News Report / Profile
Leonor Parreira - of Soul and Grounds
I asked her if we were still living the golden times that she described during her internship at Santa Maria. She answered that golden are the kids, precious students that will face extreme difficulties with a national health system that will not make their lives easier.
She didn't say it because it's no part of her personality, but she was part of a group that had a great impact on what is today the Faculty of Medicine and Science.
At the advice of a close friend, we wanted to get to know her story. However, we had been warned that she says exactly what is on her mind, a trait that is well-known from the meetings she participated in, in the different groups within the Faculty. Something that one should expect from a woman who has already lived a clinical life, discovered findings in science and played a part in politics when the country most needed help in recent years.
Maria Leonor da Silva Parreira born in Viseu on 1952, a mother of two girls and grandmother of 4 grandchildren. She studies at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon in 1975, a place she has always come back to throughout her life. Specialist in Haematology ends up interrupting her hospital career, dedicating exclusively to teaching and research.
She is currently a Professor FMUL , is part of the School Board and the Scientific Council and directs the Institute of Histology and Developmental Biology of the same Faculty. About the School Board she says it is an "important advisory body" that has the role of electing the director of FMUL and monitoring his activity, "not at all difficult since the Director works very well."
She was a researcher at the Institute Gulbenkian of Science and one of the founding members of iMM with João Lobo Antunes.
Vice-Dean of Investigation at ULisboa, President of GAPIC succeeding its founder David Ferreira.
She was president of the Medical Sciences of Lisbon Society, director of the 1 PhD program Gulbenkian for clinical physicians, and is a member of the Portuguese Academy of Medicine. She was also part of the Evaluation Panel of PhD and Postdoctoral Fellowships in Health Sciences of the Foundation for Science and Technology taking on its co-ordination for 6 years with Rui Victorino. She is the author of several scientific publications in international and national journals.
A rigorous woman, she has an image that obliges, at first contact, to maintain at a distance for observation. In an interview with the Público newspaper, her doctoral student described her as not be Leonor Parreira "extremely nice," a characteristic she confirms not to cultivate, because she thinks it isn't it useful when it comes to the rigour in the practice of Science. She tells me that the people she respects and who most taught her clinically and scientifically were not, and she remembers, João Lobo Antunes with whom she worked, that often told her that "only spare those who don't matter." She tells me about her references during her days as a medical intern. Doctor Frederico Silveira Machado , when seeing OS patients of the Bank Santa Maria asked, "listen, can you not figure out what you're doing?" and was faced with the clinical ignorance of students or interns. "Lethal" question. Or from the days, visiting the Professor's Infirmary Ducla Soares she learned a lesson she would never forget. "It was a young patient, I had studied the entire clinical process and done a physical exam that I thought was complete. I had felt a large spleen that I described in detail; at one point I saw the Professor insistently feel the hypogastro. Then he looked at me and asked how far along was the pregnancy. I froze. It never happened again.”
But it was during her times in London, when she investigated at Royal Post-Graduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, that she met Luccio Luzzatto the Director of the Haematology Department. Faced with the cryptic terminology of molecular biologists, she realised that she to study a lot and get out of her comfort zone, which was clinical. Luzzatto gave her a book on Ursula Goodenough - “Genetics”, that he considered to be the best book ever written on genetics. She read the entire book. It became easy to deal with the "snobbery of coded terms."
She taught clinical classes to the students of 4ºand 6º years of Medicine and Molecular Biology and Histology to the students of the first years.
She always kept a certain distance from political activism, even as a student, in which dictatorship weighed in on college rules. Also, and because of a challenge by Nuno Crato, she assumed the role of Secretary of State for Science in 2011. Faced with a poor country, with the reduced Ministries, the Office of Science never had more than 4 to 5 members. She says that a respected university professor remarked she would not survive a year, due to lack of people. He was wrong. She managed Science for 5 hard years and always had the freedom to act on behalf of the Minister of Education and Science.
Politically independent, she remember the former Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, as a serious man who always told the truth. But, she also says that "the truth can be hard to swallow" She holds fond memories of the ministers of finance, Vitor Gaspar and Maria Luis Albuquerque, and never had the problem of "captivating" the budget of the Foundation for Science and Technology.
I discovered I studied with Professor José Ferro (School Board President and Director of Neurology at Santa Maria), with whom she is still friends today.
Leonor Parreira: We are classmates. Zé Ferro is one the most intellectually sophisticated people I know and an excellent doctor. He has an intimidating mathematical intelligence. I remember those student days. He was the best of the class, we studied together and with other classmates. So you know what would happen? He learned faster than we did and because he's so generous, he would share what he learned and teach us the techniques for the exam. Those were really great times.
Expert in Haemato-Oncology she has closely watched over several cancer cases. Someone said that dealing with human suffering gave her a lot of respect for humanity.
