I was truly honoured to speak with Brazilian neuroscientist Thiago Arzua for this month’s episode. In addition to talking about his exciting research using brain organoids to study the effects of alcohol in the developing brain, we also chatted about the ups and downs of being an international student in the US, how Black in Neuro came to be, and where academic diversity committees are falling short.
For accessibility purposes, the transcript of our conversation is below, with edits for clarity and brevity.
Thiago Arzua: Diversity committees are falling behind because they're still talking about 'how do we approach this, how do we talk about this without offending people'. No, you need to talk. These conversations need to happen. And most of all, hire more Black people! See how much changes once you have five people in leadership who are Black, who are immigrants, who are women, who are Indigenous. Hire all these people who you want to help. Put them in leadership positions and make sure they're actually included in the conversations, that they feel safe talking about these things.
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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Thiago Arzua, a PhD student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who is currently studying the effects of alcohol in the developing brain. Beyond his academic pursuits, he is an Early Career Policy Ambassador for the Society for Neuroscience, and he is also a co-organizer of Black In Neuro, a hugely successful initiative launched in the summer of 2020. I’m excited for him to share his journey – from Curitiba, Brazil to Tampa, Florida, and then to Milwaukee, Wisconsin – with us today. But let's start from the very beginning. Thiago, what's your story?
TA: First of all, thank you so much for having me. It's pretty exciting to be on a podcast after listening to so many podcasts for so long. I was born and raised in the city of Curitiba which, funnily enough, is still the biggest city I've ever lived in. It has about 2 million people in the South of Brazil. It's kind of chilly, not as chilly as Wisconsin, but still cold. I think, around the age of four, as soon as consciousness hit, I remember liking science. I still have my first microscope that my mom bought me when I was kid, my first telescope, my Lego sets of the space missions. I think science was always there. And at some point during high school, I decided to come to the US because [while] I knew very little about it, I knew the research here was phenomenal. I moved to the US and started research, literally, I think, a month and a half into my undergraduate career.
AB: Whoa, really? I didn't even know that possible! How did you even find the opportunity?
TA: It was very, very random. It's a whole story in and of itself. I started doing synthetic organic chemistry, which I thought was what I wanted to do most. I was very in love with organic chemistry from a young age. I realized that that was not what I wanted to do and I moved to neuroscience after – I think – a year and a half in a lab, and I haven't stopped since. [I was in] two different labs while I was an undergrad and now I'm in stem cell lab. We do disease modelling with stem cells and we use something called brain organoids to model fetal alcohol syndrome. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a whole universe in and of itself and the cerebral organoids are also another universe, so they kind of collided. [It’s] a cool technology that allows us to have these mini brains. They're about the size of a pea and they have all of these complex structures within it.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is this multifaceted disease that has societal issues, economic issues. To be fair, my research is really unfocused. We do a little bit of everything in my lab, and I do a little bit of everything in science in general.
AB: What exactly are you hoping to understand about fetal alcohol syndrome? Is it the molecular pathways?
TA: Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of those disease that we already know the answer for. It's as simple as just don't drink, but we've known that since Aristotle, we've known that since ancient Greece: drinking during pregnancy is not good. And it's still a disease, very much so. And we know that there are societal or socioeconomic pressures around that. We know that there are people who don't know this, there are people who are pregnant and don't know and they therefore don't stop drinking. There are still people who cannot stop drinking because they have abuse disorders.
There [are] multiple ways to just phrase this around, ‘okay, just don't drink,’ and that's it. But we know [it’s] more complex [than that] and that's where we enter. We want to try to understand exactly what is going on in the brain if it is exposed to ethanol. The hope is that we [don’t] just cure, but somehow [prevent it]. We know that prenatal care is this amazing thing that we developed over the years, and that's how we [have] curbed child mortality so much. That could be just another part of prenatal care. If we know a fetus has been exposed to ethanol, maybe we can develop a pill, some supplementation. If we know what's going wrong, maybe we can intervene early enough.
