Life of PI: The young woman who decided she could – and would – do science for a living

Luísa Vasconcelos (Photo: Tor Stensola)
(Note: the PI, or principal investigator, is the research group leader)


In 1996, when she was a young graduate student in biotechnology, Luísa Vasconcelos realized she wanted to do neuroscience research for a living. Two years later, she knew the time was ripe. She hasn’t stopped since.

There were no scientists in the family, but at two specific moments, Luísa Vasconcelos knew she wanted to be a scientist, she says. “The first time I was around ten, and it was because I had a great science teacher. And the second was in 1996, when I started to believe research was an option for me.”

Vasconcelos was born in Oporto in 1973, and lived there until the age of 24. Her mother was a high school Philosophy teacher and her father, trained in Economy, worked for a beer company.

Hers was a happy childhood. “I had an older sister, and I also played with my cousins a lot”, she remembers. “I have many cousins – 17 at the latest count”, she adds with a warm smile.

Clearly, Vasconcelos isn’t at ease when talking about herself. But beneath this layer of shyness, one can sense the determination which has enabled her, at each decisive turn in her professional life, to know exactly which way she wanted to go.

In college, at the Catholic University of Oporto, she studied Food Technology, an area of Chemical Engineering. But, at the same time, she was already considering a radical change in her life. “In 1996 I was done with my undergrad studies, and I knew engineering was not an option for me”, she recalls.

“I had chosen my undergrad studies for their ability to provide me a job”, adds Vasconcelos. “Twenty years ago, there was little faith in Portugal for science careers.” But things were beginning to change in her home country, and now not only did she believe it was possible to do science for a living, but also that she herself was made for it.

She went on to do her masters degree in Biotechnology in the Netherlands where she had for the first time the opportunity to do basic research at Erasmus University, in Rotterdam, studying DNA repair in the lab of Jan Hoeijmakers, a pioneer in the field. She remained there for a year, from 1997 to 1998 – and, when she returned to Portugal, she made the big decision.

“I joined the Gulbenkian Doctoral Program in 1998”, says Vasconcelos. “For the first year, I had courses in Lisbon, and then I spent more than four years at UCLA, doing my PhD, under the guidance of Larry Zipursky [also a pioneer in his field], on how neurons find their partners during neurodevelopment”.

Her postdoc years, starting in 2004, she spent at Columbia University, in New York City, working with Richard Axel, 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on elucidating the mechanisms of olfaction. “He got the Nobel a month after I joined his lab”, Vasconcelos remarks, with obvious pride for this mentor.

In line with the Axel Lab’s projects, she now started to work on how pheromone perception impacts fruit fly behavior. “Male pheromone perception leads to different behavior in males and females”, she explains. “In a courting male, it stops the courtship – and the male becomes aggressive, as we learned after 2004.” On the contrary, in a courting female, it makes the female more receptive to courtship. Vasconcelos wanted to study “the neural connectivity that explained these behavioral differences”.

She spent four years in Axel’s lab, and during that time published several papers. Then she returned to Portugal, joined the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciências (IGC) in Oeiras, near Lisbon, and there started her own research group.

At IGC, Vasconcelos worked on what is still today her research topic: innate behaviors in the fruit fly and the neural circuitry underlying these behaviors. “Behavior allows us to study a problem at several levels, and this is attractive because, ultimately, it is rewarding to see the whole picture”, she says.

Her passion, as she puts it, is “pursuing the ability to understand how behavior as a whole is generated and then used to execute a movement that responds to a particular context and to other individuals in the environment”.

Why study innate behaviors in particular? “Innate behavior has the advantage that the neural circuits involved are genetically determined”, and can thus be easily manipulated, she replies.

In 2012, Vasconcelos came to work at the CCU, where she now heads a team of six people. “I like Champalimaud because everybody here shares the same scientific interest in the neural underpinnings of behavior”, she emphasizes. “At IGC, there were scientists from all sorts of biological fields, and so here I can do more. But I sometimes miss the diversity too…”, she admits.



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)


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