Life of PI: From medicine to neuroscience and back

Albino Oliveira-Maia (Photo: Tor Stensola)
(Note: the PI, or principal investigator, is the research group leader)


He has always navigated between medical practice and scientific research. In his opinion, these two worlds, which are still not talking to each other in a fluid manner, need others like him to bring them closer.

Albino Oliveira-Maia rarely misses an opportunity to do the two things he likes most, professionally speaking: clinical psychiatry and research in neuroscience. His current occupations – Professor of Psychiatry at Lisbon’s Universidade Nova, psychiatrist at the Egas Moniz Hospital, psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (CCU) – speak to this double interest.

Oliveira-Maia was born in Porto, in 1978, in a family where both grandfathers and a grandmother were doctors. “I am a product of Porto”, he says. “I grew up and spent my teenage years in the same house, surrounded by a bunch of uncles and cousins – a big latin family like those you see in Italian movies.” This, he adds, was one of the main reasons he came back to Portugal after many years abroad: “I wanted my children to have that too”. He comes across as a very humane, empathetic person, a doctor who really cares about people.

As a youngster, Oliveira-Maia says he was “very cerebral and not so physical”. He loved to read and study. But he also had many friends, especially in high school. It isn’t merely by chance that, when he talks about his university experience, the first thing he says is that the transition from secondary to higher education was difficult, as many of his friends didn’t pursue the same career.

“I grew up and spent my teenage years in the same house, surrounded by a bunch of uncles and cousins – a big latin family like those you see in Italian movies.”

Oliveira-Maia’s back-and-forth path between the clinic and research started before high school. When he was around 15 years old, he thought about studying biology. And because he had developed a passion for genetics “from the conceptual point of view”, he chose science in high school. But “somewhere in the middle”, he recalls, a biology teacher advised him to pursue medicine instead. “You don’t need to be a  biologist to do biology”, she told him.

So Oliveira-Maia spent six years in Porto University’s Medical School, studying to become a doctor. But after completing his undergraduate degree, he felt a bit uneasy, he recalls. Would he now simply go on to a life of “secure employment”? Would he become one of those people who, when they turn 50, are still living in the same world as 20 years earlier?

It was to relieve this feeling of uneasiness, says Oliveira-Maia, that he decided to try to do two things: his internship in a smaller hospital, and to apply to a newly-created PhD Program at the University of Porto, the Graduate Program in Areas of Basic and Applied Biology, or GABBA program. But when he received a positive response from the latter, he “felt even more anxious at the possibility of actually having a choice!”, he exclaims good-humoredly.

He finally decided to give science a try first, and enrolled in the first-year course of the doctoral program. It was at this time that he first met neuroscientist Rui Costa, who had just finished a GABBA PhD himself in the USA. “It was during this course that I fell in love with neuroanatomy, neuroscience and neurology”, says Oliveira-Maia.

That year, he visited the lab, at Duke University, where Rui Costa was completing his post-doc. “It was difficult to find anything closer to my own interests”, reflects Oliveira-Maia. But at the end of that year, doubts assailed him again: “I thought it was risky to do my PhD before I finished my medical internship.”

“All things considered, my role may be to find links between medicine and science, to develop a model of proximity between these two domains.”

So he completed the medical part of his career in 2004 and 2005. And only then – and freshly married – did he leave Portugal for Duke, in September 2005. “I was 27 and this was the first time in my life that I was going to live outside the Porto area”, he says.

Oliveira-Maia spent the next five years in America, where his two eldest children were born. And it was there that he became interested in psychiatry… as a clinician. “I was convinced I would be a neurologist or a neurosurgeon”, he says, “but I started to realize that, at my Duke department, a lot more people were working in areas closer to psychiatry.” Rui Costa re-enters the picture at this point: “Rui gave me the enthusiasm to take on a project about depression, to attend clinical meetings and to start studying depressive-like behavior in animal models”, explains Oliveira-Maia.

Although he would have had good chances to do his Psychiatry specialty in the USA, that’s not what he chose. “I didn’t want to live there”, he explains, “because my children’s safety depended too much on my working capacity. And I knew that in the Portuguese health system, everybody has access to near cutting-edge health care, independently of their financial means. In the US, that is not an option.”

Back in Portugal in 2010 and until 2015 – and, as always, wisely mixing his two favorite activities –, Oliveira-Maia completed his clinical psychiatry training, moved to Lisbon to work as a psychiatrist at a hospital and started to work at the CCU – both in the clinical center and the research department. “With Rui Costa and others in his lab, I continued  to study the role of dopamine [a neurotransmitter] in the control of feeding”, explains Oliveira-Maia. “Now I’m starting a project with Zach Mainen [also of the CCU] about the function of the serotonin system [another neurotransmitter] with potential clinical impact.”

“My training after medical school, from 2002 to 2015, was very long”, admits Oliveira-Maia. “But I’m very satisfied because I managed to find a series of places where I could work in both directions, the hospital and research, with people who were open-minded enough to accept that.”

“All things considered, he concludes, “my role may be to find links between medicine and science, to develop a model of proximity between these two domains.”



Ana Gerschenfeld works as a Science Writer at the Science Communication Office at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme



Edited by: Catarina Ramos(Science Communication office). Photo credit: Tor Stensola(CCU)


Loading Likes...