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Helena Pires | February 2008
on Friday, 01/02/2008 — Luisa Figueiredo

Helena Pires

Name: Helena Ribeiro Pires
E-mail: helenarp@berkeley.edu
Year of Birth: 1980
Place of birth: Oeiras, Portugal
City of residence: Berkeley, California, USA
Years in the US: almost 2 years
Undergraduate Degree: Biologia, FCUP
Current professional status: PhD student
Research interests: Developmental and molecular biology

Best career achievement : Still to come

To be or not to be an immigrant in the US

What brought you to the USA?
The desire to have a new experience in a different country. Specifically, I came to the US because I found here, particularly in Berkeley, a combination of factors that makes a perfect recipe when all together: 1) contact with very good science and scientists and an opportunity to learn and to develop a PhD in one of the best Universities; 2) live among social diversity that is still difficult to find in Portugal; 3) a huge curiosity to know the United States from the inside.

Name the three most valuable lessons you have learned in this country (at work or not).
1) I gained a perspective that made me better understand my country and become more tolerant and able to see all the advantages that Portugal has, even when compared with the United States; 2) I also learned that very few things can be generalized in a huge country like United States, all my established ideas about this country were ruined as soon as I arrived here (although I have new ones now!); 3) I now see how public participation can exist and drive your community in better ways.

Are you planning to go back to Portugal? Why/Why not?
I don't think of Portugal as an isolated option. I think of Portugal as being part of Europe and in that way I consider going back to Portugal in the same way as I would with any other European country. The reasons are varied: from a scientific point of view I think it's important to understand what the differences are between the way science is done in the US and Europe. For now, I still think that I will prefer to, definitively, work in Europe, since I'd prefer to give my contribution to develop European science more than America's. Of course, a lot of things will depend on the opportunities. Another important reason, obviously, is being closer to family, roots and culture, especially when I think that I want to expand my family.

What conditions (other than salary) do you have here that you do not have in Portugal?
Here I found a diversity of people in science coming from such different places with so many different experiences and ways of thinking, something that is still very difficult to find in Portugal, although Portugal seems to be starting, slowly, to be attractive to foreign scientists at this moment, but there is still a long way to go. Another aspect is the amount of good labs in each scientific area here in the US, and more specifically in the Bay Area. The quantity is important in that it increases competition in a good way and eases the permanent contact with so many good scientists; this is something that lets you improve and learn so fast that you almost don't notice.

What do you think Portugal is still better at?
Comparison with US: ATM machines, Cell phone networks and Soccer!! Health system, family bonding and strong relationships between people in general. More honest, warm, relaxed and frontal people.

What would you like to see changed in the Portuguese educational system?
I think that in some ways Portugal needs to reinvent our educational system, especially at the University level. We have an old system based in old premises. It's urgent to renew our professors, to let people that had different experiences outside Portugal to integrate our universities with new ideas and give them the power to change things and to take new risks. It's important to give the students a bigger role inside the classes and more responsibility, instead of having lectures where the professors are the major figures in the classroom. The most important thing would be to have a system open to new people and new ideas.

The daily life in the US

Favourite news from Portugal: Publico
Favourite website/blog: Heptahedron
Ideal weekend program in your US city: Bay Area has plenty of “Ideal weekends”. If you want an urban weekend, start the morning in Berkeley with a wonderful breakfast in La Mediterranee eating mamounia, walk in College Avenue with all the trendy shops and go down to Telegraph Avenue and feel the hippie spirit and the diversity that makes Berkeley one of the most special places that I know. For lunch, go to the best Japanese food in town, on Shattuck Avenue. After this, take the Ferry to San Francisco, go out on the Embarcadero and get lost in the Ferry Building Market. Make an effort to go out and take the cable car to the Marina and end the day having dinner in the Greens Restaurant watching the sunset with the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge as a scenario. Alternatively, you can go North or South on Highway 1 and be amazed with the beautiful West Coast. Or you can also go East and spend the weekend trying to find bears in Yosemite!
Portuguese neighbourhood:

I don't know any in Berkeley or San Francisco, I think the closest one is in San Jose, or maybe Half Moon Bay.