News Report / Profile
1979 witnessed the beginning of an animated series, which would be broadcast in Portugal in 1987, in RTP's program, Agora Escolha(Now you Choose) - its name was Red-haired Ana. Coming from an orphanage and adopted by two siblings already of some age, the 10-year-old Ana dreamed of the world, always awake. Speaking at a dazzling speed for the reasoning of an ordinary person, she had something magical that allowed us to identify ourselves with her and admire her. Ana allowed us to vibrate like little children because we could finally believe that sadness could be romantic.
Many years later, I rediscovered Ana in the body of a dark-haired Mary.
With the idea of creating a Fund that could bring more money to research in Portugal, I heard Maria speak in public for the first time, when she presented one of her dreams, the João Lobo Antunes Fund. At that moment, I realised we had to listen to her.
Maria Manuel Mota is the Executive Director of iMM João Lobo Antunes and one of the world's leading references for her research on the malaria parasite. Awarded the Pessoa Prize in 2013, for her 20 years of advanced scientific research, Maria Mota moves with her endless curiosity. Maybe it all started with a cytology book (which allows you to assess the appearance of cells, their growth and function) that her mother gave her when she was still in school. A few years later, she would start questioning how cells communicated with each other and how the malaria parasite enters our body and feeds off us. Until this day, she questions how one can deprive the parasite of those resources that feed it, killing it or weakening it once and for all.
A woman from the north, Maria Manuel Mota was born in Gaia on April 27th, 1971. Her accent is still present after all these years living in the south. As a daughter of very conservative parents, she was expected to become a teacher after 10 years of studying piano and taking a safe and conventional course. A profession that would be harmoniously compatible with a traditional life as an exemplary mother and housewife. However, Maria did not want to be dictated the future that only belonged to her. After studying Biology and still a little lost, she had the opportunity to enrol in Professor Maria de Sousa's Master's in Immunology. That's when she realised she would become a scientist. In her Master's she met other curious individuals like herself from different parts of the world, and with them she realised she had to leave in order to return one day. She went to London where she lightly assumed she would never talk about her insecurities of not speaking English well. She tells me that during her first months in London she could barely understand the conversations around her, but nothing moved her because she says fear never stopped her from moving forward. Today, her papers are written in perfect English and because she speaks so fast she still has an excuse for the mistakes that may come up, she says laughing.
Never afraid of her own barriers, she completed a Doctorate Degree in Molecular Parasitology at the University College of London.. And later on, a Post-PhD course at the New York Medical Centre.
Between 1999 and 2001, she did research at the Laboratory of the New York University Medical School, where she also taught.
She returned to Portugal in 2002, where she led the Malaria Cellular Biology Laboratory research group at the Gulbenkian Institute of Science. In 2005, she joined the iMM as a Group Leader (Main Researcher) of the Malaria Unit, while lecturing about her well-known parasite at the Medical School of the University of Lisbon. Over the last 5 years she has been a Guest Professor at the Public Health School of the Harvard University.
Awarded by the President with the Order of Prince D. Henrique in 2005 on International Women's Day, Maria Mota would later be selected, in May 2016, to join the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). For the merit and excellence of the work she developed in recent years, she also received the Pfizer award in 2017.
Very straightforward, she spontaneously says what she thinks and knows that this can intimidate her interlocutor. She says she speaks faster than her thoughts, something that many times entangles her words and takes her breath away. Those who work with her say "with one single frame Maria can make an entire film". She recognises she is very good at making connections between subjects that may be years apart and in Science that is precious, but that intelligence is not her best trait.
Perhaps so much vibration explains why she has always been called "electric". In fact, from early on she tried to self-discipline her enthusiasm in lectures, but her passion for what she does takes away the rationality of the rhythm.