There's also the testing of different therapeutics after the damage is done.What my research shows a lot, and other people's research shows, that it's a lot of cell death ethanol causes. So, if maybe we can replace those dead neurons with different therapies after the child is born, that [would] be a different end goal. My lab doesn't work on the end goal itself. We're very much a biology lab or looking at gene and protein expressions, not necessarily therapies for children. But we do hope that it improves those things in the end.
AB: Is that something that you think you'll have time to explore, a therapeutic arm at the very least, before you wrap up your PhD very soon?
TA: I'm going to try be as vague as possible, so no one scoops me!
AB: That’s fair!
TA: We did test a Chinese herb that my PI was very interested in it. It has some super cool results that we've seen so far. We are testing different therapies by ourselves. I don't think that one Chinese herb is going to cure the whole thing, I think it’s much more complex than that. We’re still learning a lot about this field, there’s a lot of small technical details that we still have to figure out.
AB: Okay! Well, that's all very, very exciting! Can you tell us a little bit about the timeline that you have – when did you start, when are you thinking of finishing, and what your next steps might be?
TA: So I started my PhD in 2016 – remember 2016? We thought that was a bad year!
AB: chuckles. Good point!
TA: It was a funny journey because I joined this lab, mostly because I love cerebral organoids. I think they're the coolest thing!
AB: They are pretty cool!
TA: And back when I started there [were], like, 20 papers about these things. I could cite every single paper from the top of my head because no one was doing this; they were first developed in 2013. Since then, obviously, the field has exploded; now everyone's doing organoids for different things, but back then, it was very much this new unexplored field. And it was really cool to be in that part.
I joined this lab, I think, in March 2017 and I think I'm going to finish sometime next year. Hopefully around summer/fall 2021. Our school’s average is around that time; seems like a normal PhD in the US, or at least at my school, usually takes about five years total.
AB: Okay, that's reasonable. I've heard of absolute horror stories where people end up staying for seven and a half, eight years and I can't even imagine. And you're hoping to pursue an academic career? What's the plan right now?
TA: I guess we're gonna go right into it! I am still here as an immigrant, [so] there's only so many things I can do. A postdoc seems to be the next logical step from that very [pragmatic] point. In the US, if you want to stay in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), you have an extension of your visa for about three years, so I have three years after my degree’s done to be here in the US working. I could do that in industry or in academia, it wouldn’t matter.
After that, I would have to apply to a work visa, called the H1B. And that changes a lot because academia doesn't have a limit; the institutions can apply for/sponsor as many H1B visas as they want. Versus industry where you can have all your paperwork, you can literally have the [sponsorship], but you still have to go through a lottery to get it finally approved.
If I do get a job in industry, my biggest fear is what happened to my friend who graduated with me. She started in an engineering position, loved the company, the company loved her back, she was making good money, she was progressing in the company, and then when she finished her three years, she tried to get an H1B and couldn't. So, she had to go back to Brazil. I kind of don't want to do that. I might just go the academic route for that reason. That being said, I have very strong feeling that everything surrounding that policy is going to change in the next few years, regardless of what happens in November.
AB: Right. Yeah, you bring up a really good point. And it's a question that I wanted to ask you about your experiences as an international student. You've been here now for, I guess, a decade, having done your Bachelor's and now you're working on completing your PhD. What are some of the highlights that you've had as an international student? And then we can talk about some of the things you didn't really like.
TA: I think the opportunities still blow my mind. I don't know if it's because I was raised in a family that didn't travel as much. For context, I was raised by a single mother from Uruguay – so raised by an immigrant, becoming an immigrant... great origin story right there – but we went to Uruguay almost every year to visit my mom's family. Apart from that, we didn't travel much. I didn't come to [the] US when I was a kid. And also [it was] the 90s and early 2000s, so it wasn't as common to travel across the world as it is [now], unless you had a lot of money.
