Inspirational Woman: Rita Sousa-Nunes | Principal Investigator at Cancer Research UK Career Development Fellow

Rita Sousa-Nunes-1
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and what you do currently

I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon of “life” and how it works… From a very young age I wanted to become a biology “researcher” (admittedly, my older siblings introduced me to the latter concept). The seed was planted during the three years I lived in England as a child, where I played much more outdoors than ever after I returned to my hometown of Lisbon. And, indoors, David Attenborough certainly exerted an influence on me too. But then I always wanted to know more and more about was invisible in those amazing animals and plants that led to their astonishing features.

I was also attracted to the mixture of hands-on “play”like nature of performing experiments with the thinking and creativity required to envision them and interpret their results. Furthermore, I was drawn to the internationality of the career. After a degree in Biochemistry in Lisbon, I came to London for a PhD in Developmental Biology, followed by post-doctoral work (in London and Singapore), until very recently I started to guide my own research group at King’s College London, investigating neural stem cells.

I am surrounded by extremely bright and enthusiastic people, people that give a lot to pursue their curiosity and a fascination akin to mine. This applies to my own group – mainly women, by the way – which makes me feel very fortunate. We are funded by Cancer Research UK to research into new mechanisms of brain tumour formation and invasion.

The way I see my current role is a bit like that of a conductor, leading very skilled musicians to play some wonderful music.

I enjoy this role immensely as it involves a lot of communication, mentoring and mutual inspiration between team members, and it allows me to engage in multiple research avenues at once. I also benefit greatly from interaction with other colleagues, in what is a very informal and fun setting.

If you weren’t doing what you do, what would you be doing?

Many other loves have always pulled me in other directions. I took music pretty seriously for a while. I love art and design and thought about becoming a Landscape Architect in order to reconcile art and biology. I could also see myself designing objects or furniture, writing or facilitating others’ development in different ways – I am passionate about us all striving to be the most fulfilled we can be. I try to feed all these pulls in ways other than professional though an artistic eye and certainly people skills can play a very important role in today’s performance of science. (Having argued all my life about the similarities between scientists and artists, usually considered opposite extremes, I felt vindicated by the following article: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/11/artists-and-scientists-more-alike-than-different/)

What has been your biggest challenge?

My PhD was very challenging in numerous ways. My first boss (an inspiring woman!) died shockingly young from cancer; my second boss moved to the US; I was “scooped” in my project; it was all very challenging for me at many levels. But my curiosity or stubbornness was greater, and I had to explore more to see what it would be like under smoother circumstances…

Currently, my biggest challenge is balance. There is so much I want to do…

What’s been your greatest achievement personally?

To carry on pursuing the dream, despite all the setbacks of my early experience of research, felt like a great personal achievement. It took passion for science and belief in myself, it took remembering why I wanted to do science in the first place, and focusing on that more than on “success” – it was a personal journey.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

I come from a family of idealists, driven by the pursuit of beauty, understanding, truth and kindness.

Those values are embedded in me.

What does the future hold for you?

I am devoted to creating an imaginative, productive and happy team that is a strong reference in their field. I wish that we are recognized as a team of highly motivated and “inspired” individuals with an ethos of working hard and playing hard (sometimes at the same time!), that makes significant contributions and does so with enjoyment. This requires enormous energy and dedication and not everyone is cut for it. A lot rests on being able to recruit more team members with the desire and an appropriate profile – I hope I may be so fortunate.

I also hope that in 5 years time I am working on something that right now I don’t even suspect!

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