Patricia Monteiro is a Group Leader at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto (FMUP), Portugal. After studying pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Coimbra, she did her PhD in neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. She started her own group in 2018, where she is studying the molecular mechanisms underlying neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. Patricia was selected for a FEBS Excellence Award (funds for equipment/consumables for early-career group leaders) in 2021.
What is your current research focus?
My lab uses transgenic mouse models to study the brain circuits involved in neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. We are particularly interested in a gene called Shank3, which is involved in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Studies by us and others have been revealing the biological extent to which mutations in Shank3 impact brain function and development in zebrafish, mice, rats and even primates, leading to reduced social interaction and repetitive behavioural patterns in all species. To investigate the in vivo function of Shank3 and to elucidate how its disruption may lead to atypical behaviours, we use in vivo and ex vivo electrophysiology brain recordings together with novel neuroengineering approaches.
Lab webpage: https://tinyurl.com/pmonteiro
What are the challenges in this field at the moment?
ASD comprises a range of neurodevelopment disorders that affects nearly 70 million people worldwide and it is associated both with genetic and environmental factors. ASD is usually diagnosed before the age of three and symptoms include sensory dysfunction, social-interaction deficits, and repetitive behavioral interests that significantly interfere with daily life. Currently, there is no cure for ASD and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment, nor one isolated cause that can explain all ASD cases. Thanks to scientific advances in large-scale sequencing technologies, recent genomic studies have uncovered dozens of candidate genes associated with ASD. Many of these genes are expressed early in neuronal lineages or encode synaptic proteins, suggesting neuronally expressed genes as convergent critical nodes in ASD. The challenge now is to understand these distinct genetic influences on ASD compared with other neurodevelopmental disorders.
How has time spent doing research abroad influenced your scientific career?
Mobility is certainly a key aspect in scientific research. Quoting Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. My scientific ideas didn't come from me alone, but more than just learning from these giants, doing research abroad in their labs has allowed me to interact with some of the brightest scientific minds in the world and has allowed me to create a network of international colleagues with whom I can exchange scientific ideas and collaborate.
What would be your advice to PhD students and postdocs who would like to eventually start their own lab?
Dare mighty things. Follow your passion. Be prepared to embrace criticism and surround yourself by supportive people with whom you can collaborate.
How have you found being a group leader?
Being a group leader can be daunting and overwhelming, so don’t be afraid to reach out for help and seek advice from others. As scientists, we are trained to perform experiments but we are often not prepared to handle finances, manage people, or even to teach. Other colleagues and your previous mentors are instrumental to help you navigate and overcome many of these hurdles.
What do you see as the most important role of a group leader?
Providing guidance, providing support, and creating a nurturing environment where people can feel that they belong. Doing science is already hard enough, so it is important to remove as many barriers as possible to allow people to focus on the science rather than any other problems.