News Report / Profile
Miguel Castanho, the Professor
Teaching Biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon for 12 years, Miguel Castanho is Full Professor and member of the School Board. Widely known in the academic and scientific community, he leads a research team at the iMM – MCastanho Lab and is one of the Portuguese scientists who is receiving more funding, the last of which for a project where he is responsible for coordinating a European team.
He has already been distinguished with several awards, but some of them have a special flavour: the Golden Harrys for Best Professor of the Year, awarded by the students of the Faculty where he teaches.
We invited him to talk about teaching. Almost all the students with whom we've talked this month and those we've met over time mention him as a striking figure when it comes to teaching. And when you leave a mark on so many students, who are usually critical and sometimes even scathing, this means that your teaching method is an art worthy of attention.
«Available» is perhaps the greatest compliment that students use to characterise him; he never runs out of time if they ask him for more explanations and he always looks at them with the aim of understanding them.
We met in his office at the Institute of Biochemistry, in the Egas Moniz Building. It is one of those people who are proud of the institution they represent, the Faculty, a sense of responsibility that is perhaps even more justified for someone who used to be its Deputy Director..
He talks to me about the importance of the 1st year and how it is crucial for the FMUL to attract students. "It will always be an important year, a turning point in the students' lives," he explains, emphasising that a cohesive faculty has to empathise with its students. He feels that 1st-year professors have a greater responsibility in the pedagogical process.
Being a 1st-year Professor himself, he has the opportunity to follow the long journey of the students from start to finish. Sometimes he meets them again in his research laboratory, as some students turn to him to do scientific initiation internships, and others through the GAPIC, where he occasionally offers internship opportunities, which are not available every year. He gives the example of one of his first students, who is now a part-time Biochemistry professor and is doing his PhD in collaboration with him.
Amidst some restrained enthusiasm and conniving smiles, there are some 1st-year students who can't disguise that their heart flutters when they mention their favourite Professors. The students are very curious to know what Professor Miguel Castanho's scientific research is about. I ask them about the three questions they would like to ask their Professor and this set the tone for the second part of our talk/interview.
At this point, he is focused on understanding "the viruses that infect the brain and other parts of the central nervous system"; he wants to "find and select drug-carrying molecules that are able to cross the blood-placenta and blood-brain barriers, since viruses such as Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, among others, have the ability to cross some of these barriers in the human body, but existing drugs do not".
He tells me that we all need to have our passions; his are Biochemistry and research. It's clear how easy it is for him to communicate Science when he explains this passion: "Biochemistry tries to understand how bringing together inanimate parts, like molecules, can give life to a whole, such as cells. It is as if we're putting together lego bricks to form a figure that becomes alive." It is the frontier between the living and the non-living world that drives him.
He speaks with as much curiosity about the other great frontier of Science, the frontier of human nature: "What makes us human?" If he worked in that other frontier he would probably not be a biochemist. Maybe he would look for the answer in literary art; he confesses that he would like to write scripts for films or poetry. "Poetry makes us human; it's the mathematics of literature."
He chose not to attend medical school because, he says, Medicine in the 1980s seemed to him to be "grey", without a glimpse of the light and colour of scientific research, unlike today, when he sees it as an open, dynamic field, filled with opportunities and challenges. He chose to study Biochemistry at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon; he completed his PhD at the Higher Technical Institute (IST) and embraced the challenge of modernising the teaching of Biochemistry at the FMUL in 2007. He used his natural ability for teaching in an unconventional way. Classes flow like a conversation, without any packs of pre-formatted information. But it's a mistake to think that teaching is merely a natural act and does not involve some practise.
Is your role as a Professor practised and planned, or to things happen by chance?
Miguel Castanho: It's surely practised, yes. Part of the Professor's professionalism and commitment to the profession involves making an effort to communicate with the students and this requires him to listen, pay attention and adapt. We can't leave it all to change.
It's important to realise that the 1st year leaves a lasting mark in any course; many professors make the mistake of overestimating the last few years of training. Training is seen like a process of artistic creation, where the first years are worked like clay and the last ones are the final artistic creation. It shouldn't be like that, because students are not clay, they are not inert matter. When students start their course they enter a new world; it's like a rebirth. Either their contact with this new world, their new "second home" is empathetic and they feel some resonance, or they feel out of place and this is bad for everyone. Those who are managing faculties should know that the 1st year is the most critical year of one's academic life and they need to understand the students. We need to do a transposition exercise; in other words, we need to know how to walk in the student's shoes and this requires a lot of proactivity and commitment, and it also means that we shouldn't forget what is was like being a student.
The fact is that you were once students too...
Miguel Castanho: Yes, we were, and if we don't grow too old inside we still remember what it was like. This is important because we have to find the best way to communicate so that our message is understood. The communication process does not end when we send a message; it achieves its goal when someone understands the message as they should. In the classroom, we have a very immediate communication process...
