Interview UWÜ

Early Stage Researcher Vasco Gonçalves, MSc

What are your research interests?

My research interests… Oh that’s tough, that’s almost a spiritual question. Should I talk about what sparks my interest and curiosity or what I am actively researching in the lab?

It’s an open end question, you’re free to address it how you see fit.

Thank you for narrowing that down [laughing]. My research interests… Ok, let’s focus on the ones that have had the most influence on my research orientation so far. One is immunology obviously, the way that our bodies are able to defend themselves; and the other is protein engineering.

And I think that both merge very well because on one side we have this knowledge oriented tool creating solutions for biological problems and on the other we have this amazing blueprint of an already accomplished system. In a sense immunology is the book that we are reading to inform our protein design choices. And Chimeric Antigen Receptors (CARs) are perfect examples of this marriage. Someone though “wait a second, this can be better if we do it like that” and for me this is the perfect definition of rational design, or intelligent design. It creates this interesting nuance to cancer immunotherapy, where we’re not only fighting malignancies by modulating our own immune system, but we are taking lessons from it and generating improved versions of proteins or repurposing them to further boost it.

And the interesting thing about CARs is that although they mimic the natural T cell receptor and other immune co-receptors, they are not necessarily the same. Meaning, they have in their own set of rules, obviously these rules are based on natural ones but they still need to be defined and understood. And this is where my project and my hypothesis come into play. We are questioning if CARs can be improved regarding certain aspects like antigen sensitivity and signal transduction, we look into why certain interactions are happening more or less than anticipated and if we can manipulate them by changing the design of this synthetic molecule.

I think this is very exciting, there is this design and creativity side to CAR-T cell research that, can be very rewarding.

And what sparks your interest outside of your main topics?

So many things. I like systems biology for example. Because again, we are talking about something that requires some form of creativity. You need to be creative to work with big data and in the end to visualize something out of it. I also love to read about virology and epidemiology and on the other end of the spectrum I like social sciences, anthropology, psychology. But this are things that come out of curiosity and it is not really something that I actively contribute to.

How did you decide to make Cancer immunotherapy and in particular CARs as the focus of your research?

I have always been drawn by the transnationality of research, especially in health. This idea that you are doing something that can be utilized in society in the next couple of years if very fulfilling. It feeds this sense of accomplishment in being able to contribute with something that is tangible. 

And right now, being involved with cancer therapies happened because suddenly I had this amazing opportunity to be part of something bigger, of being integrated in a network of people striding for excellency and knowledge… And of course you take this opportunity. To be honest, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

And in a developmental sense it feels like and organic step for me. I have started with antibody development back in the day and moved my way into living drugs, into cell products combined with recombinant proteins.

Where and how did your scientific journey begin?

Listen, my mom tells me that I was already counting ants and mixing leftover drinks at dinner parties doing “experiments” way before I went to school [laughing]. But officially my first time in a lab, working on my own project, was during my masters. 

I had this plan in my mind that I wanted to work with HIV and  biopharmaceutical development and in the faculty of pharmacy in Lisbon there was this small lab doing exactly that. So again an example of a plan that worked out in the end. I had a very interesting time there, I learned a lot about antibody development and it was actually my first time hearing about CARs. I think that this idea of a repurposed T-cell with all of this potential was very enticing to me, and speed forward a few years later, here I am, working with CAR-T cells.

What do you plan to do after you complete your PhD?

Well, first thing I plan to do is to take a deep breath and appreciate the fact that I have made it. I am a first generation graduate student so finishing a PhD will be this… it is the end of an academic cycle isn’t it? I mean, you can keep going on in academia, but this is the big moment where you officially stop calling yourself a student. No longer will you have those student discount benefits [laughing]. But it is going to be a big moment for me, after a bachelor and a masters, I feel like I need to take a moment and be proud of what I have accomplished and appreciate my parents for standing by me throughout this journey also.

Professional speaking, I am keeping an open mind about it. I have been in academia for a while now and I have peeked behind the curtains, but industry is still something that sparks my interest. I have had the opportunity to work closely with some pharma companies but always from the academic perspective, so I still wonder what’s on the other side, what it is like to be in industry… I should start focusing on my next 5 year plan right? [laughing]

So industry might be the next step?

It is a possibility yes. But again, I am quite open to try new things. A post doc position might be the thing that I am more familiar with, so it would be a smoother transition, but I also would like to challenge myself further and broaden up a little. See what else I can do.

For example, I have also become quite interested in science communication. Specially working with Scienseed (our collaborator) for these past couple of years, and that has made quite an impression on me. I like the different aspects of design and almost marketing that it brings to science and its dissemination.  

About ENACTI2NG, was there something specific that drew you to apply?

Yes, a couple of things. So besides the topic, which is very important, I was drawn by the idea of scientific and personal growth. ENACTI2NG is a training network so the focus is your development as scientists obviously but, it’s not only the technical skills that take center stage, you’re also groomed to be a fully realized professional. You have access to this established network of amazing scientist, that you can easily take advantage off, and that are, at the same time, invested in both the science that you’re making and in your own personal development. I think those are some of the strongest points of being part of a network like ENACTI2NG.

Someone curious about participating in a consortium like asks for your feedback or advice, what would you tell him/her?

Go for it! Definitely! I think it is quite fulfilling and the amount of meaningful connections that you make while collaborating so closely with interesting and interested people is quite empowering. It’s both about you and it’s about science. Again, I do consider myself lucky to be part of ENACTI2NG and if someone would ask me if they should join a consortium like this, that is invested in their program and in their early stage researchers, I would definitely support them. I was lucky myself to have someone believing in me and pushing me to apply, and now I am in this position where I can be proud of being a part of the ENACTI2NG family.