From the beach to the laboratory: How I became a scientist

Atualizado: 9 de Dez de 2020

By Mônica Lopes-Ferreira

English edited by Lídia Paes Leme a Katyanne M. Shoemaker

I have loved the ocean since childhood. I enjoyed the beach on weekends, vacations, holidays, and any other time I could get there. I was enchanted by everything coastal: landscape, plants, and animals. While enjoying the green, lukewarm waters of Maceió, my hometown, I took in the entire ecosystem around me.

There came a point in my youth that I needed to choose what career to follow. I was very certain that the study of animals made my mind and heart pulse. I decided to enroll in Biology; I studied hard and entered the University Federal de Alagoas.

I'm very curious and have always liked to learn. In addition to my required courses at the University, I participated in many courses, seminars, and lectures in the field. In 1989, a special encounter changed the course of my history. Ivan Mota, a researcher of the Butantan Institute, taught a course on immunology in Alagoas. As a student, I felt stimulated to know more about this research center, which I had read about in science books. I knew that the scientists at Alagoas studied venomous animals and produced serum to treat accidents. But what did this have to do with immunology? I had to find out.

It was a complex course. There were many students, and the lectures lasted all-day. I learned a lot of new topics and made many discoveries. The teacher was very competent, enthusiastic, and passionate, and he shared my love of the sea. I was completely enamored by immunology. To my surprise, at the end of the course he announced that he would select five students for an internship at the Butantan Institute. I passed the interview and was selected for one of the coveted positions.

I had total support from my parents to do the internship. We sat, talked, and decided that I'd go to São Paulo. They knew that it would be a great opportunity for me, filled with wonderful experiences. When I arrived in São Paulo, I was surprised with the size of the city. How different it was from Maceió! I'll never forget the first day, my first look, and my racing heart as I discovered the city. The Butantan was a haven inside of the city. It was filled with trees, old buildings, museums, labs, snakes, spiders, and scorpions, amongst other species of venomous animals.

The researchers taught me a lot.

The dynamic lab life filled with questions, hypotheses, and experiments set me on a trajectory to become a scientist. I ended up living in São Paulo and finished the Biology program there. I studied hard and enrolled in a graduate program in the field of immunology. My research was focused on one particular venomous animal. It wasn’t a snake, spider, nor scorpion. My ocean origins spoke out, and I decided to study a fish.

My animal of choice was the Niquim, whose scientific name is Thalassophryne nattereri; a species from northeastern Brazil, which gained my attention during vacations in Maceió. A dermatologist told me about how the animal caused many accidents in fishermen and bathers. There was no treatment and there were very few studies about their venom. As I began to talk to local fishermen, I became convinced of the importance of studying this species. They told me "it is a small fish that doesn't move much, but when its area is invaded, it unleashes a poison capable of crippling."

The lab's aquarium grew and other dangerous fish arrived: catfish, rays, scorpion-fish and other species that live in the water and cause accidents. One day however, a more docile fish arrived, vastly expanding our studies.


The zebrafish (scientific name Danio rerio) is known popularly as "Paulistinha." It is used as an experimental model in many countries for behavioral, genetic, and toxicity testing, among other areas. I deepened my knowledge of the species and started studies with the fish in the Butantan Institute.

Research has advanced, and in 2015 the Zebrafish Platform was inaugurated. The Platform is a breeding and management site that aims to develop science and share information. From the Platform arrose the Zebrafish Network: A project that links 80 researchers from 40 institutions throughout Brazil. The “Paulistinha” is also about communication, a disseminator of science and storytelling. I’ve been moving forward with it, reaching different locations and audiences, talking to kids, teens, adults, and the elderly.

Woman and scientist

During a talk I gave at a state school in Osasco about Zebrafish, the students did not know what to expect of the visiting scientist that day. Most of the students expected an old man in a lab coat with white hair. I made a point of only bringing with me other female researchers; they are the majority in our lab and should serve as an example for children. You have to break paradigms for things to change. I feel fulfilled by the opportunity of working towards the advance of women in science.

This is my story as a woman and scientist. I studied, entered graduate school, and, in 2000, finished my doctorate in the Department of Immunology at the University of São Paulo. I'm currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Butantan Institute and currently the director of the Special Toxicology Lab.

And for all that, I can say I'm happy, I'm a scientist.

Mônica is a researcher at the Butantan Institute and coordinator of the Zebrafish Platform.

The illustrations of this post are Veridiana Scarpelli's.

#chatlídiapaesleme #chatkatyannemshoemaker #womeninscience #scientist #Mônica

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