And it has a very direct and quick feedback, which makes it very demanding.
Miguel Castanho: It's immediate. We need to guarantee, in that place, in that context, that was is said is understood as it should, and this requires commitment and rigour from the Professor; only then will teaching and learning reach their goals.
The great challenge nowadays is the very rapid evolution of the forms of communication; the way students understand messages is also evolving at a fast pace. When I joined the Faculty of Medicine in 2007, for example, the students were open to a form of communication that is different from the ones of today and this progression has a lot to do with technological evolution and with the consequent successive exposure of several generations to different ways of communicating.
This also means that you always need to reposition yourself, right?
Miguel Castanho: Exactly. That's why we must not resign ourselves to the idea that we are Professors by vocation and that we don't need to update and reinvent ourselves as such. Just think about what is happening to successive generations; first there was the desktop generation, then there was the laptop generation, then came the mobile phone, then the tablet and now the smartphone. From one point to the other, communication has radically changed in a few years. And while the fundamental contents of Science don't change that rapidly, the way how these contents need to be put across is changing at an amazing speed. Professors must update themselves and that's what I try to do. I often think that I can teach content updates in a different way. I think about classes as I think about my scientific research, in parallel. Everything is constantly evolving, everything requires adaptation and updates.
How do you know that your message has reached the students when you deal with them day after day?
Miguel Castanho: I pay attention to their reactions, their doubts, I ask them questions.
Do you ask questions during your classes?
Miguel Castanho: Yes, but not individually, only collectively. I question them as a whole and I observe their collective reaction.
You said something curious, "I ask questions collectively". You made it clear that you don't do it individually, on purpose. Can you explain why?
Miguel Castanho: (Laughs) Asking questions individually is acting almost like the police. It seems like an assessment, it seems like I'm assessing an individual performance and that's not the case. I don't want students to speak because they're forced to, I believe that only a spontaneous and natural intervention will tell me what is really happening; a forced intervention doesn't tell me anything. People will give you an answers if they're forced to it, they can even feign the willingness with which they do it, but a voluntary answer is more sincere. Of course that when I ask a question to the whole class, it's always the same 20% of students who give me an answer. But after that there will be a very interesting collective dynamic in the ensuing discussions. It's that small critical mass that lights the flame. In classes where this critical mass doesn't exist, it's harder to trigger widespread participations. So it's up to the Professor to stimulate the class.
Did you ever leave the classroom upset because of that collective silence or distraction?
Miguel Castanho: Not upset, no. I've felt frustrated, when I felt that I hadn't been able to pass on the message I wanted to. In these cases I go back to the subject and I say what I said before, but in a different way, as if I was saying it for the first time.
Are there students who get you out of your comfort zone with the questions they ask you?
Miguel Castanho: They often ask questions for which I don't have answers. But that's not embarrassing. A Professor doesn't have to know everything. And being exposed to new situations is exactly what you want; in fact, Professors who do research are more than used to being exposed to doubts and to being challenged. When that happens, I tell them I don't know the answer and I go and research on the subject. But this happens quite often and it's not a drama; it's rather an opportunity to explore a path that can lead us to an answer or to reflect on what we know and on the frontiers of knowledge. Questions without an obvious answer are also opportunities to elaborate a bit on the construction of a possible answer.
I loved the sketch you recorded for Medicine Night last year, where you and Prof. Bruno Silva-Santos were members of a jury that was going to choose a new Professor for the Faculty and actually chose the worst of all the applicants. Does that sketch reveal the importance of laughing at ourselves?
Miguel Castanho: Humour is an extremely powerful weapon. That sketch is introspective and a corporate satire. What we were actually saying is that we know what is bad. We are mocking what is bad. By mocking a bad practice, we show that we are aware of what is good and bad practice. And we make people laugh at some of the mannerisms of the Portuguese academia.
The old Portuguese academia?
Miguel Castanho: (Hesitates and chooses his words) Yes...the oldest one...with a certain encased and self-centred tradition. When it comes to opening up to the outside world, the FMUL owes a lot to its students. We are fortunate to attract a group of students that is culturally advanced; many of them have learned music, for example, and most have a very advanced degree of general culture. They are very concerned, attentive, and especially very dynamic. So, if we can support initiatives like the Cultural Soirée, or Medicine Night, or Kids' Hospital, we're doing justice to our students. Because what they do deserves all our attention and recognition. We all benefit if we encourage these activities.
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I'm going to read you some of the questions that a few 1st-year students have put together to ask you.
1- How did you get interested in Biochemistry? What motivated you in the beginning?
