Margarida D. Amaral was involved in the creation of BioISI back in 2015 and headed the institute from that time until now. We have interviewed her to find out how she evaluates these 8 years. Discover Margarida’s retrospective below.

What have you envisioned for BioISI back in 2015?

When we decided to merge 3 research centres from the areas of Molecular Biology/Biochemistry, Physics and Computer Science in 2015 to create BioISI, my vision was that of an interdisciplinary centre in which researchers from various scientific areas would propose bold ideas to make their own areas advance more than just by incremental (small) steps. In other words, to create a research centre that would be a lot more than ‘the sum’ of its researchers.

What were the most important strategic actions that drove BioISI to its mission?

I am convinced that the most important action consisted in the creation of sustainable core-facilities. These are more than mere infra-structures, as core-facilities have dedicated researchers and technicians ready to help other researchers to develop and put into practice their ideas. Other important strategic actions were the BioISI-funded  projects targeting mostly younger PIs proposing their innovative cross-area projects (i.e., from at least two distinct scientific areas). I should also mention the creation of the post-doc programme, the BioISI Junior programme (for MSc students) which are funded by BioISI. I must confess that my ‘inspiration’ came from the top research institute for Molecular Biology in Europe – EMBL (in Heidleberg, Germany) – where I spent 2 years. Another aspect that I would like to stress because it’s rather unique is the support given by BioISI (namely by the Microbiology and Biotechnology Group) to start-ups at TecLabs, working side-by-side with them, thus highly contributing to the success of these small companies. I consider that this is an action of special relevance for society.

 What are the main achievements you believe that are the materialization of that mission?

Although there were many achievements at BioISI during these 8 years, the major achievements are BioISI outputs per se. I can cite a few examples of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that represent an average of the past 7 years, thus reflecting the robustness and consistency of BioISI research:

  • The average number of publications per researcher (PhD holder) per year is 2.2 (80% of which in Q1 journals);
  • The top 25% BioISI papers have an average impact factor higher than 8;
  • BioISI researchers are able to get on average 2.4 M€ in competitive funding per year;
  • At BioISI, there is an average of 9 PhD theses and 24 MSc these completed every year;
  • BioISI has 5 highly cited researchers (as released by the University of Stanford, USA): one among the top 1% and 4 among the top 2%.

Besides these output something I am very proud of is the high level of internationalization achieved at BioISI. This is reflected in its international PhD programme, the organization of international Summer Schools and workshops, the continuous collaborations with international groups at European and other international projects, reflected I the high international level of BioISI publications and a fully international Scientific Advisory Board.

 Taking in consideration BioISI’s vision at the starting point, what is still remaining and why?

A lot remains to be achieved, but I will just mention my top concern which is consolidating BioISI core-facilities as FCUL core-facilities. Most importantly, we cannot ensure sustainability of cutting-edge core-facilities by offering just precarious jobs for our top qualified researchers and technicians, which took many years to train, namely abroad at the top international centres. The opening of new professorships should contemplate not (just) teaching ‘needs’ but rather foster the scientific areas in which FCUL research centres are most competitive and productive so as to employ these highly qualified people and thus maintain the know-how at our school. This was actually a recent recommendation by the FCUL’s Advisory Board.

 During this period, what was the main challenging aspect of your work as BioISI’s director?

The most challenging aspect was undoubtedly the last FCT evaluation exercise (2019), which failed to have an interdisciplinary panel thus leading to a unfair BioISI evaluation. In particular, because this was in striking contrast with the previous FCT evaluation exercise (2015) which actually fostered the merging of research centres from various scientific areas to achieve interdisciplinarity, an encouragement we had taken heartedly by creating BioISI. The absence of an adequate panel led to a very partial and subjective evaluation of BioISI, with the major consequence of low ‘core’ funding. A lot more could have been achieved with additional funding and that’s why the result of this evaluation was very frustrating. Auspiciously, I received this week the pluri-annual FCT evaluation report of BioISI which recognized the high values of BioISI from its outputs of excellence.

 Looking back, is there anything we would like to do in a different way?

Although retrospectively, it’s always easier to have a better perspective of how things could have been overall improved, I don’t think I would have changed the overall orientation I gave to BioISI strategic research plan.

 In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges BioISI faces today?

Besides the above-mentioned aspect of consolidating BioISI core-facilities as FCUL core-facilities, BioISI now has to face a new evaluation exercise which is always a challenge. I really hope it will include an interdisciplinary evaluation panel. On this regard, I have already written to FCT President, so that this time such interdisciplinary panel is ‘not forgotten’.

 Coordinating a research institute must be a hard-working but also rewarding mission. What are the aspects that you are more grateful for within your coordination?

Besides BioISI outputs, the most gratifying aspect of my coordination is the feedback I get from young PIs about the continuous support from BioISI to their research and their careers, in particular when they were getting installed as BioISI researchers.

 From now on, you will occupy a different position at BioISI and possibly you will have more time to lead your own research. What do you think it will change in your daily tasks and what do you want to dedicate more time to?

Indeed, not having to deal with the (incredibly high!) number of bureaucratic tasks that comes along with the ‘coordination package’ is something I look forward to. Incidentally, this ‘retreat’ from BioISI coordination coincides with a sabbatically leave. So, I am grasping this opportunity to focus more on research of my own group, perhaps even starting new research  ‘adventures’ (a couple of EU projects are already lining up…).

 What would you like to say to Professor Rui Malhó as the new BioISI Director?

Keep going and take ‘the flame’ higher!