A Perspective from Mexico: the Impact of Global Collaborations and In-Country Initiatives
Teresa Morales is an associate professor at the Institute for Neurobiology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She is also a member of the SfN Neuroscience Training Committee. Here, Morales discusses global collaborations, training abroad, and the neuroscience field in Mexico.
How have you collaborated internationally?
Currently, I am collaborating with a colleague who was an undergraduate student in the same laboratory where I did my postdoc in the United States. He is a professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). We started a collaboration because the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC-Mexus) program facilitates this type of opportunity. In our collaboration there are six or seven people total involved across both labs: a couple of my students, my technician, and me, along with my colleague and his student and technician.
In Mexico, there is a strong tradition in neuroscience. International collaboration is very important for us, especially for training and discussing research. One of the main issues with doing biomedical or neuroscience research in Mexico is the lack of funding, which is why international collaboration is especially needed to access more state-of-the-art methods.
What do you think is the most important element of a successful international collaboration?
You need to carefully plan at the start what is going to be done in one laboratory and what is going to be done in the other laboratory. Both laboratories also have to benefit from that collaboration — otherwise, it won't work.
From your vantage point in Mexico, how does scientific rigor factor into international collaboration?
Traditionally, scientific rigor has meant planning your experiment ahead of time, having appropriate controls, and running pilot experiments to pick the best way to measure a parameter or a variance. Now, as we’re sharing data on the Internet with scientists all over the world, closely adhering to scientific rigor protocols is also important to ensure that our shared information is reliable for everybody.
For better collaboration, students in Mexico need to be well trained in scientific rigor. It is also important for them to go abroad, to the United States and other countries. In my experience, many of the Mexican students who go abroad for training or for postdoctoral positions do very well and have good experiences, both of which positively impact their views of the field.
Did you also train abroad?
I did postdoctoral work at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. When I started looking for a position, I contacted several researchers in the United States and Canada. During one SfN meeting, I scheduled interviews with potential advisers and ended up joining Paul Sawchenko’s lab. I then applied for and received a Fogarty fellowship, which enabled me to pursue this postdoc.
I had the experience of a lifetime. It exposed me to the best science in the world. I was very lucky to be in that laboratory because it is one of the top laboratories in the neuroanatomy field, and I learned a lot. Everybody was friendly, helpful, and skilled. The seminars at Salk were very high quality. As a postdoc, I could attend all of the professional development courses, which helped me learn how to write a grant, letters, formal emails, and more.
What advice would you give someone who's interested in doing a postdoc abroad?
Ask or gather a lot of information on the laboratories that you are interested in because successful laboratories don't always pay attention to training new scientists. As a postdoc, you should look for top laboratories in your field, but it also is important to have a good mentor.
Many discussions taking place in the United States are focused on how to prepare trainees for a variety of career paths. Can you describe the neuroscience field in Mexico and if similar training conversations are also occurring there?
Overall, the funding budget for science in Mexico is not as high as the U.S. budget. Despite that, the neuroscience field is growing. That's why it's important to train scientists in scientific rigor. The number of women participating in science in Mexico is also increasing.
In the United States, PhD students have the option to go into industry or other fields besides academia. In Mexico, most of the PhD students go into academia because there are not many other options for professional development. The alternative is to work in non-scientific jobs.
In Mexico, training for professional development has grown. We put a lot of effort in scientific training, but in the last 10 years, we have started programs to expand the trainees' capacities in other ways. We now teach bioethics, scientific methods, outreach for the public, and many other topics. The students now ask for this training, too, because they have seen how important it is to their advancement.