[I was] not very sheltered, because I was exposed to a lot of the same culture, but still sheltered in a sense that I hadn't met an American. So, to me there's still a lot of things that I'm blown away [by] in the US, even though I’ve lived here for eight years. The opportunities to travel ... well, COVID, but before COVID happened, [I had] opportunities to travel, to meet different people from wildly different countries. I have friends from, I think, all the continents now because it's kind of the hub of immigration. That stays regardless of the current politics. But those opportunities are not necessarily related to my job or to academic careers; just opportunities in life of meeting different people, going different places. I went to Thailand for a whole week during my PhD!
AB: That’s awesome!
TA: That is something that I don't think I could have done in Brazil, not just because of economic status, but also, it's not something you think [about] while you're in Brazil. That still is amazing to me, how much I can do from here. And then on the research side: being very practical, the US still is – and China will probably surpass us in a while – but it’s still the country [that] invests most heavily in research. It's amazing coming from a country [where] every three years, there's a new headline saying 'Brazilian science is dead'. The scientists in Brazil are amazing, because they refuse to let it go, but you see the difference between a country that really does care about research as a country versus a country that historically doesn't care about it.
AB: And some of the things that are not so great? You were mentioning the challenge of securing a job, and making sure that you have a place to stay. Even if your company loves you and you love your company, that's not a guarantee that your position will remain available to you based off of your immigration status. Is that something that you ever worried about?
TA: A lot. I remember I chatted with a lot of friends, when we had the big H1B possible change [in May] and then it didn't go through. It's a lot of uncertainty. It's a lot of ‘well, one executive order and I'm deported.’ Not that intense obviously, because I'm here legally and I know my university will protect me, but one executive order and I [wouldn’t be able to] apply for a job.
Since undergrad, I've been sent countless, ‘here, you should apply for this grant, for this award’ and I knew from the beginning that I couldn't apply because in the small print and it says ‘US citizens and permanent residents only’.
AB: Right. That must be a little annoying.
TA: It's always that feeling of like, ‘yes, I am underrepresented and I could apply to this ‘underrepresented’ grant but I'm also not a citizen, so I'm underrepresented, but too much. And it's always frustrating because when you're in the lab, you're not treated like an immigrant. No one is treated differently [because of] being from another country. You feel [at] home, most of the time, because you have that multicultural melting pot. You're always hanging out with Indian people, with Chinese people, with South African people; you always have this ‘everyone's from around the world’, [but] every now and then you’re going to have [the conversation of] 'no, I'm this kind of visa, not that kind of visa', and it [feels] like more bureaucracy, more barriers – because all of these are barriers that we have to face. And it's just extra work on top of everything, especially, [because of the way] science is. It could be a 9-5 job, but we all know that science doesn't leave your brain. So, you're thinking about science, you try to be as objective as possible in your science, when in reality, now you're facing a thousand different battles inside your head all the time.
AB: Mm hmm. That's a great lead into my next question. You're also dealing with the world at large, what you see on the news, and even the pandemic that's been going on for the last six to eight months. I'd like to ask you about Black In Neuro. You're one of the co-organizers. It was mindblowingly successful, and I'd love to hear the origin story. I kind of already know what it is, but I'd love for our listeners to hear what inspired this week, [which] spawned a number of different events, and a community that now exists.
TA: Because this is a podcast; I am not black. I am a Latino, a white Latino. I don't know my genetics, but I am not Black in the American sense. This all started around June when the George Floyd protests were happening. I went to most of those protests and I'm sure a lot of people felt this – a feeling of outrage and anger and a powerlessness of this still happening every single day. It's another person getting shot. It happened in Kenosha two, three weeks ago. It was very hard to do work. This was when labs were completely shut down.
Around that time, Angeline Dukes, our founder, posted something like, ‘Hey, when are we going to do Black in Neuro?’ This was at the time that BlackBirdersWeek and BlackInAstroWeek had already happened. BlackBirdersWeek started because of the whole incident with Amy Cooper, which was caught on tape, which again keeps happening. I feel like all the Black In Neuro organizers were feeling exactly the same way, at the same time: we all just wanted to do something. So, I tagged a few friends and I replied to Angeline, like, two minutes after she tweeted that. And I think two, three days after, we had our first meeting. In three weeks, we raised a lot of money. I'm not going to say specific digits, but we raised a lot of money.