She believes life is really good despite saying she has an "excuse" because everything has always gone well and very soon. She knows that some people see her spontaneity as an inappropriate foolishness for a 47-year-old scientist, but although she likes being recognised for the merits of her work, she is not vain about status. She hates wasting time on unimportant things, because she barely has enough time for what is essential, let alone for everything else. That is why she does what she believes in.
Regarding the traditional roles, she knows she may not be the exemplary "overprotective mother" that her mother dreamed of, "sometimes I only realise that I have to buy my kids new clothes, when their trousers barely fit them and then I have to rush and buy them new clothes from that season". About her "life companions", Vânia and Inês, 12 and 16 years old respectively, she knows that she has never failed them with what really matters. About the housewife label, she doesn't love it either, but she makes a point of explaining that she is "upright" and doesn't live in disarray, nor without rules.
With her oldest daughter, Inês, who has a favourite TV series, "How to get away with murder", one cannot watch an episode without the other. But 12-year-old Vânia does not miss out on family film sessions, to which she sometimes brings her current boyfriend.
"Can you call you Maria?", I question, convinced that she isn't very formal. "Yes, please call me Maria, or do you think that's wrong because this is an interview?".
Such an unconventional daughter for such conservative parents...
Maria Mota: I am a mixture of things because I have their rules in many aspects of my life but then I don't like wasting time with household things. But if I'm at a party, for example, and food falls on the floor, I'll pick it up immediately, seeing it dirty bothers me. However, sometimes I control myself so that I am not misinterpreted, because I easily create austere environments around me. People are afraid of me because I am so straightforward, maybe even dictatorial, I like things the way I like them and I want them to be done the way I like it.
Are you like that in your personal or professional life?
Maria Mota: I am. In what concerns work, if I want something a certain way it really has to be that way. I'm always open to being told that I'm wrong, no one on my team can accuse me of not listening and somethings I even change my opinion.
Oh, so you change your mind?
Maria Mota: I do, many times. Just yesterday I was at the airport and Ângelo, from my team, called me and said, "I don't agree with what you've written" and at the beginning I didn't agree with his opinion at all, but after he explained it to me, I told him he was right. I hadn't thought of a certain aspect that made all the difference. But there are things that I like a certain way, and it upsets me if they are done another way...
Going back in time again, I picture you in a closed environment. You completed your Biology Degree in Oporto, and later your Master's, where you met Professor Maria de Sousa. Was it then that your world opened its doors to the whole World?
Maria Mota: No doubt! I really had a very closed education, my mother didn't think it was acceptable to come home with a boyfriend after dark and I was 20 something years old at the time. I know that I've done many things in life that do not meet my parents' standards, yet they have always supported me. They are always by my side, despite not always agreeing and my mother is very straightforward, she says everything she thinks. This goes to say that they didn't expect me to go to London at all, but they understood that it was good for me and for my life. My parents are both 80 years old and they respect me a lot, but it's funny because until this day they still make a lot of comments, especially regarding my daughters.
It is funny that you say that because I read in one of you interviews that one time you left your daughters with their grandparents because you had to work and they complained "their father called 3 times, you called none".
Maria Mota: (laughs) It's because I assume my mother is a good grandmother. It seems like if I called I would actually be controlling her. Honestly, it didn't even cross my mind to call, I was working Many times people ask, "how can you work so much with two daughters?". It is different now because their father and I are separated but if they were with me today, I would be at the school at 8:10. After that, I assume the school will take care of them and I don't have to control anything. I believe in the system, I believe in people until they prove me wrong. Today, I'll be picking them up, one at 7pm from tennis and the other at 7:15pm from the British School..
Does that mean you have time for them?
