Today we bring you an interview with a great biologist and communicator, José Matos. He is the President of the Official Chamber of Biologists from Portugal (Ordem dos Biólogos).
1. You are working as researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Investigaçao Agrária e Veterinária (INIAV), which is your first line of research?
I am a molecular biologist working on plant genetics and plant breeding. My first line of work is cork oak (Quercus suber) genetics, from which we have recently released the data on the sequencing of the whole Q. suber genome. But I also work on wheat and other crops.
2. We have read that you did your PhD at the King’s College of London, how was your experience?
Travelling the world as a science student is always exciting and extremely motivating because you get to know scientists from different countries, you exchange experiences with many other Ph.D. students and you always get richer and wiser by learning from others. When you get to do that at King’s College London, in Central London (I was at KCL in “The Strand” the main road just off Trafalgar Square) where Sir Maurice Wilkins was still working (the man who was awarded the Nobel Prize with Watson & Crick for finding the DNA structure), where Sir James Black was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering beta-blockers while I was still there…it’s just an amazing experience.
3. Apart from this, you are the President of the Portuguese organization Ordem Dos Biólogos. What do you think about the current situation of the Biologists in Portugal?
The teaching got much better than when I was in the University back in the 80’s, the research has improved tremendously (more labs, more investment, more grants, more Ph.Ds) and students leave the University with a much higher knowledge, background, and experience than ever before. Also, biologists have widely spread from the more popular jobs (in research, teaching, and environment) into Health (clinical analysis, genetic tests, embryology and Human reproduction), Biotechnology and even science journalism and communication. The other side of the coin is that most Universities throughout the country have largely increased the offer for Biology courses (because they are so popular and therefore Universities will always get more students) which have increased tremendously the number of young graduates who now look for a first job, making it more difficult for everyone, but particularly for those with low grades and no experience.
4. Which fields within Biology are more popular in Portugal?
Research has always been the more popular. Most young graduates and particular post-Doc want to pursue a research career. Within research, Human Biology is the most wanted because there will always be more funding for Human health than anything else and also because most of us always have the secret dream of “discover the cure for cancer”. But being a country with half his borders facing the Atlantic Ocean, Marine Biology is always a very popular choice, particularly in the Azores islands.
5. Which are the main advantages of post graduated studies as MSc or PhD in Portugal? And the disadvantages?
Well, in the first place, if you want to be a researcher, you have no option. You MUST have a Ph.D. degree. For more than a decade now that no one can get a job as a researcher without a Ph.D. If you do not want to follow research, a MSc degree is still highly advisable because in three years you can only get the basis, but you have no time to study deeply into your subjects of choice. You must use your MSc degree to narrow down your favorite subjects and get some sort of expertise and, most of all, practical training. As for the Ph.D., this is your “visit card” in science. It is the way you show the world that you have the skills, the endurance, the resilience to engage in a long-term work and not give up. It´s how you show that you have deep knowledge in a certain subject and you can do both autonomous and teamwork.
It is difficult for me to find any disadvantage in doing a Ph.D. Whatever your work is, even if you choose not to join science anymore, the scientific thinking, the mind openness, the problem-solving attitude that you can get out of a Ph.D. will be most valuable for all your life. If I must really point out some disadvantages, I would say that it’s a very demanding project that will try to dry out all your energy, time, and probably money. But the tremendous feeling of accomplishment, in the end, is almost unique.
6. Any advice for future and current Biology students?
- Go to every conference you can get, enroll in workshops, attend lectures from very different subjects. You never know when you will find the subject of your life. Talk to the speakers, approach them, question them, let them know you love their work, their talk, their book. This will help you find the subject you like the most.
- When you really and definitely find the branch/subject of Biology that makes your heart tick, that subject that you want to read more and more about, that you want the night to finish just to go back to work the next morning full of excitement and smiling…then you must work really hard to become very good at it. Do your best, become a young expert, show your skills and your passion…and you will find a job, not knowing that it is also going to be your hobby.
- Read about science. Become aware of what is being done in science. Read the journals. Read “Nature” and not just a bit of an article that Facebook has to advise you to read about in “Nature”. Think for yourself. Think how clever that idea is or if you would have done it differently. Ask everything, be always curious.
7. Last but not least, what do you think about YEB?
Disclaimer: I love working with students and young researchers, because (among other things) I always learn a lot from them. Even when I must explain them something, I am still learning. Because they will always ask the most difficult questions. Often I don’t know the answers and therefore I have to go and find out. And while doing that, I am learning…
Young people have all to gain from networking. Paul David Hewson, better known as Bono Vox, singer and songwriter from the Irish band U2 once said (free quote) “When you are 16 you believe you can change the World. And sometimes you are right”. Well, a single person, a single young person will have great difficulties in making changes. But when young people get together they can surely make changes. At first, they can make some changes in their own World and later that can expand those changes into the World outside. YEB is an embryo of change. Students everywhere must become aware of the need to associate, to aggregate, to work together and understand the potential of working together.
I love what you do, I admire and respect what you want to do and I will always be here to help you doing it.
Go for it!
By Joaquim Faria from the Portuguese Association for Biology Students and Ana Horta.