MIT teach us classes, either via conference or in person, and this program has a strong innovation and entrepreneurship core. After one year of classes, I started my PhD thesis. I have a co-supervisor from MIT too, so right now I’m starting my time there. Wish me luck!

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A glimpse into Catia’s daily science life – code, code and more code with occasional visits to the lab to consult with colleagues

Why did you choose science?

Catia: I have no idea! Well, I always wanted to help people. My goal was to make people healthier, so I had lots of interests. At some point I also wanted to be a journalist, which not seems to have crossed my mind again with the blog. I thought about becoming a doctor but I didn’t want to be in the forefront of healthcare, but instead more in the back developing things. I also thought about becoming a psychologist since I have an interest in mental health issues too and a biochemist to research cells and molecules. However, I was once told about the Biomedical Engineering degree and I was really amazed at how many things and technologies you could use to help people. So I went for it and don’t regret it at all!

After finishing my degree, I wanted to take one step further to help people, but this time by analysing data and modelling behaviours. I don’t recall a single lesson in this – it was just a fascination for seeing things that can impact people’s health and how I could help make those better! Every step is a very little step towards something good and there are many factors in play to turn research into a product.

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What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt during your PhD journey and do you have any advice for newbies?

Catia: I would say be very cautious with progress. Whenever I felt things were going well too quickly, I was about to find out something was wrong and had to take some steps back. Just be mindful that a little progress is the best, and celebrate it!

My advice to someone starting science research is be excited with it! Find a topic you love and believe in it, but also be resilient. At first, from reading papers, you have no idea how much work and failures come before something is published, and how many revisions of journals and rejections are involved and so on. But most of all, keep your optimism and learn to know when to stop. We all need a rest!

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What do you like to do in your spare time?

Catia: I try to work out as much as possible. I used to work out six days a week for about half an hour per day, but recently I’ve been slacking a bit and reduced it to 10 minutes. Running in particular is an awesome stress reliever and sleep inducing activity, with which I have a love-hate relationship. I also workout to YouTube videos at home and don’t pay for a gym membership. I also like to be with family and friends whilst trying to explore new cosy cafeterias nearby.

But of course, I love to travel! For me travelling doesn’t only mean going to another country. There are plenty of nice things around you that you never notice. This year I tried to explore more of the area I lived and was pleasantly surprised and made me question why I had never been before!

Since starting my blog which occupies a significant amount of my free time, I read a lot more blogs, mostly travel ones, but I’ve learnt so much. I try to watch a comedy series episode per week. I find it very hard to take time to watch movies. Speaking of things to watch, I love watching sports competitions. I am an avid figure skating fan and I follow the season. It’s on my US bucket list to go and watch my first live competition. I also like watching athletics and cycling.

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As you mentioned your blog ‘A Pulgarita’, why did you start writing your blog and how did you choose what to write about?

Catia: I felt I could help others incorporate more travel into their lives despite how busy they are – an penniless to an extent! I started the blog in March 2016 and it has been doing pretty well! I only post about travel and PhD life with some other event reports occasionally. Recently, I’ve been doing interviews to showcase other bloggers in the field of travel and research.

My initial idea was to blog about travel, local discoveries like cafeterias etc, challenges and PhD life. These are all things that made me smile and also that could be of interest or inspiring to others. I pivoted only to travel and PhD life. I thought of writing only about travel, but my most read posts were all the PhD ones, so people must have enjoyed them! In fact I also like writing about my experience, so I kept both topics.

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Why is scicomm important to you?

Catia: If there was no scicomm, I would have never heard about the beauty of science and research as a child. I think there is not enough scicomm going on, or not with enough clarity. In Portugal, and I’m assuming the rest of the world is the same, PhD students and researchers are seen by many as people who don’t have real jobs, are spending public funds on useless things and so on. It’s our duty to give value to our work and explain it in a very accessible way so that others can recognise the impact it has. Someone tols me to ‘pitch your thesis like you would to your mum and dad’. But there are wonderful innitiatives out there like PubhD where PhD students give a 10 minute presentation about their topics in a bar – which are opportunities we need to take advantage of.