Maria Mota: I do. And because I've been out of the house for 15 days (on several trips due to different international invitations), it means I have to go shopping before I pick them up. The refrigerator will be full when they get home. I think that's also something parents give. Parents provide what their children need, but above all they provide a trusted environment. After a certain age, they too should help and contribute in small tasks: setting the table, going to the shop next door to buy lettuce, those simple things. And then we have to give them time and time is the most expensive thing we have, but obviously I give them my time because being with my daughters is a fantastic experience. Today is film night, my team already knows that if they call me today I won't answer until they go to bed. This is what I have to give my daughters, give them my world. And parents should not be obligated to give more than that, giving their children their world. I have a friend who recently came into my life but who is extremely important to me. I met her in 2009, she's a well-known scientist at MIT (Massachusetts Institute Technology), and she wanted to come into my area of research and she called me via Skype, and we created a really strong friendship. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants with Academic training and whose culture is completely different from ours. At one of our encounters in the USA, we were having dinner and she asked me when did I first think that would like to change the world. At the time, I thought the question was quite arrogant, who can change the world? And then I understood The first day she walked into the school, her father took her and said that school was her first tool to be able to change the world. Today that moves me and it wasn't arrogant after all. And this can and should be passed on to our children.
But you have done so much to change the world, because this research, which has is being developed for 20 years, has changed small parts of the world in a clear attempt to eradicate malaria, a disease that kills how many people every year?
Maria Mota: Currently half a million children; every minute two children die. But when I first started working, 3 million would die per year. The numbers are going up a little again. The great financial effort that is trying to stop all this comes from the Gates Foundation. But a problem that is now emerging is that sub-Saharan Africa is reaching levels that it has never had before. And transmission levels are increasing because weather conditions change and there are more mosquitoes and with the increase of populations in Africa, the situation has exploded. And for the past two years we haven't been able to lower the number.
But could we be talking about a migration of the disease?
Maria Mota: The tools we have can keep this level as it is, but if we lower our guard, it can be a disaster. One can already tell there is a huge financial fatigue because this implies a huge number of people to keep everything and when they see that the illness begins to slow down they tend to start relaxing. When this happens - and it's happened before, in the past century - there are terrible outbreaks.
What questions do you have to ask to stop the growth of the malaria parasite? Because one of the issues that you mostly focus on is : if the parasite feeds on resources, if I take away those resources, it dies. Do you still need to find what those resources are?
Maria Mota: That is my question and the entire lab's since 2002. This parasite lives at our expense, so it's simple, we give it something that keeps it alive. The problem is that it won't be that simple, because there is a cocktail of possible answers. We have managed to find many pieces of the puzzle, and we keep publishing articles that indicate possible ways to get there. However, as we are talking about a cocktail it will be much harder to justify a clear reason, as it will join many components. Still, I believe one of these pieces of the puzzle will weight in and prove itself. And right now, I think I have a project that might give us an answer. But maybe this is what I think every time I discover something. (Laughs) We are hundreds of teams throughout the world, trying to find answers to malaria and the truth is we are trying to do better than Nature. The malaria parasite can re-infect the same human being throughout their entire life. We are trying to inhibit something that Nature has ever been able to achieve.
Isn't it too ambitious to think we can trick Nature?
Maria Mota: There's an ambitious side but without it we can't move forward. It's that ambition that has given us knowledge and that has already saved millions of lives. Now, if we're going to eradicate it, that's something else. Because some think we should eradicate the disease, while others think it's chronic. But considering its level of chronicity, it creates deep economic problems and decreases the quality of life in sick people. We have to be able to do better.
It is impossible not to mention the FCT and the lack of funding for the continuity of this research. Everything pointed that resources would be assigned and they weren't, and that was received with shock, by you and by the community. How do you regroup a team after that? And even after questioning if they've read your CV and the project correctly you will not challenge that decision. What happens now?
Maria Mota: There isn't much left to say. This affects my salary and this also involves my personal life because I need to have an income. But I have to make it clear that we, scientists, when we apply for financing, we know that we are going into a game where our ideas and our CV are evaluated. The Minister has publicly announced that only the last 5 years were analysed; for our team this was not a good argument because these last years were very rich and we have reached the highest peak of our productivity. Concerning the proposed project, I believe that it focuses on something important and clearly explains what we intend, but the truth is that it may not be that good. There is a peer review process in which other scientists evaluate us. I was surprised but that means they thought that there were more interesting projects. I have to have a plan B. I gambled and I have to accept it. I always have to trust that the system works. And just like the story of dropping my daughters off at school, if they're there, it's because I trust the school so I'm not going to doubt or control it.
