Celebrating Women and Girls in Science: a Selection of Creative Approaches that Led to Breakthroughs at the Champalimaud Foundation

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To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11th), we share a selection* of creative scientific approaches, developed by women scientists and their colleagues at the Champalimaud Foundation, which have led to breakthroughs in the fields of neuroscience, cancer and physiology.

Here, we highlight the observations, the questions, the approaches and strategies that showcase the creativity and critical thinking inherent in scientific research.

In science, creativity stands as a crucial, albeit sometimes underappreciated, skill. Creativity comes in a wide variety of forms and shapes, and often emerges from collaborative interactions among diverse minds, emphasising the importance of inclusivity and varied perspectives in driving forward groundbreaking research.

*This selection is inspired by, and adapted from, interviews recorded for the Science Snapshots series, a collection of short videos about big discoveries at the Champalimaud Foundation.

Catarina Albergaria & Colleagues – Neural Circuits & Behaviour | Megan Carey Lab

Starting point: How connections between neurons change with experience to give rise to learning.

Creative approach: Imagine teaching a mouse to blink when it sees a light, knowing that a gentle puff of air is about to follow. This is our way of exploring a remarkable ability of the brain: learning through experience. By studying these small but astute learners, we’re uncovering the secrets of how experiences rewire the brain’s connections between neurons, turning simple reactions into learned behaviours.

Science Snapshot: Run Faster, Learn Better, 2018

Tomás Cruz & Colleagues – Sensorimotor Integration | Eugenia Chiappe Lab

Starting point: When we turn our bodies to the left or right, we instinctively understand that the world around us isn’t actually moving — it’s us who are in motion. Yet, the fascinating part that we are still trying to unravel is how our brain cleverly figures out and represents this internal dance of motion and stillness.

Creative approach: We combine different tools, taking advantage of the model system that we work with – the fruit fly. One of them is virtual reality. Essentially we get the fly to play video games. We immerse the fly in these virtual settings in the same way we immerse ourselves when engaging with video games, creating different ‘worlds’ tailored to the specific questions we aim to answer. The advantage of putting a fly in these virtual reality ‘worlds’ lies in our ability to precisely control the environment, so we know exactly what kind of sensory information or environmental conditions the fly is experiencing.

Science Snapshot: Navigating virtual worlds, 2019

Christa Rhiner & Colleagues – Stem Cells and Regeneration | Christa Rhiner Lab

Starting point: One of the most devastating aspects of stroke and severe head trauma is that the neurons we lose are actually never replaced. Depending on the site of injury, patients can suffer from a permanent loss of crucial motor or cognitive functions, such as memory and language. But the brain does have the ability to produce new neurons following injury. So how can we boost this regeneration?

Creative approach: The first step is to understand how injury activates stem cells to differentiate into various cell types, including neurons. To do this, we turned to fly and mouse models, because their brains contain stem cells that can generate neurons upon injury, just like ours.

To study molecular and cellular changes in injured brain tissue we use a fruit fly brain lesion model, which helps us investigate factors involved in injury-induced brain plasticity. This model allows us to examine the genetic basis of important system repair processes such as supportive functions of glial cells and the recruitment of quiescent (dormant) stem cells for tissue regeneration.

Science Snapshot: (Re) Generating Neurons, 2022

Natalia Barrios & Colleagues – Behavioural Neuroscience | Marta Moita Lab

Starting point: We know that when facing a threat, your whole body changes in a split second. You have changes in your brain state. You become highly alert. You have stress hormones. You become tense. If you face a threat and you try to escape, your heartbeat accelerates. If instead you freeze to avoid being detected, because there is no escape, your heart tends to slow down. But why does the heart slow down during such freezing behaviour? Our group is trying to understand what happens when an animal is faced with a life-threatening event. We are interested in the organisation of defensive responses in animals.

Creative approach: We study this problem using fruit flies. Our approach involves integrating a fluorescent protein into the heart cells of these flies, allowing us to visualise them through the fly’s cuticle, essentially its exoskeleton. Using microscopy tools, we are then able to image the heart as the fly reacts to the presence of a threat.