Leonor Parreira: Dealing with patients in general, but especially with those who are afraid of a disease that he thinks is deadly. It is a great weakness. I remember two lessons I learned from two people. One was with João Lobo Antunes when he spoke of "wounded humanity." It is, in fact, much more than organic suffering. It is individual humanity, itself. The other I learned from Silveira Machado at the Emergency Room that would tell us at 9 o'clock in the morning: "Remember that the patient who walks in here loses his identity. Remove the rings, the watch, the dentures and put on a bib. He is no longer himself, he has entered a hostile environment, is afraid, aware of his mortality. It is therefore important that a doctor, especially in an emergency department, touch the patient. It is even more important, the older the patient is." You see how everyone likes to touch children? But no one wants to touch the elderly, because they are old, sometimes with less hygiene, they inspire less tenderness. So, he would tell us touch the hands of the patient when you speak to them, it gives them back their identity. 40 years have gone by and I have never forgotten that.
Was it the thirst to put an end to death that made you go into Science?
Leonor Parreira: No, not at all. I have been attracted to the biology of genetic alterations in malignant haemopathies since boarding school. That's why I applied for an internship in what was then the best Haematology-Oncology centre in Europe. I went to learn about cytogenetics of leukaemias, the study of chromosomal abnormalities, an area in great development at the time. It was only 2 years because I was doing my residency, but it was a transformative experience. That's where I met Luccio Luzzatto, the director of the Haematology Department, a molecular physician and molecular biologist, charismatic, very educated. I learned to think of science with him and it was with him that I took a practical course in Molecular Biology. But when I showed interest in doing a few more, he asked why. I told him. "for the sake of knowledge". He said that wasn't enough. He told me that it was time to apply the knowledge acquired and set up a Molecular Biology Laboratory in my country. I didn't really know what to do. I finished my residency, practised Clinical Haematology for 2 or 3 more or years, as a Hospital Assistant, until I decided to give up the clinical activity and joined the Institute of Histology, at the time directed by Professor David-Ferreira. There were no conditions for molecular biology. It was when a fortunate circumstance occurred. The first programme to support the installation of laboratories in Portugal was born, in 1990,withMariano Gago. At the time, Professor David Ferreira suggested that I run. And I ran with the project I had started in London - to study the molecular constitution of immunoglobulin genes and cell T receptors in acute leukaemias. I won the project, which allowed me to buy all the equipment needed to install the lab. The Faculty Director, Professor Miguel Carneiro de Moura, then decided to make a "matching" fund and the Faculty funded the purchase of workbenches and other materials for the Lab. That's when the first Laboratory of Molecular Biology of the Faculty of Medicine was born, I believe the first in the Faculties of Medicine. At first it was just me, then things evolved, I got my PhD and became an Assistant Professor of cell and molecular biology.
There's one very interesting thing about the PhD: it was finished quite late. Does this type of training have a deadline for you?
Leonor Parreira: I think so. One of the obvious reasons is the decline in creativity as the years go by. The peak of creativity is between the years of 20 and30. Now, a doctorate must be the research that leads us to something new, and the younger we are, the greater the likelihood of something truly new. A PhD is not the end, it's the beginning. The idea of having a Doctorate as the highest point in our career is absurd. I finished my PhD when I was41 years old, meaning, old (Laughs). But you know, there was something else that was painful for me. I had to interrupt my clinical career, which I liked very much, because I could not reconcile care work with experimental work. But the most serious think is that, after all these years, young doctors still do not have time for research. We see the inhuman way in which young interns who are doing their Doctorates try to conciliate extremely demanding clinical work with research, itself no less demanding.
Was leaving clinical a hard decision for you?
Leonor Parreira: It was really hard. And at the time, I had an unknown world before me. I held a senior position at the hospital, which I liked. In college I had no lab, no funding, no critical mass in my area of interest. If the Ministry of Science programme had not appeared, I would have given up and returned to the clinic. After the PhD, I started collaborating with Carmo-Fonseca in the study of genome organisation in the cell nucleus. I used my study models, blood cells. I ended up having my own research group. But after a while, I felt I couldn't go any further in that area. That's when Domingos Henrique arrived at the Institute, from London, with pioneering techniques that allowed her to study a powerful biological system, with regard to cell differentiation and developmental biology, the Notch system. I switched areas again. Thanks to this change, I think I have made my most important scientific contribution. We have discovered how a blood precursor cell chooses between two mutually exclusive destinations - being a lymphocyte B or T . It was from this moment on that I created the Haematopoiesis Biology Unit with a group that was always very small but talented. We studied the differentiation of stem cells from human bone marrow and from mouse embryonic stem cells. At this time, the iMM was born, where our group resided until 2008.
It was in June of 2011 Nuno Crato that an unexpected request emerged, to accept the role of Secretary of State for Science.
From listening to you now, one realises that you were never a political person.