Do you apply that principle to everything in life?
Maria Mota: To live in society we must live this way. I assume everyone does it well. I run an institution on that principle and that's how I have to see things. The day someone fails me and something goes truly wrong, I will do everything so that person no longer participates in my life. I have to be straightforward and tell the person they have to leave.
Is it hard to do that?
Maria Mota: Very. I won't sleep for two or three nights, but once I've made the decisions, it's over. But I know I did the right thing and that it was the right decision. Therefore, I have no doubts, however the time from making the decision to the moment you implement it is a terrible one. But once it is decided, it's decided and that because it's fair. It isn't because of a mistake, it's about consistently making mistakes.
Despite not having won the FCT fund, will you move forward with your life?
Maria Mota: Yes. That fund would pay my salary, but iMM will pay for it until it finds others ways to pay for it. But it isn't just me, it's happened to two more iMM Group leaders , just like two others managed to get it. It is important to point out that iMM has an external team of evaluators who validate our CV's and what the researchers want to do. Then, based on that, they decide on the people they want to maintain, and at that stage plans A, B, C are weighed until all plans are exhausted. My team and I aren't any more special because I'm the director. This impartiality is guaranteed as follows, first every evaluation is always done by experts in the scientific area and external to the iMM (and usually by foreign specialists), and followed by a management decision. In my and my team's case, it is Bruno Silva Santos (Vice-Director) who receives the external evaluations and makes decisions on these matters, that is why we have more than one person on the Board of Directors, when he is evaluated that role belongs to me. The rules are very clear. If I have a close connection with other researchers, I won't be the one making the final decisions. Bruno is the one who always takes on those cases.
Now, keep in mind that the life of a scientist is always a very stressful life. Sometimes we're waiting for a big funding and it doesn't come and then we apply for it the next year and win, it's happened. "Tighten our belts" it's something that happens a lot and we have to know how to live that way.
Those are the times you have to make choices and lose sleep?
Maria Mota: Of course. But these are also the moments when we decide what we're going to study. And that isn't always a bad thing. I've never had to let someone go because of these financial struggles. Nobody on this team is fired from one moment to the next. But there are some projects I'd like to keep going and I can't because there isn't any money. There are many ideas I'd like to develop and there's only a specific timing for them because someone else will pick up those ideas and develop them. I like to believe that we can have everything in life... But that doesn't always happen. There are also those people who want a yacht and a dream home in a tropical destination and we don't have to be unhappy because it didn't happen.
Are you materialistic?
Maria Mota: I'm not attached to things. I hate accumulating objects. In fact, every Christmas I go through my daughters' toys and give them to other children. They've already accused me of traumatising them (laughs), because I gave away a family of stuffed dogs that had been on the shelf for over a year, without anyone touching them and just collecting dust. You can't imagine the things they get! I like fake, unbranded earrings as much as I like my grandmother's gold ones. I do not care about financial value, but of course I value things; I would love to have a comfortable life without worrying about money and, for example, looking at a beautiful destination and grabbing my daughters or my boyfriend and being able to travel there. But over the past years I've learned to value certain moments. Watching the ocean and just sitting and staring... And I owe that to my current partner.
Before you talked to me about the Maria / Bruno duo. I know that in 2020 there will be elections for the new Executive Director and Vice-Director. The people I spoke to say that working with this duo is, at the very least, stimulating. Are you going to run again? Will the duo continue?
