Interview with mentor and distinguished scientist Dr. Anna Bárbara de Freitas Carneiro-Proietti

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.

What led you to choose a career in the field of hematology?

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. 

Did the fact that your father worked in a STEMM field also influ­ence you to choose a career in STEMM?

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. 

Can you tell us about your work and how you got start­ed in your career?

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. 

That’s excit­ing that you have been able to col­lab­o­rate pro­fes­sion­al­ly with your hus­band. Can you tell us a lit­tle bit more about your research?

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. 

[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.
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. 

When you were a young pro­fes­sion­al, did you have a men­tor?

Oh yes, I had many men­tors through­out my life. I’ve had four or five very remark­able mentors. 

Were you men­tored at dif­fer­ent stages in your devel­op­ment?

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. 

You had men­tioned that your school math teacher was a woman. As a woman in STEMM, do you think it’s impor­tant to have a female men­tor?

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. 

What has been your obser­va­tion about women work­ing in STEMM?

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. 

Did you always feel encour­aged as a woman in sci­ence or did you find that you had to some­times work extra hard to be seen?

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. 

How have things changed over the years with women in sci­ence or in lead­er­ship posi­tions in sci­ence?

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! 

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