Science Snapshot: Danger in a Heartbeat, 2022

Inês Santiago & Colleagues – PRECLINICAL MRI | Noam Shemesh Lab

Starting point: Given the essential role of accurately classifying lymph nodes in guiding clinical decisions for rectal cancer patients, we wanted to develop an improved method for this task. “I chose to study lymph nodes (small structures to which tumours can spread), extracted from rectal cancer patients, because they are very hard to classify in clinical practice”.

Creative approach: During my PhD training, I acquired advanced magnetic resonance images of lymph nodes. We discovered that a specific magnetic resonance imaging technique could differentiate between lymph nodes infiltrated by tumour cells and those that are tumour-free.. To understand the cause behind the distinct imaging patterns of these lymph nodes, which enabled us to distinguish them, we also analysed histopathology (microscopy) images.

We discovered that these patterns were caused by significant changes in cell size distribution due to the infiltration of large cancer cells. This observation led us to hypothesise that scanning these lymph nodes with magnetic resonance imaging could allow us to accurately classify them. As the initial experiments were done on preclinical low- and high-field magnetic resonance scanners, we then sought to apply this method using clinical scanners, so that it could be used on patients.

Science Snapshot: Deciphering the Magnetic Signature of Cancer, 2019

Claudia Feierstein & Colleagues – VISION TO ACTION | MICHAEL ORGER & THEORETICAL NEUROSCIENCE | CHRISTIAN MACHENS LABS

Starting point: The brain’s main job is movement. It’s constantly moving us around – helping us find food, escape danger, find a mate. Essentially, every action we take is coordinated movement. Understanding how our brain orchestrates every step and turn, is not just fascinating, it’s fundamental to understanding ourselves.

Creative approach: We’re studying how tiny zebrafish move and discovering a lot because, believe it or not, their brains work a bit like ours. These small fish can help us solve big mysteries about how brains function since theirs are simpler but still pretty similar to humans. We came up with a new way of looking at the brain activity of thousands of neurons at once, instead of just one at a time. This gives us a full picture of what is happening in the brain, making it easier to understand.

Science Snapshot: How the Brain Orchestrates Movement, 2023

Dana Darmohray & Colleagues – Neural Circuits & Behaviour | Megan Carey Lab

Starting point: Walking is a very complex movement that requires us to coordinate the motion of all sorts of different parts of our body so that our feet can land exactly where and when they should. We know that the cerebellum is important for learning to correct gait asymmetries, a common challenge for stroke patients undergoing rehabilitative therapy on a split treadmill. But how do we learn to quickly adjust our motor patterns so that we can generate different motor commands?

Creative approach: Imagine you are in the gym and you’re walking or running on a special treadmill and instead of always moving at the same speed, this treadmill can independently control the speed under each side of your body. We built such a split treadmill for mice so that we could start to understand the neural circuits responsible for adjusting our movements.

Science Snapshot: Untangling Space & Time in the Brain, 2019

Cindy Poo & Colleagues – SYSTEMS NEUROSCIENCE | Zach Mainen Lab

Starting point: “We don’t often think of humans as being very olfactory, but think about it: how often has a specific smell whisked you away to a distant memory? Your childhood kitchen, or your favourite bakery. These scents don’t just evoke memories; they transport us across time and space. This connection between smell and memory shows how olfaction, our sense of smell, influences not just our behaviour, but also shapes our life experiences. By exploring how our brain processes these smells, we open another window into understanding ourselves.”

We don’t really know what happens to a signal that originates in the nose and then goes to the olfactory bulb in the brain. The process starts there and subsequently branches out into several different pathways. One key destination is the hippocampus, which we know is involved in spatial information. Our original idea was to look into the olfactory system and see if we could find information coming back from the hippocampus, as this could explain the connection between a smell and a distant memory.

Creative approach: We created an elegant experiment where rats had to use both smell and location cues to find water in a specially constructed maze. Each of the maze’s four ends offered different scents or a water prize. The rats learned to identify these scents correctly to locate their reward, revealing how they blend smell and spatial knowledge in their brains.

Science Snapshot: A Scent of Space, 2021

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