If a girl sees a woman in STEMM, then she thinks she can do this, too.
Dr. Anna Bárbara de Freitas Carneiro-Proietti (MD, PhD) is a leading hematologist, virologist, and psychoanalyst in Brazil. A woman of many talents, she conducts cutting-edge research in the areas of blood transfusions and blood-related diseases, such as Sickle Cell Disease and HIV. She currently does collaborative research work that brings together diverse research centers in Brazil and partners with the National Institutes of Health and Vitalant Research Institute, both located in the United States. Dr. Carneiro-Proietti is also one of our distinguished mentors. She recently took time to chat with Global Talent Mentoring engagement specialist Christin Graml about the path that led her to her career as a hematologist, as well as share a bit about her experience as a woman in science.
My father was an engineer, and I also considered going into engineering. At the last minute, however, I changed my mind and began studying medicine. I tried many different areas, such as psychiatry and pediatrics. But when I started learning about blood diseases, I found myself really wanting to learn more. It was so fascinating to me, and eventually I became a resident in hematology.
Yes! There is a lot of physics and math in engineering. I’ve always enjoyed these subjects and was quite good in them. I think this is what first got me interested in STEMM. Even though I’m now working in quite a different field, there are many physics principles that can be applied, such as with the motion of the body and the tests in the lab. We can apply physics everywhere.
I’m based in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil and work as a hematologist focusing on blood diseases and blood transfusions. I did my post-doctoral research on hematology and infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland (United States). We treated a lot of patients with hemophilia and, at that time, there were a lot of unanswered questions. So I did my post-doctoral research on that. That’s how I started out my career, and then I went back to Brazil. My husband is a professor of epidemiology who specializes in urban health. He also got his doctorate at Johns Hopkins while I was studying there. We came back to Brazil and have collaborated on projects focusing on infectious diseases transmitted through blood.
I conduct research on blood transfusions, blood-transmitted infections, such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and HTLV (human T‑cell lymphotropic virus), and other blood-related diseases, such as Sickle Cell Disease and Chagas Disease. I’m part of several different research projects. One such research project is the interdisciplinary HTLV Research Group (GIPH), which I founded and coordinated for many years. GIPH brings together more than 30 researchers from 5 different institutions and guides undergraduate students in research as well as during their masters and doctoral studies. I also served as the head of the Hemominas Foundation (Fundação Hemominas) for twelve years. The Hemominas Foundation is the primary center of blood transfusion and hematology for the state of Minas Gerais and one of the largest blood-service organizations in Brazil. I’m no longer the president of the Hemominas Foundation, but I’m still quite active as a researcher there. I’m part of the Retrovirus Epidemiology Donor Study (REDS), which Hemominas joined in 2007. REDS conducts research focusing on transfusion-transmitted infections and got its start in 1989 by National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) located in Bethesda, Maryland (United States). This is also where I did an internship during my time after my postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. REDS has operations in Brazil, and the Hemominas Foundation has been the REDS partner in my state of Minas Gerais for the past 13 years. REDS has been renewed several times. Now it’s called REDS IV. This is where I concentrate my research interests now. Additionally, I trained as a psychoanalyst and participated at the Círculo Psicanalítico de Minas Gerais for several years. I still do work as a psychoanalyst.
It sounds like you’re quite a busy woman—and one of many talents! Global Talent Mentoring is proud to call you one of our distinguished mentors. Have you ever mentored anyone before?
Oh yes! One aspect I really like about my research work is that we interact with many, many students. We have many students who start out as beginners, fresh out of school, and then we see them through graduate programs, where they go on to get their masters and doctorate degrees. At GIPH and REDS, we get approached by a lot of students. They help us with the research and we guide them early on in their careers. It’s great that we are able to support these students.
Global Talent Mentoring is excited to have an experienced mentor such as yourself on board! Why do you enjoy being a mentor?
I like to network and make things happen for people. I like helping people find their way, their passion, and where their strengths really lie. Helping people, listening to them, and giving advice come very naturally to me. Many medical students have told me that they studied hematology because of me. This makes me very happy. The most important thing in life is to find something you like. For me, this makes what I do professionally a pleasure, not work.
Oh yes, I had many mentors throughout my life. I’ve had four or five very remarkable mentors.
Yes, and starting from when I was very young in Brazil. One math teacher, a female teacher, stands out to me from when I was young. She was very good—also very difficult and demanding. She was a great teacher and really made a positive impression on me. I still remember her. I thank her for being such a good teacher and mentor. And then I had two good mentors during my research training at Johns Hopkins University in the United States while working on my post-doctoral research in hematology and later in infectious diseases. I had two mentors there who were very good and influential in my career. I still keep in contact with them.
[A program like Global Talent Mentoring] gives access to young, talented people that would not have it otherwise. Such a program reaches young people, especially girls, who need this kind of support and will greatly benefit from it.
Yes, I think it’s very important to have a female role model. Having a female figure like this in your life shows girls, especially the younger ones, that they have something to aspire to. If a girl sees a woman in STEMM, then she thinks she can do this, too. If a girl only has male role models, perhaps it’s not so clear that she’ll be able to make it. But as women see more and more women going into STEMM fields, they see that it’s possible.
If one makes an effort to look for women, they are there, but they are usually in low positions. They aren’t allowed to speak up. And many do not accept power. For example, when I was the head of the Hemominas Foundation, it was very difficult to find women who wanted to be leaders there, for example to be the chiefs of individual blood centers. It’s amazing—even when they were offered higher positions, they refused! I think they don’t feel comfortable being the boss, and this is very much a cultural thing. It seems as if they have been trained their whole life to obey. So the challenge is to make these girls and women believe that they can be good leaders. We still have a long way to go to achieve this.
My path was very smooth. I don’t know why. I don’t know if in Brazil it’s better, or if it’s my own way of seeing things, but it was very natural for me. And when I was president of the blood center, the Hemominas Foundation, my position was at the third highest ranking level in the state hierarchy. First was the governor, then the secretaries of state, such as secretary of health and secretary of education, and then I was at the third level. As president of the big blood center, I presided over 3,000 employees and 30 centers throughout the state. It’s a very big operation. It was a lot of responsibility, but I had such a good team, and somehow it was ok. But there were occasions, such as during official ceremonies, when I noticed that I was the only woman sitting at the table. And then I would ask, “Where are the women?” I was also the only woman on the board of the granting agency of our state. When I finished my term, I told them, “You have to replace me with another woman.” And they did. They did this, because I said it was necessary to start to have a balance. Otherwise, they’ll forget the women and continue to think of men as the default option.
I think it’s improving. People are now more conscious and aware of these things, but there are still improvements that can be made. In Brazil, for example, the conservative government has created setbacks in this area. There are still many advancements to be made.
Our program, Global Talent Mentoring, makes an effort to match male mentors with male mentees and female mentors with female mentees. In this way, we prioritize providing female mentees with strong, female role models in STEMM. Do you think such a program is beneficial?
I think it’s very beneficial! It gives access to young, talented people that would not have it otherwise. Such a program reaches young people, especially girls, who need this kind of support and will greatly benefit from it. I think it’s great!