The Brazilian research leader on thinking differently and supporting Black researchers

Maria Augusta Arruda is director of the Brazilian Biosciences National Laboratory, part of the National Centre for Research in Energy and Materials. She spent 12 years at the University of Nottingham across several roles, from creating and leading the BrazilNottingham Drug Discovery Partnership to supporting the university’s strategic relationship with UKRI to, more recently, being their head of researcher development and chair of their Race Equity Network. 

The first time I got into a lab, I was 14 years old. In Brazil, we’ve got the federal technical high schools – it’s like a university for teenagers. And in the technical chemistry high school, they had three courses – pure chemistry, food technology and biotechnology. I chose the latter; I was totally obsessed with chemistry in biological systems.

I was the only Black girl in school for most of my life. I was the only Black woman in my class at university. Brazil’s population is 56% black, so it’s a systemic thing. But we now have the vocabulary to discuss these things that we didn’t have before. In the sciences there is a big push – people need more role models but, more importantly, actions that support diversity in science.

I did my PhD in two years instead of four. When people say ‘oh, you’re a genius,’ – no, it’s the consequence of having a life in science since a very early age. I did my undergraduate degree while working in the lab full time. During this process, I became more and more excited about biochemistry and molecular biology. My PhD is in pharmacology, but chemistry has always been in my life.

I got divorced during my PhD but I’m very happy that I met my husband and built a life with our two girls that had a huge influence on my professional life. The plan was to spend one year in Nottingham – Brazil’s Ministry of Health wanted me to start a drug discovery unit. And then opportunities came. It was never the plan to stay in the UK – I ended up staying 12 years!

I really got fascinated with the UK research ecosystem when they offered me the post to lead the strategic relationship with the UKRI and the University of Nottingham – it was a very steep learning curve. It was during this transition, going to the other side of the fence to become a manager without being in the lab, I started to think more about the race situation and race relations.

One of our students at Nottingham, Tomi Akingbade, founded the Black Women in Science network. There is a phrase on her website – that she fell in love with science, but she couldn’t see how she could fit into the possibilities. But she is the voice of so many other women of colour, particularly black women. So, I became an advisor for the network.

I’m very proud to be involved in the first UK programme for Black postdoctoral fellows to develop their research portfolio and thrive in the field of UK genomics science. Led by Sanger’s Head of EDI, Saher Ahmed, and supported by the advisory group I am part of, it has helped the Wellcome Sanger Institute to diversify its research workforce while tackling the systemic reasons for the lack of diversity. They decided to use their own funds to create the Sanger Excellence Programme.

The EDI [equality, diversity, and inclusion] and race equity work has never been my day job. I mostly did that on a voluntary basis. It’s difficult to have the headspace to fight actively for race equity. But I’m very interested by the phenomenon we’ve got here. When you’re studying a phenomenon in a cell population what happens to one organism is important, but not statistically relevant. When you see things happening, not with one or two people, but the whole system – it’s a systemic thing. You realise that the experiences that you went through are not your experiences, they are systemic.

The research ecosystem we’ve got today is not fit for purpose. It was designed by and for less than 10% of the world’s population (white cis men). I’m the director of one of the most prominent research centres in Latin America. I go to work and most of the people that look like me are cleaners.

Be bold, be original. And be humble

I believe in the human enterprise, particularly in research. I truly believe in justice. I want everyone to thrive. I have the credentials that back my observations because I love science and I couldn’t live without science and research in my life. I feel very fortunate to be able to voice these things while having the independence, the level of seniority and not having the conflict of interest because it’s not for my grants – it’s for a better ecosystem.

The biggest problem is that we all think very similarly. I head 17 research areas, and what I’m telling every one of the researchers is that I want different stuff. I don’t want you to repeat stuff. If you’ve got an idea, just go for it. I think that was something that supported my career. I faced opposition because I had ideas that people thought were rubbish as they went against the literature. But be bold, be original. And be humble.

Poetry is my refuge because the world is perpetually perplexing. It’s something I got into in the UK, via this amazing project called The Poetry Exchange, where guests share poems that have been friends to them. Among my favourite poets are Fiona Bennett and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

I also got into open water swimming. I love to go to the lake in Nottingham when it’s frozen – here that’s impossible because it’s very warm.