Elephants that Francisco Martínez-Jiménez photographed in Africa

Martina Gasull (Biomedical Genomics Lab, IRB Barcelona) writes a scientific communication blog in Catalan and Spanish, and in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown she interviewed her colleague Francisco Martínez-Jiménez, a Computational Engineer. This is an edited translation of the post written and published during the second week of lockdown in Spain. The original article can be found here.

“If we are capable of communicating better, people will get hooked”

We are in the middle of the lockdown due to the special measures to stop the spread of coronavirus. Despite the difficulties, I want to return to my regular activities I left behind. One of them is writing posts for my blog.

Two weeks before the lockdown, I asked Fran whether he would like to be interviewed. During the weekend of 14-15 March, the Spanish government declared a state of emergency and complete lockdown.

After a week of staying at home, I asked Fran if he was still happy to be interviewed. I had already prepared some questions before the lockdown. Luckily, he said yes and we agreed to meet on Friday for a video call, the activity that we have now incorporated into our daily lives to meet family, colleagues or to follow a dance class.

Friday arrived and we began the video call. He was on his balcony wearing sunglasses, as he didn’t want to lose the opportunity for a little sunbathing. I wanted to ask about COVID-19 but I left it for later and started with the questions that I had previously prepared.

What do you like most about being a scientist?

Learning. The possibility to learn and work on something that I really enjoy. I don’t see it as a job but almost as a hobby because I am free to work on the things I really like. Another aspect that I like is the fact that with my work I can contribute to society.

What do you like the least?

The job insecurity that we have generally in science, particularly in Spain. Despite it not being a personal problem, there is too much uncertainty. In science, having a stable way of life with good conditions and enough resources is difficult to achieve.

Another negative aspect is the excessive competitiveness, which often takes us away from the primary goal of science. Sometimes it feels like a race where we are competing against each other. This is caused, among many other things, by the current evaluation systems that tend to boost competitiveness.

What makes a Computational Engineer gain interest in Bioinformatics and Biomedicine?

It was just by chance, just serendipity. I wanted to study physics as I always liked astronomy. Yet, for a pragmatic reason I ended up choosing computational engineering. When I finished my studies, I was sure that I wouldn’t like to work in a bank or as a consultant. Thus, when looking for information, I saw a presentation for a Master’s in Bioinformatics and found it very interesting. Shortly after, I applied for it and was accepted.

Do you currently like Biology?

Yes, I love it. I read more now about Biology than about Informatics. I’m hooked with Biology more than when I was in secondary school. Back then, I was taught Biology in an old-fashioned way, based on memorising names, pathways, etc. However, Biology goes beyond that. Now I have learned that there are many things to understand, I am fascinated by all the mechanisms that our cells are able to perform. In this context, I believe that studying cancer is a way to explore the extreme conditions that our cells are able to deal with.

Some time ago Fran gave a talk within the Pint of Science Festival, which brings science to different settings such as bars, or other popular centres, …

Did you enjoy giving that talk?

I enjoyed it a lot, I think it is one of the best experiences I’ve had since I began in science 7 years ago. I realised that people were truly interested. If we explain science well enough, people understand it. The public is interested in learning; we just need to know how we can facilitate it. In my opinion, we should communicate science better in order to reach out to the entire population.

What differences did you find between giving a talk to the general public and to scientists?

In fact, each type of talk has different objectives and therefore we should approach it according to them. In my experience, the general public usually has less prejudices, they are more prone to learn and not to criticise. I was fascinated with the questions they had, for both the quantity and the quality. Even the questions from older people. If we are capable of communicating better, people will get hooked.

Elephants that Fran photographed in Africa

Fran loves travelling. He has travelled to Africa several times. Last summer, he went to Greenland and it was not a pleasant holiday (at least not in the traditional way). He needed to walk, row, set up tents, all in an unfriendly environment but with spectacular views. Our group admire Fran for those trips! Once we asked him to give us a talk and he gave us two – one about Greenland and another about Africa.

What pushes you to do these adventures?

A bit like doing science, the desire to learn and to discover new things. Both activities are driven by curiosity. We live in a very homogenous and globalized world. Travelling opens your mind to new landscapes, new ways of communicating, new cultures… Moreover, it is a way of breaking away from our routine.

I think we live in a moment that can be an opportunity for the decision makers and the whole population to see the importance of science.

Where do you see yourself in 3 years?

One of the consequences of instability is mobility requirements. This is not bad per se, but it is bad when mobility is an obligation. In my case, moving to another country is an option. However for some reason, the scientific system pushes me to do it. I have this option and I see myself working in another European country. Probably in the Cancer Genomics field.

How have you been during lockdown? Do you think we have learned something? As a scientist, how do you experience this situation?

On a personal level, I’ve gone through two stages. At first, I was obsessive and reading everything related to coronavirus and the pandemic. I was especially worried for my family living in Madrid. It affected me personally, with anxiety and sleeping problems. I realised that I needed to take distance from the news and read less. Fortunately, everyone in my close family is safe and well.

From a scientific point of view, I think we live in a moment that can be an opportunity for the decision makers and the whole population to see the importance of science. Hopefully, this situation will give more importance to science. I have learned a lot about viruses and coronaviruses. In fact, we are now involved in several projects aiming to improve the understanding of the virus behaviour and how to translate this into more effective treatments.

About Fran:

Fran is a Computational Engineer, he is from Madrid and came to Barcelona to study a MSc in Pharmacy and Biotechnology. He also has another MSc in Bioinformatics. He decided to stay in Barcelona to do a PhD in Biomedicine in Marc Martí-Renom’s Lab at CNAG. Fran has spent the past 3 years as a Postdoctoral fellow. He produced a paper in Nature Cancer on how alterations of ubiquitin-mediated proteolysis affect tumorigenesis. He also participating in a new version of IntoGen, which includes a catalogue obtained analysing 28.000 tumors of 66 cancer types. Twice, Fran has travelled to Africa, and also to South America. He has also visited Asia and last summer, he travelled to Greenland. At lunchtime, we all envy him for his lunch box with “cocido madrileño”. Fran is the kind of person who knows all the little shops in the neighbourhood!

Follow Fran on Twitter: @fran_mj88.

About Martina:

Martina Gasull obtained a BsC Degree in Physics at the University of Barcelona in 1996. She has more than 10 years of experience on Research Management, supporting several research groups with Bioinformatics in different institutions. Since November 2016, she has been in charge of Research Management and Communication at the Biomedical Genomics Lab lead by Nuria López-Bigas at IRB Barcelona. Recently, she complete a Postgraduate Course in Science Communication from the University of Vic.

Follow Martina on Twitter: @MartinaRDmgt.


Martina is grateful to Electra Tapanari and Francisco Martinez-Jimenes for their help in translating this interview into English.