Interview with Dr. Gustavo Silva

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to school at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. I majored in biology. Over there the course is very broad. So, we learned everything from zoology to botany to ecology. But I always liked molecular biology. I was doing research looking at the regulation of the proteasome, or how proteins are degraded. I did my Ph.D. at the same institution. This is the best university in Brazil so there was no reason to go anywhere else. It was kind of a follow up of my undergraduate research. When I finished that, I thought I could use a lot of large scale proteomics methods to look at a lot of different questions that were fascinating to me at that time. I did a postdoc at NYU and studied how ubiquitin, a particular protein that is a marker for degradation, can have multiple functions. We were finding this very interesting function now in protein translation. This is the research that I took with me and now in my lab this is one of the goals–to try to understand the multiple functions ubiquitin can have in cell biology and diseases.


Did you always know you wanted to go into science?

No, I don’t think I understood what science was until I made it to college. I think I was always very curious. I was always trying to understand things. Biology wasn’t even my best subject in high school. But I think most of the questions that I had were about how things work and people were always telling me, “You have to go to college to learn that.” My first semester in college I was taking a genetics course and it was a very hands-on course with drosophila and doing a lot of crossing and analyzing data. I thought it was fascinating. It also included a lot of the history of genetics, going back to Mendel, and you started to see how all the knowledge was built. This was fascinating to me. I thought, “Wow this could be a profession. Maybe I want to do that.” So, I started looking for a lab to do some research. Proteins were something I always liked and at that time I was also interested in exploring immunology. But I joined a lab that was looking at protein degradation and I fell in love.


What have been some of your goals for you career and have the changed between the time you were in college and now?

When I was in college I never thought I’d be in a position like the one I am in now. There were a lot of challenges and barriers. I think I always aspired to have my own lab. I thought that it would be really interesting to do your own research and go after your questions. But now I see that in this particular position as a professor especially at an institution like Duke, you can do a lot more than just the bench work. I think it’s important to be a good mentor and to shape the new generation. I think it’s important to open up opportunities for people. Science is a big component of my career and the things that I like to do. But I think I can do much more. I’m still learning. This is still my first year. But I think the goal is always to learn more.


What is it you like about doing science?

I think the coolest thing about science is that it gives me the intellectual freedom to pursue questions that I want to pursue. So, every day that I come into that or that I’m reading research I have my questions that I can challenge and motivate myself to go after. There’s never a routine there’s just stimulation that keeps you on the edge and you’re always learning. I think that’s the coolest thing about science.


What would you change about doing science?

How we communicate science to people outside of the academy a lot of times science becomes a very regional thing that doesn’t get to the people who could actually benefit from it. Some other steps about the profession itself – it’s super demanding in some respects which push people away from science. Also, how science is taught in a lot of different ways. I feel like there is a tendency to push people away from science and away from knowledge. It’s not only because people aren’t interested but also because we are not doing the greatest job in teaching people to see the beauty we see in science and the excitement we feel about a discovery. Those are a couple things that we can hopefully change in the near future.


What are some of your disasters in the lab or most embarrassing moments?

When I was an undergraduate—probably my first month, somebody had a system to cast a gel and somebody couldn’t take it out so it got stuck. They said, “Hey can you try to get it out?” I was young and I was thinking I was strong and could do it. But when I tried to get it out, I broke it in half. I was like, “Uh oh.” I had just broken a system in two and they had to buy a new one. That was like the first big thing. But we still do a lot of small mistakes. I don’t think I’ve ever set anything on fire though.


What lessons do you have for my journey into science?

I think journey is the exact would you have to use because it’s not only about what you do but about what you learn. The science is important but there are a lot of skills you can develop over time that will be applicable to whatever you want to do. If you want to get a Ph.D., go to graduate school, or medical school, I think all those skills can be transferable. As a scientist, we develop so many things that we underestimate that they can be very useful. Keep thinking about teaching, mentoring, and the importance of all of those aspects. Keep your eye on the prize and I think all of that will help you a lot in your future

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