Osvaldo Contreras is a Chilean molecular and cell biologist working as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Prof. Richard Harvey at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (VCCRI) in Sydney, Australia, where he investigates heart development and repair. He completed his PhD in Prof. Enrique Brandan’s lab at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, in conjunction with Prof. Fabio Rossi at the University of British Columbia. He has contributed a number of posts since joining the preLights community in 2020 and is also an active member of the Sydney Postdoctoral Development Committee (PDDC). We spoke to Osvaldo about his research, making big international moves for science, and being part of preLights and the PDDC.
To begin, can you tell us about what prompted your initial interest in science?
That’s a very good question. I’m a first-generation student in my family, but my grandfather on my father’s side used to have a small patch of land where he grew tomatoes. I have very good memories of being with him and appreciating the process of growing crops. My other grandfather, who was a taxi driver, also had a small patch of land, and I spent so much time with my grandparents that I started to recognise what was growing and the process of it. I think I’ve been fascinated by the natural world for as long as I can remember. I also always loved reading, and my mother bought me a couple of famous books about natural sciences and the human body that I spent hours and hours reading and being amazed by. Then in high school, I had a very good biology teacher who encouraged me to consider a career as a teacher or a professor in biology or another science. I would never have considered studying science were it not for her – there was the expectation for me to be a clinician given that I was good at school, and especially science. But I started looking for courses in biology and biochemistry at university, and I eventually studied for a BSc in biology. Even then my father was quite disappointed as he thought that studying science could only lead to being a high school teacher, and teachers are not paid particularly well in Chile.
I think there is often the assumption that being good at science in high school should only lead to a medical degree! But you continued with science and pursued a PhD in Chile with some time spent in Canada, too. How did that come about?
Yes, I did a master’s degree in Chile, and then began my PhD in Chile, too. Part of my PhD programme included a new initiative called internationalism – I was actually the first year of students it applied to – which was a strategy for developing connections and involved spending four months abroad. Prior to that I’d come across a fantastic researcher (Prof. Fabio Rossi) doing really interesting work looking at differentiating progenitors into different muscle lineages and non-muscle lineages. I arranged to meet him at a conference in 2017 and asked if I could work in his lab for a brief period, and he agreed! I secured some research fellowships and travelled to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, to work with him for five months. It worked out really well: when I had about a month left, he asked me to stay longer and gave me a salary, and I ended up staying for a year as a graduate research assistant during 2018. It was a really amazing experience. Compared with Chile, there was just so much more money for new ideas, and I became really immersed in cell fate determination and differentiation pathways, and some cool techniques like flow cytometry and single cell technologies and sequencing. Eventually I went back to Chile and wrote my thesis in about a month, and then defended it just a few months later, in May 2019. The first Doctor in my family after all!
Can you tell us about what you worked on in your PhD and how this translated to a postdoc?
My PhD was not very focused at all, and I think that was both a good and a bad thing. It was a negative that I didn’t really focus on one thing for the five years of my PhD. I didn’t have one thing to focus experiments and outcomes on for a big paper. But the positive of that was that I got a lot of first author papers, and even got to be the corresponding author on some of the papers I worked on in Canada, so that was great. From that perspective, I had a good experience writing papers and the editorial process of publishing early in my career.
Generally speaking, my PhD work was divided into two main branches. First was to look at the behaviour and cell fate of skeletal muscle resident progenitor cells, and towards the end I also worked on cells in cardiac tissue. I studied these cells in different muscle pathologies, including mice models of muscular dystrophy and ALS, and chronic muscle damage over a long period of time, including muscle denervation. Eventually I focused on three signalling pathways with regards muscle disease and injury: TGF-Beta, Wnt signalling, and the PDGF pathway, and some of the papers coming from these projects were published with The Company of Biologists (links here and here)! I also did some single cell sequencing analysis in this context, which was great as I was actually one of the first person in my unit in Chile to do single cell sequencing.
The other branch of my work was myogenesis – muscle development. I studied several things in terms of how both fibrosis, which is non-contractile scarring tissue, and cancer drugs, can hinder myogenesis. I also studied how PDGF signalling regulates the behaviour and cell cycle of myogenic progenitors, which is work that I completed here at the VCCRI.
I still work a little on muscle now in my postdoc at the VCCRI in Sydney, but my main focus is cardiac development and cardiac repair. As in my PhD, my research is again divided into two parts. One is working with a big cohort of families in Australia with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), which is where the left side of the heart is not well-developed. It’s one of the most severe forms of congenital heart disease, so we’re looking at trying to understand why that happens using human-induced pluripotent stem cells. It’s very complex in terms of pathology: there are no good animal models and we don’t know if it’s monogenic or polygenic, but we’re using lots of high tech approaches to try and characterise this disorder from a cardiomyocyte perspective. The other part of my postdoc is looking at something called HFpEF, which is heart failure with preserved ejection fraction. It’s one of the most common forms of heart failure, and has many co-morbidities associated with it. We have a mice model of this disease, so we use hyper-tense mice fed a high fat diet to mimic those risk factors, and we’re doing things like single cell analysis along with echography to try and understand cardiac function.
