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Generating Science and Public Interest

Mónica Bettencourt-Dias (Ana Maria Bettencourt)

Portuguese cellular biologist Mónica Bettencourt-Dias developed an early fascination with the molecular mechanisms underlying the cell cycle and tissue development. This fascination, mixed with scientific curiosity and hard work, led to her current position at the head of an independent research team in her home country after nearly a decade of training abroad.

Scientists, too, have a lot to gain from communicating more broadly, Mónica Bettencourt-Dias believes.

But for Bettencourt-Dias, who is now 36, there is more to the career than just doing research. "I always thought that, as a scientist, you are supposed to communicate your science to the general public because it's usually the general public that's funded you," she says. Besides, "I like communicating with people that are not scientists." Her commitment to communication led her to found, with some scientist friends, an organization aiming to promote science communication in Portugal, and, more broadly, to view communicating science and helping others do so as an essential part of her job.

Salamanders and centrioles

Bettencourt-Dias obtained a 5-year biochemistry degree from the University of Lisbon in her native Portugal in 1996. She then entered the Gulbenkian Ph.D. Program in Biology and Medicine, taking a wide range of biology classes at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC) in Oeiras, Portugal, for a year, then doing research with Jeremy Brockes at University College London with funding from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Portuguese government.

In Brockes's lab, Bettencourt-Dias investigated the capacity of salamanders to regenerate limbs and organs. "What happens in regeneration is that cells that are already differentiated ... can actually go back into the cell cycle, ... proliferate, and then give rise to a variety of different tissues," Bettencourt-Dias explains. She admits she was a bit unfocused in those early days. "I could have been more productive for my Ph.D.," she says. "I like to try different ideas, and sometimes you waste time by not focusing on a certain thing."

But her research yielded important results on the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying regenerative processes in salamanders. Brockes, her Ph.D. adviser, describes her in an e-mail as "very sure-footed as an experimentalist, ... naturally careful and rigorous." Her graduate work "provided an unequivocal demonstration ... that many cardiomyocytes from an adult newt heart could divide over a prolonged period in culture, in contrast to their mammalian counterparts," he writes. Bettencourt-Dias also showed that the signalling pathway nudging newt cardiomyocytes back into the cell cycle is conserved in mammals, suggesting a new research avenue for therapeutic regeneration other than the use of stem cells.

After graduating, in 2001, Bettencourt-Dias joined the lab of David Glover at the University of Cambridge in a research associate position funded by Cancer Research UK, aiming to broaden her research with a new model organism. Back then, her publication record was still sparse given that her Ph.D. work took a while to get published, "and yet it was totally clear that she had the ability, personality, and drive to succeed," Glover writes in an e-mail.

In Glover's lab, Bettencourt-Dias worked to identify novel mechanisms in cell cycle regulation doing genetics studies in drosophila. Using gene-silencing techniques, she screened all drosophila protein kinases and uncovered several proteins involved in the cell cycle, which led to a first-author paper in Nature and a patent for the use of their human counterparts in the diagnosis and treatment of proliferative disease. "An important part of Monica’s character is that she is not afraid to take anything on," Glover says; she proved "hard-working and deeply involved in her science." Bettencourt-Dias also found that one of these proteins plays an important role in the formation of centrioles -- essential components of intracellular scaffolding–organizing structures such as the centrosome, flagella, and cilia, which are themselves responsible for cell division, motility, and signaling. "Her work on the de novo formation and duplication of centrioles during her postdoc [was] a seminal contribution," Glover adds.

Bettencourt-Dias found, in Glover's lab, a safe environment to start working independently. She was able to discuss her work with Glover, she says, "but at the same time I was able to expand more on the testing of my ideas." She even got involved in hiring. "At one point, we had some unfilled E.U.-funded positions in the group, and she soon recruited very able Portuguese students into these positions," Glover says.

In October 2006, Bettencourt-Dias and her husband, a Portuguese computational biologist, each started independent research groups at the Instituto IGC. The decision to return to a country with a research system still under development required a careful balancing of career-related risks and rewards. But "we knew people that had started their labs" at IGC about 5 years earlier, "and we knew that they were very happy and ... publishing well," she says. Besides, "I also like to help ... shape the system," she adds. "Here you feel that you can have a bigger contribution because things are still growing."

At IGC, Bettencourt-Dias was given lab space, start-up money, and access to shared facilities. The Portuguese Ph.D. student she had recruited to Glover's lab followed her to IGC, and so did one of the technicians. "It was so much easier to have people that were already trained when I started my lab," she says.

Since her return to Portugal, Bettencourt-Dias has won a variety of grants and prizes, including an Installation Grant and membership to the Young Investigator Programme from the European Molecular Biology Organization, and the Eppendorf Award for Young European Investigators.

Today, her cell-cycle regulation lab has grown to include four Ph.D. students, three postdocs, one M.Sc. student, and a technician. She has expanded her research to the study of centrioles and cilia biogenesis, function, and evolution, combining genetics studies, comparative genomics, structural biology, biochemistry, bioinformatics, and mathematical modeling approaches.

"Monica was quite unusual as a postdoc in learning how to organize and run a lab and beginning to put her skills in motivating people into practice," Glover says. "This has given her a running start in setting up her own lab. It has been particularly important in establishing multiple sources of funding and establishing collaborative networks."

An interest in communicating science to the public

As a Ph.D. student, Bettencourt-Dias was already "very concerned to present her work at meetings [and] very interested in communicating to [the] wider public," Brockes says. Indeed, her decision to change fields after her Ph.D. was, Brockes believes, motivated partly by a desire to do work that would attract greater peer and public attention. "I think she found it less attractive working in an area that was relatively unfashionable (regeneration in salamanders) at the time, and where it was sometimes not so easy to interest people," Brockes says. "She realized she would be more comfortable in a larger and more visible field, even [if] it was more competitive, and she moved in this direction."

Bettencourt-Dias made room for her interest in science communication during her postdoc, taking a science communication course at Birkbeck, University of London. There, she learned about the philosophy of science and how the media works, gaining experience writing press releases, producing radio and TV programs, and analyzing science communications.

With some scientist friends, she co-founded an organization to promote science communication by scientists. Since 2003, Bettencourt-Dias and Comunicar Ciência have been giving 3-day science-communications workshops around the country, organizing public debates and conferences on the issue in Portugal and abroad, developing a database of scientists and journalists, issuing guides for scientists on how to communicate with the media and engage in a range of public activities. She is also involved in local science communication events, participating in activities for children and open days organized by the IGC communication team. And her own research has been noticed by the media: Since she returned home, she and her work have been featured on Portuguese TV and radio and in newspapers.

Today, Bettencourt-Dias draws her interest in public communication from her observation that science and technology are part of our daily lives. "It is therefore important that the public is aware of new scientific developments and how they might impinge in their lives. It is also important that the public is aware of how science is done, that an absolute truth might not exist, and that scientists make decisions based on objective [and] critical evaluation of data."

Scientists, too, have a lot to gain from communicating more broadly, she believes. Interacting with the media and the public helps hone communication skills, which "may have [a] positive [impact on] how we communicate with scientists from different fields, journal editors, et cetera," she says. Communicating to a lay audience also allows researchers to put their "work into perspective," gaining better insight into the work's relevance and providing new ideas for research. Also, "by exposing our work, we might get more people interested in science, perhaps new Ph.D. students. We also justify our funding, which may lead to more support for science."

Doing and promoting science communication are, for Bettencourt-Dias, two sides of the same coin. "Those moments when you find something new ... [for] a really interesting story that you want to tell, then those are the moments that make you want to be a scientist."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.

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