Carmen Gloria Feijoo is still passionately in love. A Professor of Molecular Biology, images of the love of her life decorate her office at the Universidad Andrés Bello in Santiago de Chile. On the wall behind her desk is a coloured drawing of black and gold-striped zebrafish. “A present from a student,” explains Carmen Gloria Feijoo. “Just like these here,” she says, pointing to a colourful swarm of small ceramic angel fish and other cardboard fish on a pinboard. “When my students go to congresses, they often return with something for me – usually in the form of a fish.”
For more than 23 years, Feijoo has been working with zebrafish. As the genes of these animals are very similar to those of humans they are used as model organisms to investigate human diseases. Together with the eight scientists in her research group, she explores the cellular and molecular mechanisms that control inflammations of the mucus membrane in the gut of zebrafish. Her research goal: “Amongst other things, we want to discover which natural substances protect the gut from tissue damage. Our basic research could, for instance, prove of interest to biotechnology or in the context of Alzheimer’s that is exacerbated by chronic inflammations.”
The fact that Feijoo became a scientist is a consequence of her intrinsic urge to understand connections. Whilst studying biochemistry, her lecturers advised her to go into industry. After a brief taster of the aquaculture sector, however, Feijoo realised that her place was in research. She went to the Universidad Andrés Bello to take a doctorate, which she completed under Professor Miguel Allende, the first zebrafish researcher in South America – a decision she is still glad about to this day.
For Feijoo, being a researcher is no ordinary job. “You have to fall in love with your research, over and over again, and want to get to the bottom of all the questions that crop up.” An attitude she demonstrates to the people around her: “Ninety-eight percent of your experiments will fail, and you will have to repeat them many, many times before you get a result. You just have to take deep breaths and carry on.”
At least once a week, Feijoo checks the aquarium room. Here, the creatures that enable her research live in an area of some 40 square metres: thousands of zebrafish of various ages in 180 aquariums. “Fish are like people. Sometimes they get ill, or they’re cold or hungry. You have to take good care of them.”
Carmen Gloria Feijoo came to Germany with a Georg Forster Research Fellowship. Apply now for a fellowship for postdocs and experienced researchers who contribute to sustainable development!
The most important tool she uses to investigate the immune response of mucus membrane in the gut of living zebrafish is a confocal microscope, an optical microscope that visualises the animals’ immune cells in 3-D images. “Unfortunately, we only have one of them for 300 people in our faculty. We can only conduct experiments if we have booked a slot for the microscope.” The extent to which these conditions hinder her work was something Feijoo realised in 2016 and again in 2019 when her Humboldt fellowship took her to the Centre for Organismal Studies at Heidelberg University. “In Professor Jochen Wittbrodt’s lab there were three confocal microscopes for 20 people. I was able to do much more research and implement my ideas. It was crucial for my career.”
Since 2020, she has been sharing these insights in Chile in the role of a Humboldt Foundation ambassador scientist. In cooperation with the German Academic Exchange Service and the Heidelberg Latin America Centre she tells students and young researchers about the possibilities in Germany. “Many think nobody is interested in cooperating with Chilean researchers or you have to speak German in order to get a fellowship.” Feijoo puts an end to such preconceptions.
And something else is important to her. Feijoo wants to see more women in science and ensure they have equal opportunities in a non-discriminatory working environment. To this end, she also visits schools and talks about her career path. In 2019, only 22 percent of full professors were women.
In the country report on Chile compiled by the Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, the following reasons are cited: “In the case of Chile, institutional sexism is the most important explanation for the under-representation of women in higher education, especially at higher leadership level, but also in research.” Feijoo says, “Thanks to the feminist protests against the abuses in higher education in 2018, the government and universities felt the strength of Chilean women. Since then, people have been trying to find a way of improving the conditions for women. But I really don’t know whether it needs to take so long for things to change noticeably.” In some cases, young women don’t want to go into research at all, partly because they fear they will not be able to combine a scientific career with their plans for a family – and partly out of self-doubt. One question that she frequently hears, exclusively from young women, is “Am I good enough?” Feijoo encourages them to take the initiative to collaborate on projects abroad themselves and apply for a Humboldt Fellowship.
Feijoo has a vision of a more equitable science world: “We shouldn’t just look at CVs and publications but how engaged someone is in their research and under what conditions.” Reviewing her own career, she notes, “You have to be patient and have a thick skin, but you can make it.” She inherited this optimism from her father. As a young man he started two bakeries in Chile and encouraged Feijoo to follow her own path – support that she wants to extend to others, too. “Anyone considering a career in research or a fellowship in Germany can turn to me at any time. Have confidence and go for it anywhere in the world!”
Author: Esther Sambale