Maria Mota: You know that nobody is irreplaceable. I'm not arrogant, but I'm not a fake modest either, that is, I can say and I think we made a good team and that's why I chose Bruno. Despite being different ... He is very pragmatic, if needed, he'll say that his time is up and that if I don't decide in 5 minutes, he has to leave ... and leaves. I love working with him and I would say he thinks (for the most part) the same thing about me. But there is one thing, he's Vice-Director, if something goes wrong, it's my fault. And that applies to everything, to everyone. If anything goes wrong, it's my responsibility,
I'm not sure that many people, in a crisis or conflict, take the fault...
Maria Mota: It isn't always easy what we live here. The past years have been hectic. We became part of the state's budget perimeter (we finally got out), we had stressful moments when we could have turned against each other.
It isn't possible to adapt to the reality that the State gives you?
Maria Mota: I believe that you can't make do with what you don't have. You can't make do with what you don't have. That doesn't exist. If we want to do science at an international level, we may not even have all the resources, but we have to have the means and sufficient resources. We must have the conditions. This isn't a "rich boys" speech, who are always asking for more, that isn't it. Our rules aren't compatible with the State's deadlines. In an experiment where we needed a reagent, we can't wait 24 days for an authorisation. It isn't worth going further that way because it isn't compatible.
That' why you created the João Lobo Antunes Fund?
Maria Mota: Yes. But let's be realistic, in order to be self-sustaining the iMM needs € 150 million. Not to spend them, but to keep it as a fund and use the "interest" only.
And that way you would be self-sustainable?
Maria Mota: Yes. That's how the best international structures work, the most relevant ones. And that's how an Institute should be. Anyone managing a fund knows that you should not spend more than 4% of the total fund value per year. The iMM needs 5 to 6 million euros per year, apart from the specificities of each research project. What each one of us spends in their laboratory is money that goes specifically into each research. And what worries me? If we lose the ability to keep a vibrant environment and the creative and more dedicated people that make up the iMM structure, the way we "feed ideas" together, then the best will leave. But if the best leave, that also decreases the money that is invested in those who stay. Everything languishes.
On the day you received the Pessoa Award, you told those who had just awarded you with the prize and some State representative, about the lack of resources in Science: "you are going to stifle creativity, kill the genius and strangle science". I found it extraordinary that you did not settle for a "thank you" and touched the wounds.
Maria Mota: But I finished with a compliment. (laughs). I'm not negative but the truth needs to be told. Just a few days ago, I was in France at the Portuguese Consulate and the Minister of Science was there, he had a very positive speech but we have to face reality. When I spoke, I also said positive things but of course I had to touch the wounds. I do not speak badly just for speaking, but I think we have to think about what we want to do, how we want it to be, not just the present, but above all the future and we should not waste our precious time and not move forward.
Maria has weaknesses just like any other human being and talks about them openly because she is a very intelligent woman. And not just the weaknesses of iMM or those regarding the Malaria parasite. She says, so naturally, that she isn't certain and when she's in crisis she gathers her closest friends and needs attention to discuss the problems and make the catharsis "part of the resolution of my crisis is talking about it". She cries as much as she needs to and in that moment there isn't another problem, then she overcomes it and moves forward.
For a long time she received a lot of job offers. The USA and Australia were some of the main destinations. She may have often been tempted to go, but as long as her daughters are underage she knows she will not leave the country because keeping them away from their father is out of the question, "just as it is out of the question to persuade their father to go." She will probably stay in the country because time passes, and although it does not take away her passion for science, she has other dreams she wants to fulfil. "Passing on knowledge to the Portuguese society, raising awareness that everyone should base their training, whatever it is, on knowledge, be it waiters, scientists, or whatever." She thinks that "the taste for knowledge cannot belong only to an elite, but it should be a wealth for the whole society"; She understands that there is a lack of critical spirit to question the world, as such, "the scientific method is perfect to learn how to question, to weigh the pros and cons, to test and then make decisions that aren't based on ignorance."
Maria is a contagious whirlwind of ideas. I tell her about red-haired Ana, but she did not know her, it's a pity, otherwise she would understand why they are so alike.