TA: In three weeks, we organized speakers, we compensated our speakers. We got a thousand people thanking us for feeling represented. We got people from all around the world to talk to us. We had moments in our Slack channels, when we were like, ‘Oh my God, we didn't talk about disabled people.’ We had a whole debate on what we're going to do; we really messed up.
I think we handled that so graciously. The person who called us out ended up becoming a good friend of the Black in Neuro organizers. We gave her a spotlight to talk about her own disabilities and her own experiences. It was just a lot of really deep moments of, 'yeah, we did mess up here’. ‘Oh, no. We did really well here.’ And we did it more in three weeks than I've ever seen done by a diversity committee.
AB: Snaps, snaps for that. Seriously.
TA: Because we were all very, very passionate. I I work mostly in the background. I don't want to be in the foreground of this, for obvious reasons. I was working on writing Twitter threads and picking journals and doing a lot of the content stuff that we did. Other non-Black allies were working on the financial side of things. So, we had people who knew how important it was for Black people to be in the front of this conversation, but they also need help. I think the allies all very much share this feeling of ‘this is not our spotlight, but this is our fight.’
We all, in different ways, have felt different forms of oppression, whether it is in science or in their own fields, and our own personal battles, but we all felt that this is not our time to go, ‘well, but what about Latinos, but what about immig-‘. No, this is not the time for that. This is a time to help and raise those voices. And it was and is one of the best things I’ve ever done during my life. It was the most concrete thing that I've ever done since the protest started, and Black Lives Matter took off.
I also moved to Milwaukee in 2016 where the riots at Sherman Park started, so it feels like it was four years of ‘we can’t do anything’. I marched multiple times and then nothing changes. And then this was concrete. This was people getting paid for a job, bringing these voices up and highlighting these people. And it's not stopping anytime soon. I think all the organizers are very ambitious so we have a lot of big things coming up. It's very exciting to still be a part of this.
AB: I'm so excited for you. As someone who is Black and in Neuro, being able to know that there are thousands of people out there that I can connect with so easily if I had a question about my career in the future, about my experiences, if I just need someone to bounce ideas off of, to say, ‘am I losing my mind because I feel this way about the situation? Did I read into it?' Sometimes all you really need is validation. And you [all] created that space; kudos to you for that. I don't know if you truly know how much you change the game.
What do you think universities are actually missing? What is it about these Diversity and Equity and Inclusion committees that are just dropping the ball? They obviously are, we know they are. They're failing on so many accounts. You talked about compensation, you talked about really hammering down at the problem, but could you pinpoint some specific things that universities could do to be better at this initiative?
TA: Yeah. To be clear, I am part of one of those committees and I don't think that people in the committee are not doing their job, but there is institutional pressure that blocks everything. So, every time you want to send a message to the university, every time you want to change some policy, it has to go through so many hoops. And those hoops aren’t people. It’s not one person in this office blocking us; it’s the university policy guidelines.
Committees themselves are also highly inefficient most of the time. If we're meeting once a month, and we have a thousand things to discuss, and 10 out of the 20 people don't show up to a meeting because they're here for a spot in their CV, [then] those committees are usually not filled with passionate people. They’re filled with people who either want to have another bullet point in the service part of their CV or they want to pretend to be involved or they have to be involved. Um, I think the difference between what Black In Neuro did and these committees is that we knew exactly how it feels to be institutionally oppressed or systematically oppressed.
I feel like committees are also made [up of] – I'm sorry, but I'm going to say it – it is a lot of white women. It is a lot of people who are oppressed in some ways – yes, sexism is real – but it is a lot of people who are oppressed in one way, but are unable to see oppression in other ways.
AB: Mm hmm.
