After living in Puerto Rico for 19 years, microbiologist Filipa Godoy-Vitorino, Ph.D., frequently fields questions about her choice to pursue a career on the small Caribbean island prone to devastating natural disasters.
The U.S. territory’s ecological diversity – from deserts to coral reefs and rainforests – provides endless fodder for research, but “the best thing here is the people,” says Godoy-Vitorino. “There are some very harsh possibilities, but in the chaos it all works out. We help each other.”
The Caribbean is a far cry away from where Godoy-Vitorino grew up, nearly four thousand miles away in the Portuguese countryside. Her father, a nature-loving economist, fostered her curiosity about the world with his stacks of National Geographic magazines. Originally, she dreamt of becoming a photographer, but fell in love with science during her Erasmus experience (a semester of research for European undergraduates) where she studied Cyanobacteria in the Canary Islands.
Today, Godoy-Vitorino’s research focuses on understanding the correlation between HPV and the microbiomes of the vagina and cervix. Her lab is also active in analyzing the role the gut microbiome plays in a person’s response to cancer therapies.
“I’m learning all the time,” she says. “Science allows us to make great connections to people. We’re contributing to something better.”
The collaborative ties that connect scientists in this part of the world are top of mind for Godoy-Vitorino, president of the AAAS Caribbean Division. Established in 1985, the group fulfills the AAAS mission throughout the Caribbean basin, which stretches into Central America and the northern coast of South America.
“We are a voice for scientists in this area,” she says, describing the organization’s role in bringing together cross-disciplinary members for awards, advocacy and learning opportunities.
In addition to her AAAS position, Godoy-Vitorino chairs the Department of Microbiology and Zoology at the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Medicine in San Juan. Over the last few years, she’s witnessed firsthand the power of resilience and the scientific community banding together amidst tragedy.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, destroying everything in its path and killing nearly 3,000 people. Those who survived remained without electricity for months. As a result, Godoy-Vitorino lost frozen cultivated samples for her studies of microbiomes – communities of microbes that live on and inside our bodies and affect many aspects of human health. A nearby cancer center with back-up freezers stepped in to save some of the samples.
Meanwhile, her university’s research facilities and equipment suffered significant damage. AAAS donated money to help rebuild and encouraged others to do the same. The wider AAAS network also pitched in to relocate graduate students to other labs in the United States where many finished their studies.
Puerto Rico was still picking up the pieces when disaster struck again in January 2020. A 6.4-magnitude earthquake sent shock waves across the island. A few weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world. That year, the AAAS Caribbean Division held its annual meeting virtually. More than 2,000 people attended as the event was dedicated to the Puerto Rico Seismic Network for its efforts in disseminating information about the quake.
At the same conference held the following year in 2021 in collaboration with the Puerto Rico IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (through a grant from the National Institutes of Health), the Division celebrated research in allergens and COVID-19. It also presented the annual Lucy Gaspar Award for Excellence in Science Education to a deserving teacher from the region—this time, in person.
“That moment was very important,” says Godoy-Vitorino. “Teachers are undervalued everywhere nowadays, but they are the basis for values and knowledge for kids and society.”
Besides supporting educators, the division dispensed small grants to students enduring hardships to complete their projects during the height of COVID-19. For example, when campus housing shut down in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the virus, many students in Puerto Rico endured daily hours-long commutes from across the island to work in their labs. A majority of these students unfortunately won’t stay in the region after graduation, notes Godoy-Vitorino.
“Many great scientists from Puerto Rico go to the U.S., and they don’t return,” she adds.
As part of her division presidency, Godoy-Vitorino hopes to establish a database of scientists and resources to help the region strengthen its local collaborations and retain talent.
“We could be the neurons that communicate between scientists and students as well,” she says. “Lots of people collaborate, but mostly with outsiders. Mostly with U.S. scientists.”
Peer to peer networking among researchers proves invaluable – especially in this part of the world, which can face sluggish supply chains. Delivery of equipment and materials needed for research might be delayed or halted completely in the event of a disaster. In some cases, scientists must stock up and pool resources to ensure continuity of their projects, says Godoy-Vitorino.
“We have to be patient and more organized,” she adds. “We have to buy things thinking ahead. We need to have all these things here because we never know what might happen.”
While Godoy-Vitorino will soon rotate out of the AAAS Caribbean Division presidency, she will remain actively involved in continuing to expand the network of scientists in the region.