Women in science - Interview with Celina Turchi, Brazilian researcher

Photo by Eduardo de Oliveira, Radis Comunicação e Saúde

In order to celebrate the International Women’s Day, EURAXESS Brazil & Latin America and the Caribbean interviews one of the most preeminent researchers in Brazil, who also perfectly illustrates the successful EU-Brazil cooperation in Research & Innovation.

She is Professor Celina Turchi, a Brazilian epidemiologist who was ranked in Nature’s 10 most notable people in science in 2016 and listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2017 after being the first one to evidence a link between Zika virus and microcephaly.

Professor Celina Turchi, your achievements in Science and Research are for sure an inspiration to early-stage researchers. What advice would you give to your starter peers who want to build a solid career as a researcher?

Thanks for the opportunity to address some issues about career development in health sciences. At the individual level, I believe that being always curious and interacting with networks of scientists seems like a good starting point. During my professional life, I had the opportunity to be part of several research groups from Brazilian public institutions (Federal University of Goiás; Fiocruz-Pernambuco; Pernambuco State University, etc) as well as international ones (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - UK; Brandeis University - USA; Louisiana State University - USA). I also received several grants and scholarships from The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) in order to develop epidemiological projects and research activities. In my point of view, building solid international and national networks depends on individual skills and commitment but also on a clear and continuous policy to provide enough funds toward sponsoring scientific careers and capacity building.

At the beginning of the Zika crisis in September 2015, when you noted an increased number of microcephaly cases, you contacted scientists from all over the world to join forces and made many of your research findings public. How important is it to make scientific data public? Would you say there is a direct relation between Open Science and international cooperation?

I would like to distinguish between conducting research during a public health emergency (extraordinary or unusual events such as epidemics), versus applying for calls and specific grants. In the first situation, there is an urgent need for evidence to guide immediate actions, comparable to wartime situations. The public health response needs to be based on the best scientific evidence, and also to timely support guidelines for health assistance, surveillance and control actions. The Zika crisis was indeed a challenge to the scientific community, particularly to those at the frontline (Northeast of Brazil). Initially, a multidisciplinary team from public organizations named Microcephaly Epidemic Research Group – MERG was assembled. There was a need to provide a description of the microcephaly cases recognised today as a new congenital disease (Congenital Zika Syndrome). Second, it was necessary to prove evidence of the association between the Zika virus infection during pregnancy with the birth defects. In this situation, sharing data and building up consortium collaboration was essential to ensure a timely response. The possibility of spreading the infection and other potential hazards are regarded as part of global safety. Open Science approach might be guaranteed and speeding up international cooperation is a clear advantage.

Your group coordinates parts of the EU funded project ZikaPlan. What benefits did your work take from being part of an international network? How do you manage to work with multiple partners from all over the world?

MERG is apart of the ZikaPlan consortium – that aims to connect research groups concerned in urgent response and also to develop sustainable capacity to deal with emergencies. In our daily work as researchers, we develop multicentric studies and regularly collaborate with other researchers all over the world. As you mentioned ZikaPlan is an ongoing consortium and a great opportunity for sharing data and experiences from diverse settings regarding Zika outbreaks and surveillance. Currently, it is much easier to exchange experiences since we live in an interconnected world. In addition, MERG congregates a large team of senior scientists but also young researchers (postgraduate students) committed to understand the short- and long-term effects of Congenital Zika Syndrome and Zika virus transmission in different settings. 

When it comes to women in science, gender gaps are diminishing in Research & Innovation, but a lot more can be done to achieve gender equality. What do you think that could be done to reduce these gaps?

We have evidences that the gender gap is diminishing in science. As you already mentioned there is still much room for improvement in order to achieve gender equality. Education seems like a good start but changes in the work place would also mean an improvement in career development.

Celina Turchi is the Coordinator of the Microcephaly Epidemic Research Group (MERG), a research team composed of scientists from several institutions working to find the answers for the cases of microcephaly reported in Brazil, based at Instituto Aggeu Magalhães/Fiocruz, in Pernambuco, Brazil. The group works closely together with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in the United Kingdom, and is part of the EU funded REDe, an international network focused on building research capacity and preparedness to tackle emerging infectious disease outbreaks in Latin America and Caribbean. The Network development is supported by the three EU funded consortia (ZIKAction, ZIKAlliance and ZikaPLAN). Its initial focus is on advancing rapid and coherent research response to the Zika outbreak.

About ZikaPLAN

ZikaPLAN (Zika Preparedness Latin American Network) brings together 25 leading research and public health organizations in Latin America, North America, Africa, Asia, and Europe, taking a comprehensive approach to tackle the Zika threat.

ZikaPLAN aims to:

  • address ZIKA by tackling knowledge gaps and needs in key areas of interest to the current Zika outbreak;
  • prepare for beyond Zika by building a sustainable Latin-American Emerging Infectious Diseases Preparedness and Response capacity.

The project work plan was designed to address these dual, complementary objectives and includes: comprehensive, encompassing epidemiological surveillance, clinical studies, the development of innovative diagnostic tools and control strategies, in addition to education and knowledge sharing. Although Zika incidence declined dramatically within a year of its emergence, all predictions indicate that it can return in 5-10 years or explode in other parts of the world.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.

EU Promotion of Gender Equality in Research and Innovation

In Horizon 2020 Gender is a cross-cutting issue and is mainstreamed in each of the different parts of the Work Programme, ensuring a more integrated approach to research and innovation.

Three objectives underpin the strategy on gender equality in Horizon 2020:

  • Fostering gender balance in research teams, in order to close the gaps in the participation of women.
  • Ensuring gender balance in decision-making, in order to reach the target of 40% of the under-represented sex in panels and groups and of 50% in advisory groups.
  • Integrating the gender dimension in research and innovation (R&I) content, helps improve the scientific quality and societal relevance of the produced knowledge, technology and/or innovation.

More information here.


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