Bianca Zingales is Professor of Biochemistry at the Department of Biochemistry, Institute of Chemistry of the University of São Paulo (São Paulo, Brazil). Currently she is the President of the Pan-American Association for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (PABMB).
Can you introduce yourself and your line of research?
I received my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from the University of São Paulo (USP) (São Paulo, Brazil). When I finished my PhD in biochemistry, in 1975, studying the transcription of ribosomal RNA genes in bacteria, I decided that I could contribute to issues related to public health. I chose Trypanosoma cruzi, the agent responsible for Chagas disease that, at that time, affected 30 million people in Latin America.
Aiming at a possible vaccine, I started by characterizing components of T. cruzi's surface involved in its penetration into host cells and verified that genes encoding some of these antigens showed sequence divergence among T. cruzi isolates. Since parasite strains have great phenotypic diversity, my interest turned to the search for genetic markers that would cluster the isolates into discrete groups in order to study some of their biological characteristics. Thus my line of research became the Molecular Epidemiology of T. cruzi, whose main achievements are described below.
I assumed the position of Assistant in the Department of Biochemistry of the Institute of Chemistry at USP in 1973 and became full Professor in 1997. I was visiting Professor at Fundación Campomar (Buenos Aires, Argentina) in 1989 and at the University of Dundee (Dundee, UK) in 1991.
In 2000, I was nominated for the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. After serving for several terms on the executive committee of the Pan-American Association for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (PABMB), I was elected its President in 2021. In the same year, I was appointed as co-Editor in Chief of the Elsevier journal Acta Tropica.
What have been your most important scientific contributions?
The major scientific contribution of my group has been the definition of the Molecular Epidemiology of Trypanosoma cruzi and Chagas disease.
We identified a region of the LSU rRNA gene that divides the parasite isolates into discrete groups. In a joint effort with other colleagues, additional genetic markers were reported and, in 2009, we proposed that T. cruzi isolates can be partitioned into six phylogenetic lineages, genotyped by simple PCR protocols. In collaboration with laboratories from countries where Chagas disease is endemic, today we have an overview of the geographic distribution of T. cruzi lineages, their predominance in wild reservoirs and insect vectors and the pathologies the lineages can promote in humans.
This categorization allows us to systematically search for new drugs and vaccine candidates for Chagas disease that address the great phenotypic diversity of the parasite.
What have been the main challenges that you have experienced throughout your academic and scientific career and how have you overcome those?
I believe I am a lucky person, most probably because I made the right choices at the right time.
When I finished my undergraduate course at the Institute of Bioscience in 1969, I decided that I wanted to do a post-graduate course in Biochemistry at the Department of Biochemistry of the Institute of Chemistry. This Department had recently been created as a result of the reformation of the University of São Paulo, initiated in 1969. As a consequence, in 1973, I was appointed as an Assistant in the Department while still a graduate student.
At that time, scientific journals arrived in Brazil by ship and I was made aware of scientific advances two months after their publication. In addition, importing reagents was a very long bureaucratic process and many times enzymes and other reagents had lost their activity when they arrived. Unfortunately, despite having improved a bit, this bureaucracy still continues in Brazil.
The choice to work with Chagas disease was also fortunate. Thus, over the years, my group has received financial support from Brazilian governmental agencies (Ministry of Health, National Research Council, São Paulo State Research Foundation) and the WHO.
Regrettably, at present, as a result of high competition and a drastic reduction of support for scientific research, the situation has changed and funding is much more difficult. It is also difficult to obtain graduate students and postdocs, because in Brazil governmental agencies are responsible for paying their scholarships.
What are the major challenges faced by female scientists at your Institution?
Fortunately, in my academic career at the Department of Biochemistry I have not faced any difficulties for being a woman. This is because its an open-minded department, where scientific excellence has been and remains the fundamental element for appointments and promotions.
Currently, the Department is made up of 50 faculty members, 26 of which are women and it is important to mention that in recent competitions for admission, there has been an average of 40 candidates per place.
Unfortunately, I am aware that in other Brazilian academic institutions women scientists may face difficulties in being hired and progressing in their careers.
Gender did not hinder my performance in other spheres. So, I was invited to participate in decision-making committees of the WHO and TDR, being Coordinator of the South-South Initiative for Tropical Diseases Research (2002-2009) and Co-chair of the Disease Reference Group on Chagas disease, Leishmaniasis and Human African Trypanosomiasis (2009-2012). The same happened at PABMB, of which I am the first female President since its creation on January 1st, 1970.
Interestingly, looking at the composition of the 2021 Executive Committees of the thirteen PABMB Member Societies, eleven have women as Presidents!
The Covid 19 pandemic has shown that a segment of the population does not believe in scientific evidence. In your opinion why is there this discredit of science? How to change this perception?
I believe that for most scientists, science illiteracy would be the preponderant factor for discredit of science. However, studies by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, assistant professor at the Psychology Department of the University of Amsterdam, indicate that in addition to gaps in scientific knowledge, political ideology, religiosity and morality also contribute to science distrust and science skepticism. Depending on the topic, one or more predictors could be at work.
Here are three current examples.
The politicization of science in general is aimed at some political gain and the manipulation of public policy. The governments of some countries, including Brazil, have recommended the use of scientifically unproven treatments for Covid-19, which has been accepted by a significant portion of the population for ideological reasons.
On the other hand, vaccine skepticism has no relation to political ideology, but it has to do with religious principles and moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.
Likewise, disbelief in genetically modified organisms is not related to political ideology or religious beliefs, but it is correlated with scientific knowledge.
In conclusion, Rutjens' observations teach us that to combat skepticism and increase trust in science, a good starting point is to acknowledge that discredit of science stems from different factors.