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Pathways: Joana F Neves

Can you tell us a little about your career and the path you took to your present role at FoDOCS? 

Since my early teenage years, I knew I wanted to do research. I did an undergraduate in biochemistry from Porto University in Portugal as it was very focused on a research path. We did journal clubs, wrote research grants and had a 6-month internship in lab (which I spent in Szeged, Hungary on a microbiology project).

I then entered a PhD program from Coimbra University in which I had the amazing opportunity of spending 6 months learning about a wide range of biological research (one different topic per week) from international experts. At the end, I could choose what I wanted to study for my PhD and where in the world I wanted to do it (supported by a fellowship from FCT). It was really a privileged position to be in.

So, I moved to London to join Dan Pennington’s lab at QMUL to pursue a PhD in immunology. I loved my time at the Blizard where I studied the thymic development of gamma-delta T cells. There, in the departmental meetings, I started to learn about Inflammation Bowel Disease so when looking for a postdoc, I decided to progress from basic to disease associated studies. I moved to Boston to work with Rick Blumberg at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. There, I spent 3 very intense and productive years studying the role of Natural Killer T cells and CD1d in intestinal inflammation.

When I returned to London in 2014, I joined King’s with the focused idea and determination that I was going to find a way of co-culturing this amazing model called organoids (which I had learnt about on a seminar from Hans Clevers) with this rare but very interesting type of cells called innate lymphoid cells (which I heard at a lecture from Albert Bendelac) to study immune-epithelial interactions in the intestine. Graham Lord, at FoLSM, was very supportive of my plans and after a couple of months at FoLSM I was awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship. This was followed by unsuccessful applications to the MRC career Development Award and to the Wellcome Sir Henry Dale fellowship. However, Wellcome found my organoid co-culture project very interesting, and I was awarded a Science Seed Award (written during on my first maternity leave).

This was allowed to recruit my first research assistant, and a couple of months later my first PhD student join what was just starting to be the Neves Lab. I was then awarded a King’s Prize fellowship and UKRI Rutherford Fund fellowship before moving from FoLSM to FoDOCS to take a position as Lecturer in Mucosal Immunology in 2019, just before having my second son.

The lab has grown substantial since those early days, and I am very proud of our achievements. We focus on the study of immune-epithelial-stromal-neural-microbial interactions in the gut in health and disease and we developed complex organoid models for our studies.

What, if any, challenges did you encounter along the way, and how did you navigate them? 

Scientific research can be very exciting but can also be extremely frustrating. One must have an incredible resilience to pursue this path. Failed experiments, fellowships and grants rejections, the hard path to publish your research, short-term contracts, all can be soul-destroying at times to be honest.

But then when something that you thought and designed in your head, or even better, that you supported a team member to develop, gives you an exciting result which allows you to understand a little more about how biological processes work… well, that it is an absolutely amazing feeling. And that high will sustain you for a while!

I found that having a strong network of people including colleagues, collaborators, team members, family/friends with you whom you can brainstorm (or just complain) when things are not going well and with whom you share your (small) victories is extremely helpful.

If you could, what advice would you give your younger self at the start of your career? 

First: Ask more often for help. I found that people are very helpful and happy to contribute to your progress and sometimes just a small informal chat over coffee can be extremely beneficial for your project, for your career development, for your mental health.  I have been supported by excellent informal and formal mentors throughout my career, that had key contributions in decisive moments.

Second: Do not shy away from difficult conversations. Some of those conversations can be quite uncomfortable (e.g.: authorship in manuscripts) but they are too important for you career development so you should not avoid them, and there are techniques that you can learn to navigate them.

Third: "Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end". I had this quote on wall throughout my postdoc. My partner gave me the postcard after I was told that I had gotten a fellowship before - just a couple of hours later - receiving another email saying it was actually an informatic mistake and in the end, I didn’t get it.

The path is not straight but if it is what you want, you are good at it and you work for it, you will get there: the destination might change or get refined overtime.