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HomeCosta RicaCosta Rica Virologist Eugenia Corrales-Aguilar: Leading the Fight Against Viruses

Costa Rica Virologist Eugenia Corrales-Aguilar: Leading the Fight Against Viruses

Eugenia Corrales-Aguilar embodies the highest levels of professionalism and commitment to science and public health. She is a tenured professor of virology and a researcher at the Faculty of Microbiology at the University of Costa Rica, and a researcher at the Research Center For Tropical Diseases. Eugenia recently directed a study to identify neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 which earned her recognition from the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Italy.

She has received numerous awards for her work including the Clodomiro Picado Twight Award for Science and Technology.

What did you have to sacrifice to achieve your professional goals?

From the beginning I was very clear that I wanted to be in a laboratory doing experiments, and my professional life was always directed towards that goal. I am single, with no children. Many people believe that I sacrificed two fundamental aspects in the life of a  woman: marriage and motherhood. Actually I know excellent Costa Rican and international scientists who have very good family life, motherhood experience and professional life.

In my case it did not happen and I do not feel it is like something I have sacrificed. On the other hand, I do consider difficult situations like having lived away from home and family for a long time and dealing with loneliness and problems without the ‘family life jacket’. Many times I made the mistake of putting aside my physical and mental health in the name of my work or professional life, and it has taken me several years to return to these aspects, appropriate them and position them as priorities.

I think that as a woman and as a Latin American in an academic environment you always have the feeling that you should try 200%, and it is hard not to compare yourself with other people who try less but get more.

Who are your role models in science and technology?

The first person I considered to be an example was Hypatia from Alexandria. She had a phrase that is my favorite: “Maintain your right to think, even being wrong is better than thinking nothing.” Many times we are afraid, we believe that we are not capable and that what we are going to ask or say is nonsense. I always remember that phrase and I feel encouraged!

My role models in Costa Rica have been virologists and microbiologists who were teachers, mentors, tutors and friends: Dr. Laya Hun and Dr. Libia Herrero. Also, I have always admired Eugenia Corrales-Aguilar, Dr. José María Gutiérrez and Dr. Bruno Lomonte. Internationally my role model was my PhD tutor Dr. Hartmut Hengel. From all of them I learned good things, but also not so positive aspects that I try not to repeat in my professional life.

I also greatly admire Sandra Cauffman for her humility, tenacity, and wisdom. I learned that we must surround ourselves with capable people and let each one develop to the maximum. I also learned that horizontality is essential rather than verticality at work, because if you have a good team it is not necessary to give orders, since you work together for the same purpose.

What are the values that must be promoted to young people today?

Critical thinking, responsibility, understanding that not everything is a given right, but that there are also required duties. Respect. To stop seeking immediate gratification because you will be unhappy with your life when you do not find it. Punctuality. Empathy, solidarity, learning to collaborate.

When did you realize that you wanted to study microbiology and what inspired you to choose that career?

As a child I dreamed of being an astronaut, but I lost that desire because of the impact I received watching live the explosion of the Challenger shuttle when I was nine years old. Television influenced my decision to choose microbiology because my interest in working in the laboratory was awakened after watching documentaries related to diseases, bacteria and viruses.

Also my mom and dad always encouraged my interest in science, my gifts were chemistry games, microscopes, or related things. I loved programs about the emergence of a rare disease in some far corner of the world and how groups of researchers went as “microbe hunters” to discover what caused them. It was almost always about a virus. Viruses have always interested me due to their characteristic of not being living beings, but also not inert beings.

What have been the high and low points of your career?

My worst academic moment occurred as a student. The first semester of university I was a little sloppy with my studies and I was partying a lot. The grade point average for that year was fundamental for the enrollment in the following year. When I went to enroll during the second year, I could not take some courses because my average did not make the cut. Firstly, that meant that I was one of the people who didn’t get a place because of bad grades.

How was that possible? I wondered. Secondly, it meant delaying a full year, which could not be. Now that I look back on that time, I think it would not have been a big problem to fall behind or not follow through with the plan, but what bothered me were my low grades for that semester, for being sloppy and distracted! It could not be! It made me angry with myself.

Fortunately, at the last moment they decided to give an opportunity to those who had not been given spaces, and allowed two more students for each course. I was ashamed to be one of those two people.

It seems silly, but it made me feel bad that it was not because the subject was difficult for me, but because of plain irresponsibility. At that moment I decided that I could not continue like that. I did not become super studious or nerdy, but I had to find a balance between partying and studying. Because studies were the means to the end ─to get a PhD and be a researcher.