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What other scicomm activities are you involved in then?

Catia: Before my PhD, I had a voluntary scicomm feature on a local online newspaper, p3. I only made two interviews, but my idea was to research any article from Portuguese researchers in Portuguese universities that came out that month and explain them in a clear way, including interviews with the authors of course!

Not exactly a scicomm activity, but in October I went to a hackathon in Lisbon at Pixels Camp. I managed to gather a team to work on a project related to my PhD project. I pitched my project in 90 seconds to an IT audience who knew nothing about stem cells. But there was a parallel activity there, the Presentation Karaoke, where you had to present slides without knowing anything about what you were going to talk about. I won the contest in the end and went through two rounds of trying to hustle between the slides about tech. I think something like this should be applied to science!

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As you love to travel, have you managed to travel much during your PhD?

Catia: Since I started in January 2015, I’ve been to 4 countries outside of Portugel – Italy, Spain, Norway and Belgium. Now I’m in the US, I expect to travel quite a bit too. I also managed to go to two music festivals in Portugal and I always tried to invest in day or weekend trips in Portugal. They can be cheap and rejuvenating!

More on how I manage to live a double life as a PhD student and a traveler in my guest blog  for Soph talks Science- coming soon!

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So, where is the next step for you after your PhD?

Catia: I am really open to the future right now! I finish in late 2018 and hope to be a doctor before I turn 30 in 2019! I would like to have an experience outside academia for a change but I don’t rule out progressing to a post-doc. But whatever I do professionally after, I hope I’m fulfilled and doing something really aligned with my values in a positive environment. I also hope my blog keeps going!

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And finally, where in the world should be my next travel  destination?

Catia: I’m going to say Portugal because I’m a proud Portuguese girl! This country never ceases to amaze me and we have such diverse architecture and landscapes between regions despite being a small country. I just cam back from a rail trip in a quite unpopulated region that I had never been before and it has stunning natural beauty and history. And you’ll always have great food here!

However, outside Portugal, from the places I’ve been, I’d say going to Rio de Janeiro is an intense experience. A mix of natural beauty, their laidback-ness and also some shock about the various social problems there. For natural beauty, Norway is the best country yet and I’m totally in love with the fjords and cosy houses. Iceland would probably be a more unique experience with all the thermal activity and it’s on my travel bucket list! For history, I’d say visiting Spain is very interesting with the mix between Moorish and Christian architecture – in particular both Andalucia in the south and Asturias in the north were my faves! For party life, Budapest has a quite interesting scene with the bars in degraded houses and weird decor. I hope there’s some good travel tips to start you off, but I feel there’s so much in the world yet to see. Maybe in 5 years I’ll have even more tips to share with you from other continents – at least I will from the USA!

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A huge thank you to Catia for taking the time to answer my questions especially in such a stressful time recently when you’re thinking about moving to the other side of the world nearly! I wish you luck with your new venture and I am looking forward to seeing all your US travel tips so I can plan my trips stateside! Also, I hope we can continue to send each other postcards to help our collections grow 🙂

Watch this space for more collaborations between Catia and I coming soon!

But if there is one thing you should do today, it’s follow Catia’s blog. Whether you’re a new PhD student looking for advice, or a traveler looking for a great restaurant to visit in the latest city you’re visiting, then Catia’s blog will probably have an answer for you!

Find her blog A Pulgarita here and follow Catia and her blog on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and more!!!

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If you have any questions about anything mentioned in this interview or anything else to be honest, please do not be afraid to contact either Catia or me!

Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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5 thoughts on “Scientist in the Spotlight. Catia B.”

  1. Thank you so much! Well, I can tell you watched more of the Super Bowl than me. We left the bar at half time after the Lady Gaga show thinking it wouldn’t turn around, how wrong we were! Tomorrow there will be the victory parade here in Boston but it’s in the morning and I have to work. I will release a blogpost tomorrow hopefully about my first weekend in Boston. This is an unbelievably dynamic community! For sure there’ll be a Boston postcard sent to you soon 😉 Have a great week!

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