The Victor Chang Institute is almost 100% focused on the heart, so there’s a lot of collaboration between groups and different approaches to all different problems associated with the heart. I really feel like I’m doing something with a bigger impact. I’ve gone from focusing on a transcription factor to working with this big patient cohort. Although it’s rare, if you’re born with HLHS, the mortality rate is 60%, even after surgery. So, I hope we can contribute to our understanding of HLHS and raise awareness of rare diseases.
You’ve made some big moves over your research career – from Chile to Canada and now Australia. What has been the most challenging thing about moving internationally?
I think the most challenging thing was agreeing where to move with my partner Maria and my daughter Olivia, who was born at the end of my PhD. Deciding where we wanted to develop ourselves as a family was a really tough decision: where is a nice place to live with a good salary, sunny weather, and good science? We decided on Sydney. It is tough being away from my family and Maria’s family, and with the pandemic we haven’t been able to back to Chile for a long time now, so I feel bad that Olivia is growing up so far from her grandparents and other relatives. But she’s healthy and happy and has lots of friends here, and Maria has a great social life, and they are both completely amazing. When I get home from the lab, Olivia’s there laughing and smiling and even after a tough day, everything seems to disappear. Magic. I’m so grateful for that and without them I would definitely be in a much tougher place.
In general, I think the pandemic has been challenging for postdocs. A preprint was recently posted that highlighted how the pandemic has added a layer of complexity to being a postdoc. Not being able to travel, of course, but also underfunding. Here in Australia, the universities are private and rely on student fees, a lot of which comes from international students. With the pandemic, we’ve lost those students, and that resulted in people, even group leaders, losing their jobs. It’s a really bad situation and there are so many uncertainties.
On an adventure with his partner Maria and daughter Olivia!
Which leads to my next question – you’re involved with the Sydney Postdoctoral Development Committee, and kindly invited me to speak on behalf of preLights at a seminar last year. Can you tell us about the PDDC and how you came to be involved with it?
The committee was founded several years ago. It encompasses four different institutes in the St Vincent’s precinct, including St Vincent’s Centre for Applied Medical Research (AMR), Garvan Institute of Medical Research, VCCRI, and The Kinghorn Cancer Centre. From my perspective, the postdoc community here is small and it can be narrow in terms of opportunities for us. The goal of the committee is to create different opportunities for postdocs, and we’re now expanding that to include PhD students too. A lot of our work is about career development and networking, so we organise seminars that also highlight different careers in science, like editing, outreach, and public engagement. We want to create opportunities to network, and even though we haven’t been able to do a lot in person, with the pandemic, it’s a great team and I’m glad to be part of it. We also recently joined Twitter to extend our outreach and activities across Australia and the world.
I’m also part of the Diversity committee at my institution, which is a new committee aiming to ensure diversity and equity in the workplace. The Sydney scientific scene is not very diverse in general: something that is common in academia, especially when scaling up the academic career ladder. We want to raise awareness about gender diversity, different nationalities, and representation at the undergrad and PhD level, going up to research assistants and group leaders. We’ve found some interesting things out and we are fighting for it to improve. Obviously, this all takes time and you do need to change the heart and mindset of people, but I’m committed to it and really proud of the work we’re doing. Things are not going to change if we don’t do something, and I think that early-career researchers are really good for promoting this.
Talking about another community – how did you find out about preLights?
In 2019 I published a paper in Journal of Cell Science and was interviewed for their First Person interview series. The person who interviewed me advised me that it would be good to set up a Twitter account, so they could tag me in the post about the interview, so that’s when I started using Twitter. I started following different science accounts and one day I saw a tweet about a preLights post pop up. I thought it looked great; I wanted to get involved with peer review and science writing, and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity. But then imposter syndrome hit me, and I thought maybe I wasn’t good enough to participate. So, I asked my friend Alex, who was in the same lab, if he would write a preLights post with me, and we sent it to Maté and that’s how I started! It’s a great way of improving my writing, especially because English is not my first language, and it helps keep the wheel turning in terms of writing more frequently than just for manuscripts.
And to finish – what do you think the future holds for you?
I would like to continue developing in academia and become a group leader, hopefully. But I understand how hard that is, so although it’s my goal, I’m not closed off to other intellectually challenging options. I’m aware that in science we have this concept of meritocracy, which I think is very dangerous. I’ve seen really hard-working people not succeed in academia or realise that science isn’t for them after a tough period. I think we’re really falling short in prioritising mental health in science. A friend of mine asked me recently why I spend so much time doing science and participating in these committees, and my answer is that I really want to change the culture of science in the future. I hope we can do better.