Interview | Susana Constantino – Executive Director of the Cardiovascular Center of the University of Lisbon (CCUL)
Susana Constantino (CCUL@RISE), Executive Director of the Cardiovascular Center of the University of Lisbon (CCUL), took her first steps as a researcher in the field of oncology.
Although she showed an early fascination with science applied to health, medicine was never part of her plans.
In 1997, she graduated in Microbial Biology and Genetics from the Faculty of Science of the University of Lisbon and later moved to France, where she received her Ph.D. in Bases Fondamentales de l’Oncogénèse from the University of Paris. This was followed by postdoctoral studies at the Portuguese Institute of Oncology in Lisbon and the Gulbenkian Science Institute in Oeiras.
Susana Constantino says that she has always had “a natural vocation to be a teacher,” a vocation that finally came to fruition at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon (FMUL), where she combines her teaching career with research, something she considers to be the realization of a goal.
You have had a long career as a teacher and researcher, but before teaching and research, there is always the human side. Where were you born? What was your childhood like?
I was born in Lisbon and my childhood was always full of love and security. I lived with my parents and my brother, who was two years older than me. My grandparents’ house was our haven every day. It was with them that my brother and I spent our days until we started school at the age of six, and it was always to this house that we went to after school, where we waited for our parents and then went home together. I remember a childhood that was always very happy, with time for everything: for moments of play (and there were many), for new experiences, for learning… Organization, discipline, a sense of priorities, a sense of sacrifice for a goal you want to achieve, a freedom that was guided and always based on certain principles that my parents never gave up and that I later followed as a mother. These were some of the ingredients that were always present in my childhood. Being born into a religious family, I grew up with a biblical upbringing, and this was very important for me later on as an adult to make my personal choice in good conscience. My parents, each with their own qualities and personalities, set an example for me as a child, and that example was very important in making me the person I have become on every level of my life.
How did you become interested in medicine during your studies?
I’ve always loved science, and although I was a very good math student, I became fascinated with science applied to health at an early age. I didn’t want to be a doctor, and that was always very clear because what fascinated me was developing the treatment rather than applying it; it was discovering new healing tools rather than using existing ones. As a teenager, I firmly believed in the importance of molecular and cellular biology to achieve much more effective tools. At that time, I wanted to pursue biology as my first choice, very focused on health and translational research with a view to its clinical applicability. Today, doing research in a medical school, within a hospital campus, and sharing my knowledge as a teacher with new generations is the realization, I wouldn’t say the fulfillment of a dream, but of a goal I have been fighting for since I was very young.
How did research come into your life?
Research came into my life very early, and even in middle school when we had more contact with the subject of science, I was fascinated by investigating and learning more and more about it. But even in elementary school, I was a kid who was very motivated to interact with a lot of people, to ask a lot of questions, and to experiment, and that’s very important. Later, it was actually because of the research that I decided to pursue a degree in biology. Doing research has always been my goal. But research in a real and lived way came into my life in the 5th year of my Biology degree, at FCUL, when I won an ERASMUS scholarship and went to an INSERM research unit, in the field of cancer, a field that has always fascinated me because of the complexity and the challenges it represented and still represents today, and which was physically located on the campus of the Cochin Hospital in Paris. This experience confirmed that research was the path I wanted to take professionally, and I went on to earn my Ph.D. there. However, I think I had a natural vocation to be a teacher, perhaps inherited from the great teacher I had at home, my mother and the combination of research and teaching was my goal.
Your research career has been focused on cancer. How did the invitation to join the Cardiovascular Center of the University of Lisbon (CCUL) come about?
Cancer was always part of my Ph.D. program, and when I started my post-doctorate, I was part of a research team working on tumor angiogenesis. After setting up my own research unit as a lecturer at FMUL, initially as part of iMM, I continued in this area. Still, I very much applied to the effects of ionizing radiation (one of the main tools in the fight against cancer) on blood vessels. After the results of our research proved promising in the field of therapeutic neovascularization and important in cardio-oncology, in 2018 I accepted the challenge to join the Cardiovascular Center of the University of Lisbon (CCUL) as principal investigator, head of the Angiogenesis Unit and executive director of the CCUL.
You have been the executive director of CCUL since 2018. What is the focus of your work? What challenges do you face as CCUL’s leader?
The Cardiovascular Center of the University of Lisbon (CCUL) is one of the research centers of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon, focusing on the cardiovascular field. CCUL is built on three pillars: Research, Clinical Practice, and Medical Education. In September 2018, CCUL underwent a major restructuring of its operations, adopting a structure and organization that will allow it to face new challenges more robustly and efficiently, be more competitive, and attract more national and international funding. These were some of the challenges I faced as executive director. Our work must enable us to develop research that makes a significant contribution to the understanding of cardiovascular disease, from the underlying mechanisms to treatment and prevention options, and that incorporates technological advances and develops new tools, such as imaging and precision medicine, to improve diagnosis and treatment. On the other hand, many of our researchers are professors in our faculty and contribute to the training of a new generation of doctors and scientists. Finally, as Executive Director of CCUL, it has been one of my goals for our researchers to participate, organize, and develop innovative tools in cardiovascular health literacy to raise awareness and educate society so that we can play an active and critical role in preventing cardiovascular disease.
What do you think is the importance of creating a health research network? What impact can the RISE Associated Laboratory have on the health sector and related research?
A health research network is critical to advancing health science and practice, improving the quality of care, and contributing to the well-being of society as a whole. By bringing together different institutions, researchers, and health professionals, a research network always facilitates collaboration between all its members, promoting synergies and knowledge sharing. Issues are approached from a multidisciplinary perspective, which is key to generating new ideas and solving a problem much more effectively. Innovative solutions will contribute to advances in health that will reduce costs and provide economic benefits while improving the quality of life for the population. Of course, it’s equally important to think about sharing physical resources, such as equipment and databases, so that everyone can do things better and with higher quality. A health research network will also enable better communication with the healthcare system and policymakers, which is essential if we are to translate our research findings into improved public health. In the event of an emergency, such as a pandemic, a research network can always respond in a more effective and coordinated way. As I am also a professor at FMUL, I cannot fail to mention the many training opportunities for young researchers and health professionals that come with a research network.
All of these aspects that I have highlighted are taken into account when I think about the importance of having created the RISE Associated Laboratory and the impact that it has and will have on research and the health sector. RISE will allow for symbiosis in its main areas, including cardiovascular, oncology, epidemiology, inflammatory diseases, and, of course, digital. This symbiosis is essential if we are to become stronger, more agile, and more competitive, both nationally and internationally.
What challenges did you face as a researcher when you joined the Associated Laboratory? What has changed at CCUL?
Having the opportunity to create this consortium and this Associated Laboratory was very important for me as a researcher, because I saw and still see enormous potential in a structure that integrates research centers belonging to two medical faculties, such as FMUL and FMUP, and the IPO-Porto research center. As far as the cardiovascular field is concerned, this will undoubtedly be beneficial, since this consortium will allow for better organization, structure, and, consequently, synergy between CCUL and UnIC, two research units in this field. This structure and organization enriches and strengthens something that already exists and is fundamental to research: knowledge sharing and collaboration. We have always been inclined to work together, but now we are doing it in a more articulated way. The CCUL maintains its independence, as do all RISE units, but we are a network with all the benefits that this brings, which I have already had the opportunity to share in this interview. Networking, communicating, and working towards the same goals will certainly make us stronger and better able to translate our research into improved human health.