Science is infinite, it knows no time limit or space, but May is a particularly special month for Science, as it dedicates one day, the 16th, to the celebration and recognition of the historical, decisive and innovative contribution of the scientific community to the advancement of knowledge, as a driving force for the progress and well-being of society.
Professor Maria do Carmo Fonseca, in the letter she addressed to the new Science generations, said she believed that "science and technology will become even more essential in our lives", thus appealing to the courage of the youngest. Courage to pressure society for change, because they are responsible for “the construction of our collective future”, a future in which societies “will depend on science and technology to deal with disasters”.
It is, therefore, urgent to raise energy to the maximum potential of Science, because “we need new solutions to live in harmony with the Earth”, as Maria do Carmo Fonseca warned.
Among the words of encouragement and awareness raising to the new generations, the researcher and President of the Institute of Molecular Medicine strongly appealed to Science valuing and support, recalling immunologist Maria de Sousa, the greatest Science reference in Portugal, who offered an invaluable contribution to the study of immunology and disappeared last April, succumbing to covid-19.
Maria de Sousa passed away in the hope of "enduring through those who stay alive", as Professor Carmo Fonseca recalled, arguing that "science cannot fail to advance, under the penalty of not being able to solve the immense challenges we will come across!”.
Thus, in the month that marks the National Day of the Scientist, instituted by Resolution of the Assembly of the Republic, we talked with our people about the meaning of Being a Scientist and pay a sincere and fair tribute to Science.
In the words of Professor Miguel Castanho, principal investigator at the iMM, “to be a scientist is to be a militant optimist, because a true scientist is the one who believes that, for each problem to be solved, there is a solution to be discovered”.
And there are many, and increasingly challenging, problems facing the Men and Women of Science, who see and feel it beyond the limits of the profession.
“For a scientist, Science is more than a professional activity, it is a sense of life. The desire to discover or understand phenomena fills our minds and leads us through life”. This is the view of our Professor and also Vice-President of the iMM, Bruno Silva-Santos, who sees Science as “a source of motivation, inspiration, satisfaction and personal fulfilment. Without it, my life would be much poorer.” Likewise, he argues that “the wealth of society is based on Science at many levels”, starting with “promoting the health of its individuals, but also providing them with the means to achieve goals and dreams”.
Science: Feminine noun, which means a set of knowledge based on certain principles. And for Ana Espada de Sousa, researcher and Professor at FMUL, responsible for the management of the Clinical Immunology Laboratory and coordinator of the Scientific Research Support Office (GAPIC) of our faculty, the work and diligence of all scientists who, in recent times and around the world, have helped to dictate the rules of a new normality that now presents itself in the shadow of mistrust and the end of lockdown, is recognised beyond doubt.
Thus, Ana Espada de Sousa highlights, first, that “the role of Science and Scientists has been clearly recognized by society during the current pandemic”, stressing that “The GAPIC is particularly committed to supporting all strategies that help to face the challenges and that facilitate students' access to opportunities for scientific research in this time of crisis”.
In the current circumstances and, in particular, on the Day when the tribute to Science figures prominently, Ana Espada de Sousa considers it “important to reflect on how to ensure complete freedom essential to the success of scientific activity, and how to ensure a stop to think and have the much needed time dedicated to each discovery ”.
And it is through discovery that knowledge is generated. Maria José Diógenes, Professor at the Institute of Pharmacology and Neurosciences, looks to Science as the “only way for knowledge and survival”. It is something as simple as "the truth and the endless search for an explanation of what we do not know".
For Maria José Diógenes, being a scientist is “an exercise in humility and resilience”. “Humility because it is important to know how to take on our shortcomings and limitations, and ask colleagues who have complementary knowledge for help. Resilience, because science is not rushed, it is done step by step knowing how to manage failures and learning from mistakes”. The Professor considers that to be a scientist is also “to be constantly asking questions, advancing hypotheses and testing them”. It means knowing how to go back and start over from scratch in the search for a solution to a problem”. And above all, regardless of the result, it is “to get excited with each discovery!”
As the famous scientist Marie Curie once said: “In life, there is nothing to fear, only to understand”. Now, understanding is at the heart of the motivation of those who live off science.
For the Deputy Director of the FMUL, and also Director of the Institute of Pharmacology and Neurosciences, Ana Sebastião "doing Science is the constant search for the Truth, knowing that we are only finding truths, but that without them the world will not progress." “It is somehow participating in a continuous whole, from Antiquity towards the Future; it is contributing with small grains to a common building. It is, therefore, an exercise of sharing, of cooperation, although also necessarily of positive competition.”
As her motto, she has two things she learned very early, “right at the beginning of my Ph.D.” which she seeks to pass on to all her students and collaborators: “The difficulty of Science is to make it simple” and “Experiment you don't enjoy is experiment without success”. “The first is obvious: the world is complex and the challenge for scientists is to decode it so as to make it visible to others. The second is very important to keep in mind at all levels of a scientist’s training and throughout the career. Science is not made to order. Either you believe in the hypothesis and how to prove it (or refuse it), or else it will be better to look for another hypothesis and another methodology. It is also very important to know how to always doubt the results until they convince us. We must believe in the hypothesis, but doubt the results, testing and re-testing the hypothesis in several ways”.
In the perspective of Professor Ana Sebastião, the process is “sometimes frustrating, sometimes stimulating”, requiring “a lot of persistence and dedication”. All that is needed is "to know how to live with many ups and downs", she says, revealing that "there are many routines, disappointments and exaltations". But despite the challenges or adversities along the way, Ana Sebastião guarantees that the balance always tilts on the positive side. "Doing science is fantastic".
Maria Manuel Mota and Science have become inseparable for about 25 years. The words of the Professor and Director of the iMM, reflect one of the most powerful feelings experienced by human beings: gratitude. “I feel privileged to be able to work every day to satisfy my curiosity and I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to have had (and hope to have a few more) wonderful moments of enormous pleasure - the pleasure of discovery, to see something for the first time”.
Maria Mota considers that “it is easy to understand that without science the world would not be what it is. We would not have electricity, which would mean something as simple as not being able to store food in a fridge or having no Internet. We also wouldn't know that washing our hands can save millions of lives and we wouldn't have created antibiotics and vaccines. We would probably still be living, on average, less than 30 years and not more than 80 years of life”. That is why Maria Mota is immensely proud to be a scientist, even though she is “just a grain of sand, but a grain, in the community of scientists from all over the world and from the whole of humanity since the beginning of time, which, one way or another, shaped the world and made it what it is today”. But Science, the Professor tells us, “is not just about new inventions, new technologies or new drugs. It is much more than that. Science is also important, because it is the best method invented so far to investigate the world and understand how it works.”
For Maria Mota, to be a scientist is to produce knowledge. "Knowledge that allows us to decode and better understand the world around us and prepare for the future, while satisfying one of the most basic human needs - curiosity".