TA: If you see the roster [of Black In Neuro], I don't know the numbers, but it's mostly led by Black women, all of [whom] are amazing and I feel like that passion was there from the beginning. So, in a way, I think the Diversity committees are falling behind because they're still talking about 'how do we approach this, how do we talk about this without offending people'. No, you need to talk. These conversations need to happen. And most of all, hire more Black people! See how much changes once you have five people in leadership who are Black, who are immigrants, who are women, who are Indigenous. Hire all these people who you want to help. Put them in leadership positions and make sure they're actually included in the conversations, that they feel safe talking about these things.
AB: I wanted to see if there's anyone that you step in the footsteps of. Who inspires you?
TA: I've been so lucky with all the mentors. I'm from Curitiba, Brazil, which is a breeding ground for MMA fighters, and I guess this will make sense in a minute. I did martial arts growing up and I had these amazing men in my life who were very masculine but never had that toxic masculinity attached them. I was raised in dojos and fighting pits. Basically, [there] was so much respect. Every time we went out as a group of friends, I noticed that they were never the guys hitting on girls, they weren't, you know, the stereotype of the fighting guy. So, I thankfully had amazing mentors from [when I was] growing up, [in] sports and things like that. And then when I started my academic career, I had amazing scientists who were very much in sync with what was going on in the world.
The reason I started research so young, was because I went to this workshop the first week of college. I was the kid that sat in the back and asked, ‘oh, can you start research as a freshman?’ and this guy who was giving the workshop had the time to sit down and talk [with me] for an hour about what research was, how to approach possible mentors, what to do... The people who mentored me are usually the ones that I'm inspired by most. That being said, everyone in Black in Neuro inspires me every single day; we have possibly the most active Slack channel in the universe! Laughter.
AB: That's beautiful. And [it’s] really nice to hear that you've had such a positive experience. Since you've had such a successful experience thus far, I'm wondering if you'd like to end with some words of wisdom to fellow graduate students who might be a little bit earlier on [in their degrees] than you are right now. [Is there] something that you've learned over the last couple of years that you'd like to share?
TA: I think – and I've been talking to a lot of people who started at the same time as me – the first three years of grad school are definitely the worst, by far. My first year was a mess and the imposter syndrome is so much more impactful and damaging when you're an immigrant, because you're not just ‘oh my God, they're gonna find out I don't belong here.’ My thought during half of my first year was just, ‘I'm going to get deported, I know it.’
I don't know if I learned anything from those years. I just know that it doesn't get easier, but you do learn to deal with those feelings and you start to understand that no one knows what they're doing, first of all. Scientists are not smarter than the general population; it’s just another job, and you start to see this pattern of the deeper you get into a field, the more humble – hopefully, doesn't happen with all of them – but you get humbled by your own field, but you get humbled by your own science.
I'm a neuroscience PhD student and I don't know a lot about the brain. Every now and then I see a paper and I can’t read the title. I'm like, ‘oh my, this paper is in a neuroscience journal and it takes me five minutes to comprehend the title!' So I’m very much humbled by all my experiences in grad school so far.
I like the advice that was given, I think it was in college:
You finish high school, or at least I finished high school thinking ‘I am such a smart person; I know everything’. And then you start college and you get destroyed by college because you meet a lot of smart people. [Then] you finish college, at least I finished college on the same height of, ‘I've done so much research!’ I was published as an undergrad, so I was extra cocky by the time I finished college.
From college to grad school to the next steps, I'm getting more and more humble and more and more, I guess, eager to learn in a very childish way of, ‘this is so cool!’ Now, it's not about the publications and the metrics. I think the longer I stay in science, the more curiosity hits. I don't know. It changed my mind completely, because I joined grad school thinking ‘that’s it, I'm gonna need to win a Nobel Prize. I need to publish in Science by age 30.’ None of that happened and I don't think it will happen...
AB: It might!
TA: Laughter. I am much more into: scientists are people. Like, the one lady who won the Nobel Prize – which there's not a lot of them – might like cooking a lot, might like, I don't know, sports a lot. I'm sorry for saying cooking, I realized that was a stereotype.
I understand now that these are just people trying their best. All you see is how academia is toxic, but it's much more institutionally toxic than it is people being toxic.
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