Night owl and international player
It was one o’clock in the morning when it suddenly happened. Maria Gomez and one of her colleagues had succeeded in visualising how NFAT moved into the cell nucleus. “We ran round the corridors shouting ’It’s true! It’s true!’, but there was absolutely no one around to share it with.”
Maria Gomez describes one of the highlights of her research career, but does not think you should sit around waiting for good results to come along: “What makes me happy is when something I say or do inspires someone else, and I feel proud when my students do well, when they defend their theses or are awarded money.”
Has she had any setbacks? “Absolutely, they happen all the time, but they’re lost in all the other things … articles are bounced, money doesn’t get awarded. You just have to turn the page, have a glass of wine, and do something else that’s fun,” she says.
Came to Sweden from Uruguay
Maria Gomez was 19 when she came to Sweden for the first time. At that point, she had already completed three years of a medical degree in Uruguay where she grew up. She wanted a break in her studies and travel around the world. She ended up in Europe where her family has roots in Italy, Ireland, and Spain. When she got to Copenhagen, a friend invited her across the sound to visit and to experience Lundakarnevalen. Lund made a real impression and she decided to apply to medical school there, which was the beginning of her new life in Sweden. She stayed in Lund, was able to credit some of her courses from the medical programme in Uruguay towards her degree, and supplemented her education with language improvements.
Maria Gomez knew early on that she wanted to work in medicine. “Many of my relatives are doctors, and they’re happy,” she explains. She has also been fortunate to meet some good teachers along the way who have helped her in her career. Maria Gomez describes her former biology teacher, Padre Falcone at the Jesuit school in Uruguay, who to this day is one of her greatest role models: “He was very inspiring. He drove us insane with his demands, but at the same time it was good to be challenged. He knew what each student was capable of and what buttons to press. Hard but fare.”
Research not so obvious
However, if becoming a doctor was a given, the research path was less obvious. At least for Maria herself who questioned her choice for a few years: “I never practiced medicine. What would that have been like? It felt like, perhaps not a failure, but more like something unfinished,” she says. Today, she is very happy with her life and thinks that with time she would have become a scientist anyway. “I’m much too inquisitive. This is a dream job! Imagine being paid to learn things and to write,” she says.
During her medical studies she met Per Hellstrand at old Fysiologen in Lund, and he became her supervisor when she did her PhD in physiology focusing on smooth muscleulature and calcium signalling. She is grateful for the solid foundation of knowledge and analytical way of thinking he fostered. “Today, everything must happen much quicker, there isn’t enough time,” she says. During her postdoc in Vermont in the USA in 2000–2001 she found a fantastic mentor in Mark Nelson. “During those years I built my network and discovered a new way of working.”
When the NFAT protein that she had studied for a long time proved to be glucose sensitive, Maria Gomez began collaborating with Jan Nilsson and Elisabet and Carl-David Agardh in Malmö. Because she wanted to focus more on immunology and genetics, she jumped at the chance in 2007 when she was invited to move her research to the Clinical Research Centre, CRC, in Malmö. “At the beginning, we all had to squeeze into Carl-David’s lab,” she says and emphasises that the move turned out to be one of the highlights of her career: “I was happy in Lund, but the atmosphere here is incredibly creative.”
Vice coordinator for LUDC
Today, she is the vice coordinator for Lund University Diabetes Centre, an associate professor, and heads a research group. The interest in, and connection with, diabetes has become much stronger over time. She deals with questions such as: Why do the blood vessels in diabetics thicken? How are the cells in the vascular walls able to interpret the dangers?
Stiff blood vessels are the underlying cause of many diseases, such as heart attacks and stroke. Using what we know today, it is possible to decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases but not stop them. “If we’re able to identify additional mechanisms we might find a way of interrupting the process,” explains Maria Gomez. In spite of the fact that it is possible to both treat and cure mice and rats in animal trials, the same methods do not work in humans, which is a major problem. Therefore, Maria Gomez hopes that researchers will be more successful as new and better animal models become available.
Outside of work, Maria Gomez is, and always has been, active. In Uruguay, she was on the junior national field hockey team and when she moved to Sweden she joined the club in Lund, where she later on met her husband. For four to five years she also played for the Swedish national field hockey team. She spends a lot of her time with her children, now aged 6, 13, and 17, at the swimming pool or by the football pitch. Besides that, Maria Gomez runs 10 km almost every day.
“Running is great. You think a lot, get rid of aggressions, get stronger and are ill less often.”
How does she manage work and her private life? “You have to find a balance. But, I don’t draw a line anymore, that just creates anxiety,” she says and carries on: “I have a fantastic husband, we’re a democratic family. It’s all possible with planning, and the children help with cleaning and cooking. I don’t believe in mollycoddling children, and I apply the same principle to my students. Besides, I’m a night owl, which is an advantage when you do research. You have to get up when the alarm goes off and the children are off to school, but when they come home in the afternoon and when they need me, I’m there. I like engaging in things and I can’t choose my level of commitment. It’s all or nothing.”
As vice coordinator for Lund University Diabetes Centre, Maria Gomez has a role in leading LUDC into the future. What does she think it will be like in ten years time? “Everything moves very quickly and I think that the pendulum will swing back. More and more people are generating data, which is something we must be able to handle. It could become noisy. We have to be able to work through that noise and ask ourselves: How do we do this, and what is it that we want to achieve?
Text: Sara Liedholm/Camilla Franks