The best moment up to now was the day of the defense of my doctoral thesis. To see the culmination of sacrifice and hard work, that my mom and dad were able to accompany me that day, and that it was successful and the beginning of what was to come next. There is always a long way to go. That also led me to do an introspective analysis.

Many of my efforts had been to obtain the doctorate. Now that I had it, the question was, what now? I had gotten one more requirement to continue in the career of being a researcher, the key to one of the doors that must be constantly opened.

What have been the main achievements in your professional work and what are your aspirations for the future?

My main achievement has been to establish a defined line of work for viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes such as dengue. It was a challenge, because my doctoral and postdoctoral subjects were related to other types of viruses in the herpes virus family. All the knowledge, the know-how and the contacts from those academic moments served as the basis to start working with dengue, but I had to start again.

This has been difficult, especially in a country that does not have the academic structures you find in other countries, where there is a leading researcher, associate researchers, postdocs, doctoral students, master’s students and laboratory technicians. This challenge is still ongoing and one of my aspirations for the future is to consolidate a strong research group on the subject.

It has been extremely difficult due to the lack of financial support for doctoral and master students, and because people can only be hired through the university and not through grants. Such limitations make it extremely hard to advance in doing research and in the degree of complexity of the studies.

Furthermore, since dengue and zika are viruses of public health importance, they have given me the opportunity to position myself nationally in this field of research.

Any special anecdotes you would like to share?

Something that made me rethink my decisions during the microbiology degree was that, after my situation with enrollment because of my not-good-enough grades, I dedicated myself to studying hard to earn good grades. I remember that I was having lunch in one of the cafeterias at the campus during the third year of my degree, and at that moment a professor came to talk with those of us sitting there. He was asking each of us one by one about which microbiology topics we liked the most.

Several said bacteria or immunology. And when I said viruses he was a little impressed and I did not know what the reason was. After lunch, since there were only two of us left at the table, he approached us again and asked us where we were doing student hours or working as laboratory assistants. I replied that I was not in any laboratory because I wanted to focus on getting good grades as I wanted to go abroad to study for my doctorate.

He told me that this was a serious mistake and that grades are useful, but experience is much more useful and that I should immediately start working in a laboratory. And he knew that in the virus laboratory they were looking for student assistants. Two days later I started working there, at the UCR, and until now I have stayed in the same place.

That recommendation was very true: how would I know if I liked virology if I didn’t do it or practice it? How could I start a master’s degree or a doctorate without laboratory experience? I am really grateful to that professor.

How do you face the challenges and limitations you encounter in your professional work?

The challenges and limitations are many and varied. Currently in my work I do not have significant continuous or semi-permanent funds to carry out research, coupled with the fact that I cannot form a consolidated group that works in the same line of research. Other challenges are also being a woman and a young person as they do not take you seriously into account to form these consolidated groups.

I have experienced those two aspects many times in Costa Rica, they are always reasons used to question my worth as a professional. Breaking macho and sexist paradigms in the academic world is exhausting and frustrating, especially as those who have the power to make decisions are generally men and they already have a bias, even if unconscious, that a young woman will not have the same leadership skills and ability as a man of a certain age.

This issue and that of bullying have been great challenges. How to try to be successful and respected in the research field despite those problems. Little by little it is being achieved, but having to deal with the same problems is often exhausting.

Do you think the contribution of women to the field of science and technology is different from that of men?

I think that the contribution itself is not different. The problem is the support structures for women in professional life, since many times the tasks of home, care, and family organization fall on them. So when women see themselves embedded in these activities, added to the lack of support in their workplace or in society itself, their contribution is decimated.

What recommendations would you give to young people who want to pursue a career like yours?

Have an interest in introducing scientific thinking in everything you do. Question your environment, ask yourself the why of things and do not only remain receivers of information. Do not be discouraged by sexist or erroneous comments such as “mathematics is not for girls”, “why would you study that, better be a good woman” or the typical “better study something less complicated”. Read a lot. If you are interested in these specific topics, do not be discouraged.

For example, in my case, virology is a subject not widely coveted by microbiologists. It is a very expensive and relatively abstract area compared to bacteriology, because since viruses are so small, the forms of visualization and working with them are different. Dream, but also make a plan of how you are going to achieve your goals, because you have to work hard, to study hard and sacrifice some things to get it.

Learn more about Eugenia in the book The Intrepids in Science and Technology published by Editorial Tecnologica de Costa Rica:

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