Miguel Castanho: I had an interest in Nature, in Sciences, ever since I was a kid. I can't explain why, but I did. At first I was interested in the visible world, because at that time I still didn't see molecules around me. But then I read and researched, and I started to develop a great interest in Ecology, which reveals the relationships between the species and the environment and, over time, I became more and more interested in the microscopic world. I was fortunate to have very good teachers in high school who encouraged me a lot. When the time came to choose a degree, I had already discovered the molecular world. And Biochemistry was emerging in Portugal as a university degree. When I was about 18 I put Medicine aside and chose Biochemistry, because I wanted to be a Scientist. Biochemistry was a mix of Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics, various areas that interested me. After completing my degree, I focused on the structure of molecules and the interaction between them. Then I began to take an interest in the applicability of these molecules, in a more medical context, which made me move on from pure Biochemistry to medical Biochemistry. That's when the Faculty of Medicine opened a position in the area of Biochemistry. I decided to embrace the challenge, to start a new life 100% in a medical context, but bringing with me the tools and a way of making research that come from outside the world of Medicine. This allowed me to tackle certain issues that are major medical and scientific challenges, and which require innovative and unconventional approaches. For example, getting a molecule to cross the blood-brain barrier, that is, to get it to cross the walls of the arteries that irrigate the brain and attack viruses in the central nervous system, is a complex puzzle. The brain is very well protected; the walls of the arteries that irrigate the brain are very well shielded, and prevent most molecules from crossing them. We were able to propose a solution to the problem because we think on a molecular scale. It is our detailed perspective on how molecules act in different contexts that has been allowing us to tackle issues like this one.
2 - Did you ever think that devoting your entire life to looking for answers to questions that may never be fully answered might be a waste of your time?
Miguel Castanho: No. No... (Thinks for a little while and sighs) That would be the same as asking someone who contributes to a social project that strives to eradicate poverty, "Since poverty will never be eradicated, do you think that your action against poverty is a waste of time?" The answer can only be, "Of course not!" Trying to solve a particular problem, like eradicating poverty, may be a utopia, but the closer we get to the utopia, the more we progress and the better our world is. So, dedicating our lives to "getting the world closer" to a particular utopia is definitely worthwhile. Theodore Roosevelt put it masterfully: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." And I feel reassured that I contribute to a better world and that satisfies me. But I also feel reassured that what I do is not lost, it builds up our knowledge. And an important characteristic of knowledge is that it is irreversible, once you know something, you can't "unknow" it. So, those who will come after me will build up the knowledge that I also contributed to generate. I get the notion of construction and somehow all scientists are bound by this way of being. Every once in a while we get to a point that seems like we are laying the last brick on the wall; maybe we don't get to finish the whole building, but we do finish certain walls. This results in extremely important advances. I'll give you an example: the person who revealed the structure of insulin -Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin, - had already been preceded by other researchers who had also worked in this process. Discovering the structure of insulin opened the way for it to be used as a drug, saving the lives of millions of other people with insulin deficiency problems. The merit is Dorothy Hodgkin's but also of all those who preceded her.
3 - If you considered doing research in an area other than Biochemistry, which would you choose?
Miguel Castanho: One thing is the subject that we focus on to do our research and that subject needs to be very narrow to be workable. Within that subject we have goals, that is, what we want to achieve. One of my lines of work is to get an antiviral molecule to cross the blood-brain barrier and inhibit viruses in the central nervous system to lessen their neurological effects. These are my very specific goals. But if you ask me about the reason behind my passion for Biochemistry, then we're talking about a different scale and a different motivation. My passion comes from the fact that cells are made of molecules which are not living beings, they're objects. So how do these non-living parts gain life when they come together? Biochemistry is in this borderline and that's why I love it: at which point does the organisation of matter become so complex that the system starts regulating itself and forms what we call life? Another major frontier, or interface, which is similar to this one, is at the other end of the scale. It has to do with what turns a specific individual into a human being. It's the attempt to answer the question, "what makes us different from other animals and what makes us human?" Many people dedicate themselves to this unanswered question. Some have mentioned the opposable thumb, others have mentioned the notion of ethics, or aesthetics, or artistic creation; then it was naively thought that is was the genes, but all these barriers are successively overcome and we each do indeed have our own genes, but they are very few, so that's not the answer. All the hypotheses have fallen out of favour, one way or another. What I would like to do, if I didn't work in "my" frontier", would be to focus on this other frontier. I would somehow be connected to some form of art that makes us human... Maybe Literature, specifically poetry, which is unique to human beings, a sign of humanism.
Miguel Castanho has many ideas about various areas of life. When I ask him for an opinion on certain working methods he answers immediately, he's thought about the subject and matured his ideas. Being a Professor is one of those subjects on which he often and very seriously reflects, never putting it on the backburner. He believes and maintains that it is by giving to others that one can keep on growing as an individual.
Thank you note: Carolina Pureza, thank you very much for accepting all the challenges we propose and helping us reach out to a large group of students. Without it, it would be at least more difficult.