Leonor Parreira: No, not at all! I've never had political sympathies, nor do I. But at the time, the country was in bankruptcy, something that many seem to have already forgotten. I said, "But I don't have any political experience." And he replied "I don't, either, but times are tough." I accepted.
And when you accept a political position in a bankruptcy scenario, is it because you feel it's a mission to your own country?
Leonor Parreira: Yes. Mind you, the country was, in fact, bankrupt, a tragedy, and somebody comes to you and tells you that you have enough life experience to help, I mean ... I know some of them have turned it down. But is this not the duty of citizenship? I accepted without having the slightest idea of what I was going into. It was hard ... a time when the protests were on the street aggressively. The insults were permanent. You know that when people ask me what I feel about that period of time, three things come to mind. The first is the scale. You change scales depending on the scale of the problem. There we are before a country, it is no longer the Faculty, or the University. And if we're being honest, and I want to believe that most of them are, one begins to feel the weight of the large scale.
Doesn't such huge responsibility frighten you?
Leonor Parreira: It does, because we know that mistakes are always made, but I also think good principles always prevail. If someone comes , and there are many, asking for favours and to influence the decision, you don't give in.
But you can then suffer the consequences of this not giving in...
Leonor Parreira: Absolutely! And that brings me to two other points that I have not mentioned before, which are the consequences. The noise. The huge and brutal noise that came to me every day through email with news.
Did you read everything?
Leonor Parreira: I read and read the violence of words.ad personam I would think to myself, this is an irrational thing, these people confuse argument with insult. It's an unpleasant feeling. We had so much to do, every day, every night, every weekend, without holidays. And in a period of difficulties, that caustic aggression. Noise, noise, noise. And then the third thing was, paradoxically, the silence ... (she stops briefly), the deafening silence of all those who shared our vision for science as well as the criteria of qualitative demand that we pursued. Oddly enough, they never publicly contested the "noise." Therefore, scale, noise and silence are the legacy of my experience in the Government.
Did you discover a facet of Humanity that you would rather not have known?
Leonor Parreira: I did, yes. I discovered ...
Because this is not the same Humanity that is received in hospitals and it's fragile ...
Leonor Parreira: No, it is not. Although, it is a foreseeable humanity and I was old enough not to have had surprises, but I did. There was pressure and attempts to influence me and the FCT itself, and that amazed me: they were scientists, teachers. And some of the noise came from there, I think. And from some general lack of understanding. I think we did not explain ourselves well. In fact, we did not have communication professionals to help us, nor did we have the time to do so. Let me tell you, however, that there are very positive things to remember, the relationship with Government colleagues, in particular education and finance, and also the relationship with the central administration. Loyal, serious, very competent people.
When you left the government, did you go back to the Faculty?
Leonor Parreira: Yes. I was involved in the removal of task force from the hospital Santa Maria to reference centres during the mandatory leave of 6 months (a law created by Mariano Gago for those who was more than 3 years in the government) and I took it and had the opportunity to read, study, attend classes. But for science the leave was fatal. Now, I'm not going to create another group; I will not go back to active science. I just want to help young people. My priority is to get the best conditions for young people who are always the most important.
Do you feel "crushed" from these years in Government?
Leonor Parreira: Crushed ... (Smiles) I feel tired, I don't think I have fully recovered. Maybe if I was 10 or 15 years younger, but this way .... I don't have the patience for micro management.
I talk about the age factor a lot...
Leonor Parreira: because I feel it. But getting old isn't hard for me, I think I'm doing it well.
Tired or disappointed? I ask this because in the beginning when you talked about your medical career and then about the Scientific discoveries, you were speaking vibrantly. And at the time I didn't notice tiredness in your speech.
Leonor Parreira: Not disappointed. On the contrary. Look, I had the privilege to live several unique experiences throughout the years and, above all, to work alongside exceptional people, both in intelligence and character, who have helped me and still do. Could it get any better than this?
When she bubbled up during her student days and met Luzzato, he always urged her to do things by telling her "hands on." And Leonor Parreira was always like that, she got her hands on everything she wanted to see happen.
When I asked her where the courage came to make decisions in the middle of dark tunnels, she answered that it was never out of courage, but rather out of selfish curiosity. Then it was seizing opportunities "because those who don't grab them, can't complain."
Rigorous woman they told me, it's true. Not intimidating at all, I see that now, based only on primordial principles that cause astonishment when not found in others. It's easy to understand her passion for Science. "School of reason and rigour, searching for truth with rational laws, school of tolerance because one learns from error, school of democracy, where everyone stands out for their performance, without social, racial or religious labels." Science, which still captures her like a first love that leaves more marks than those that follow, could be learned by all and perhaps even by some politicians and today the country would have a happier story to tell.
Maria Leonor Parreira She has a contained blue gaze and short grey hair, parts of her which say so much of the little that was written.