What was your reaction when you were awarded the recent 2018 RBC Top 25 Immigrants Award?
I think that all human beings like to be recognized for their work. I was particularly pleased in this situation in that I was being recognized for my Canadian journey so far — from high school to today.
Tell us about your story of immigrating to Canada.
I was born in Lisbon, Portugal, but grew up in the inner province. I think that being raised in a heavy rural environment made me aware of nature’s workings and tuned my observation skills. I arrived in Canada when I was 14 years old, not an optimal age to change environments.
What prompted you to pursue a career in science academia and in particular, chemistry?
My first passion was art, and I still doodle. I have an easel in my office. Science for me is like an art.I think that I could have pursued any branch of science. It happened to be chemistry at the end, mostly because of my undergraduate research with the well-known carbohydrate chemist, Professor Gerald Aspinall.
What is the focus of your research at the University of Guelph Department of Chemistry?
At Guelph, our bread-and-butter is microbial polysaccharide structural chemistry, but when justified we use our polysaccharide discoveries to develop anti-microbial vaccines. Our discoveries also influence other’s research in that synthetic- and genetic-based research groups make use of our findings to develop their research programs.
Tell us about your research in creating a vaccine to fight gastric bugs.
Our program at Guelph has created two carbohydrate-based vaccines that are now in advanced stages – that against Campylobacter jejuni (a main cause of food poisoning) and Clostridium difficile. The C. jejuni vaccine is now in human trials in the United States and that against C. difficile will enter human trials next year after cGMP production in the United Sates. Over 90 per cent of autistic subjects suffer from severe gastrointestinal problems (constipation and diarrhea), apparently because of specific pathogens found in these hosts. Our work involving gastric pathogens found in autistic children is thus an expansion of our previous research on the gastric microbes, C. jejuni and C. difficile. At the very least, hopefully our discoveries will aid in evaluating the incidence of these bugs in autistic children through the creation of a polysaccharide-based diagnostic kit.
How did you become interested in glycomics?
My fourth year research project focused on polysaccharides, and I enjoyed the challenge of solving structural puzzles. Also, I also enjoyed – and still enjoy – drawing the cool sugar structures. But it is the usefulness of our findings that really gets us excited.
What do you see as the future of glycomics in terms of improving people’s quality of life?
Carbohydrates are one of the main pillars of science, and their uses are endless.
Any advice for people interested in pursuing a science career as a researcher?
Recently, I was also asked if I had any advice to new immigrants. I find it very difficult to give advice about anything. We all have our individual journeys.