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M. João Solecki | October 2006
on Tuesday, 17/10/2006 — Luisa Figueiredo

Maria Joao Solecki

Name: Maria João Gomes-Solecki
Year of Birth: 1967
Place of birth: Madeira, Portugal
City of residence: Manhattan, New York City
Years in the US: 11
Personal webpage:
Degree: Veterinary Medicine
Professional status: Research Assistant Professor
Research interests: Life sciences; Microbiology and Immunology; Infectious diseases; Immunopathogenesis of microbial antigens; Development of vaccines and immunodiagnostics.
Best career achievement: NIH-NIAID SBIR Fast-Track award (2004-2007).

To be or not to be an immigrant in the US
What brought you to the USA?
I decided I should try to take a risk and improve my professional life. I figured that if I have to go through the traumatic experience of leaving my family and my country I’d better go where research is best, and that was and still is, the USA.

Name the three most valuable lessons you have learned in this country (at work or not).
Tolerance, Healthy competition, Not saying “NO” (which is very different from saying yes all the time!).

Are you planning to go back to Portugal? Why/Why not?
I am not planning to go back to Portugal because I could not do in Portugal what I am allowed to do in the United States. That is, I have a degree in Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and I am accepted and respected as a competitive scientist at the same level as MDs or PhDs, and this would not be accepted in Portugal. In the US, there is room for meritocracy while in Portugal there still are many constraints that prevent it. I can give you an example. To apply for FCT funding for research one needs to be doutorado, that is, hold at least a PhD. In such situations even MDs (medico) or DVMs (med vet) need to have an additional PhD, which is ridiculous as far as I am concerned. This means that, in Portugal, not even MDs can do state sponsored clinical studies because they can’t apply for governmental research funding (if such funds existed!). What happened to the “socialist” equal opportunity? Sorry, if I sound a bit sarcastic

What conditions (other than salary) do you have here that you do not have in Portugal?
As described above I have access to a level of competition that I would not even be allowed to dream off in Portugal. It’s also nice to have the choice of making money. The portuguese collective belief that money is not important (leftover from 50 years of Salazar + 1 very damaging year of communism) is aggravating.

What do you think Portugal is still better at?
Our food is much better, we make good wine and cork, and our shoes are the absolute best and we are socially fit. I miss the overall public socialization and the conversations with my friends. And of course, I miss my family life. The portuguese cities are busy (and many of them have plenty of ugly hot spots) but I don’t get tired to drive around our countryside. From north to south our countryside has a lot of charm (as long as big condominium developers stay away).

What would you like to see changed in the Portuguese educational system?
I suppose that I should say there is a lot that could be changed in our educational system. But then, educational systems are very complicated to reform. I will make a comparison with the american system that I know a little bit. About 20% american high-school (liceu) graduates can’t read at 3rd grade level (3a classe!). One would have to assume that the americans have a big problem too…! But on the other hand they have the most prolific higher education (university) system in the world. So I don’t really know. In Portugal, in general, education up to high school is not as bad as the American but then our universities (with some exceptions in the professional schools) stay at the level of many of the American colleges (that give only bachelor degrees). I apologize to have to make a generalization, but in contrary, I would have to write a thesis on the subject. So I suppose we have to think, what does our country need, considering the level of educational requirements from the portuguese private and public sector. Does one need a PhD to work on a Portuguese biotech company, for example, when, for the most part, their level of research is non-existent? One problem with the Portuguese universities as they are now is that they refuse to do the transition of the student from the school into the workforce system.
Having said that, I believe that there is always room for improvement and that there are serious problems with the Portuguese universities. We need to prepare for the needs of a competitive global economy, so, we should be educating competitive achievers/over achievers and I don’t know if the Portuguese educational system is prepared to do that. This change should start at the kinder garden level (such as having gifted program PUBLIC schools that are non existent in PT as far as I know, for example) and should follow into the graduate/post-graduate years of someone’s life. Intellectual scepticism, active problem solving and intellectual modesty (which lead to an inquisitive mind) should be encouraged and cultivated from an early age. I believe that a drastic change would have to comprise a sharp increase in spending in research & development (R&D) at all levels sustained over the years, meritocracy should come first and professors in universities/research institutes should be held accountable to their scientific progress and achievements. I also believe in “equal opportunity” even if it may sound a politically correct sound bite. The system should be flexible enough to allow for exceptions to the rule, that is, implement guidelines that would allow inclusion of more people into the research system rather than screen them out.
And, to end on a funny note, so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, if nothing else moves us in the right direction, then portuguese should strive to be better than spaniards, because my dear, as one of my good friends likes to say, “The best thing about being Portuguese is that, we are not Spaniards!!”.


The daily life in the US

Favourite news from Portugal: www.publico.pt
Favourite Website/Blog: www.bbc.co.uk
Ideal weekend program in your city: The museums in Manhattan will always keep us busy and they have programs for children as young as three. Just walking around in Central Park and people watching is a thrill.
Portuguese neighbourhood:

We go to Newark for our Portuguese needs, such as chouricos and bacalhau. The bread and wine we can buy in town.

Which aspect of PAPS would you like to see improved?
I have been a long advocate of members paying a small fee such as 10$/year for example, to help the CE organize and divulge the meetings (or keep the website, for example). One cannot get anything done without money and I don’t understand how the PAPS CE keeps surviving. This would also teach one very important lesson to all new PAPS members, that is, “in the US, nothing is free”. Please publish this.