Chemistry Identity: Speaking with Dr. Diana Gonçalves-Schmidt
Meet Dr. Diana Gonçalves-Schmidt, the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry’s newest faculty member! She brings a multidisciplinary taste of Chemistry to the department. Her career as a chemist began where she was born and raised in Portugal and has taken her to many parts of the globe.
Can you tell me about your academic journey, starting from the very beginning?
"I was very fortunate that my high school was being sponsored by the chemical industry, DOW […] so, they were giving chemistry awards and also investing in the local community. Chemistry was very strong in my high school, and it was also my favorite subject. That has paved the way to where I am now. I went to high school in a small town in Portugal and then to the local town university, Aveiro University. I was awarded the DOW prize for the best student that graduated that year when I finished. Since I was a good student, I applied for a grant from the European Union that helped me to go to Cambridge for my Ph.D. I picked a professor that I wanted to work with and was accepted."
What led you to this field?
"[My] high school and very good teachers. The chemistry teachers were excellent, and we also went on field trips to visit many [chemical] plants. We were groomed in the direction of chemistry."
Can you tell me about your research?
"I have a very multidisciplinary taste of chemistry. It goes from organic to materials chemistry to biochemistry and then to molecular biology, more in the oncology field. In chemistry, I like to work with porphyrins which are a class of molecules that are very important for our lives. They are in our blood; they are also a part of plants, and they help with photosynthesis. I also like peptide synthesis a lot; that’s the new thing. I have a new peptide synthesizer that is going to produce lots of nice peptides.
"Then materials chemistry; I like to work with gold nanoparticles, functionalize them and then use them to kill cancer cells specifically.
"In the cancer oncology field, I like to work with glioblastoma cells, and then I am going to include lung cancer cells.
"I also enjoy working with DNA to produce funny objects called DNA origami. We don’t use DNA as a storage of genetic information; we use it as a building block to build very specific objects with very high precision. Since we know which base pair hybridizes with which, it is easy to program an object. For example, I want to make a rod or something that mimics a virus so it has a three-dimensional specific form. We can do that with DNA. We just need a very long strand that’s called a scaffold, and then we need smaller strands that are the staple strands that will fold each other into that specific object. Everything is done in an Eppendorf tube with an aqueous buffer, and then you have to anneal it. Annealing means that you heat to a very high temperature, 90° C, then you cool it very slowly with a cooling ramp so that all the base pairs have time to recognize each other without any mistakes."
What has been your biggest challenge?
"Being a parent, trying to juggle educating a child and taking care of a household and then the other professional tasks. That’s not easy. When you have a maternity break, it can be very difficult to go back."
What motivates you to keep conducting research even when it is challenging?
"Because it’s fun, it stimulates you, and when it works, it’s very rewarding. Something that you imagine is possible, and then you see it in a poster or a publication."
Who was your first role model?
"My mom because she was a nurse and educated in Africa. [She was] born in a former Portuguese colony, Angola. She did nursing medicine there, and then she went to Portugal; they didn’t accept her degree, so she had to redo it, but in the end, made it. She was very loved in her community, although she was the only woman of color in that hospital. I think it was difficult at the beginning, but then when she showed her dedication to the patients, she became one of the favorite nurses, and people respected her a lot."
What advice would you give a student hoping to work in chemistry?
"It depends. Chemistry is a very interesting field. I think that one should, at a very early stage, know the trajectory; if they want to go into industry or stay in academia. If they know which trajectory they want to take, they can very early on start paving the way. For example, for industry, they should do internships during the summer. Then for academia, do research work. Gather all this experience, and then it will be easier to flourish in that particular pathway. Maybe try both and see what they prefer."