María Ana Duhagon is an Associate Professor and a Principal Investigator at the School of Science (Laboratorio de Interaciones Moleculares) and the School of Medicine (Depto. de Genética) of the Universidad de la República, at Montevideo, Uruguay. She is the President elect of the Sociedad de Bioquímica y Biología Molecular de Uruguay (SBBM).
Can you introduce yourself and your line of research?
I was born in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, 48 years ago. Uruguay is a small South American country well-known for its beautiful oceanic coast, famous soccer players and delicious beef meat. Beside those attractive qualities, Uruguay has a solid cultural and political tradition, attaining good social and economical developmental standards. I received most of my education in Uruguay, obtaining Bachelor's, Master's and PhD degrees at the School of Science of the University of the Republic.
I am a mother of two adolescents and a wife of a university classmate and current collaborator, and I have a strong commitment to them and my extended family.
I was introduced to the DNA molecule when I was 13 years old, and since then our “romance” has only expanded. I have been interested in all aspects of DNA biology, but the one that caught most of my interest was the regulation of gene expression. During my PhD studies I investigated DNA/RNA elements and DNA binding proteins involved in the regulation of gene expression in the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas´ Disease (American Trypanosomiasis). Later, I incorporated genomic approaches to discover global patterns of gene expression governing parasite differentiation and proliferation. I have always been amazed by the orchestration of gene expression during organism development, so I got involved in genetic studies of human congenital disorders and cancer as well. As a postdoctoral fellow at NCI-NIH (USA), I isolated cancer stem cells from solid tumors and studied their reprogramming to embryonic-like gene expression pathways. I am currently studying non-coding RNAs relevant in prostate cancer, using genomics together with cell and molecular biology approaches. A secondary focus of my effort is the improvement of genetic diagnosis, recently in cancer, which is the most prevalent human genetic disorder. In the era of cancer targeted therapies, the incorporation of cancer genomics to clinical practice is critical. As a cancer survivor myself, I readily recognized the value of translational research, which I hope may contribute to the improvement of patient care in Uruguay.
What have been your most important scientific contributions?
I think I have made different kinds of scientific contributions. My basic research led to the characterization of proteins and RNAs that regulate gene expression at a single gene and at a genome wide level. My translational work has led to the development of in house challenging genetic diagnoses for complex diseases and their availability for many Uruguayans. Yet, I believe my most important scientific contribution is the development of new areas of research in my country, incorporating novel approaches and cross-talks among disciplines.
What have been the main challenges that you have experienced throughout your academic and scientific career and how have you overcome them?
I consider the main challenges I faced during my career were caused by the few scientific resources that were available in Uruguay in terms of job opportunities and funding for Science. The Uruguayan scientific community and its institutional framework were small and not well developed, and the country's awareness of the importance of national science has been traditionally low. Although we have witnessed an important advancement of science in Uruguay recently, it has still not reached its maximum potential standard horizontally.
My approaches to overcome these problems included the promotion of the cooperative use of institutional resources, the incorporation of technology and new research fields, the practice of interdisciplinary work, the search for international contributions, and the involvement in science national education programs and scientific societies and the involvement in science national education programs and scientific societies.
What are the major challenges faced by women scientists at your Institution?
It is likely that the biggest challenges that women scientists face at the Universidad de la República are extensions of the social inequality we still experience in Uruguay and, to different extents, in the rest of the world. A large proportion of the top positions in our Institutions are held by men. Women scientists are frequently given administrative or management duties, while men are preferentially appointed to decision-making tasks. In addition, maternity is still not managed fairly in my view. Although recent initiatives have been undertaken to improve motherhood, they are insufficient to effectively redress the socially established gender imbalance involving family responsibilities.
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 am not sure how science was considered in the past by the people, but certainly, nowadays, the voices of those who disagree are very much heard. This could be the result of the dynamics of social media, in which the spread of an opinion is not necessarily proportional to its rationality but more likely to its provocativeness. I think this phenomenon extends to other areas of knowledge.
I believe that one way to change this perception is to review educational goals, to strengthen logical and critical thinking and hierarchization. It would also be extremely important for Science and Education to address how human thought integrates logical thinking, prejudices, emotions, and perceptions and what is the role of social interaction and the media in this interplay. Hopefully, this would aid people to distinguish among the different sources of information that shape our thinking and help to discern what is a product of evidence and rationality from what is not.