FACULTY PROFILE: Robarts couple shares everything, including lab space

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By Cameron Maclean
Friday, June 5, 2009
Vania Prado thought it was time she and her husband took their relationship to the next level and finally move in together.
 
The two scientists had shared a home for many years, but they always kept separate labs. Now they have consummated their professional relationship and are sharing a lab at the Robarts Research Institute at The University of Western Ontario.

The geneticist and her husband, Marco, moved to London from Brazil. While they are still settling into their new home here at Western, their work relationship is well established.

Although they worked in different labs at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Prado says they have worked on the same projects for years.

“It hasn't changed much. We were together all the time anyway,” she says.

Prado studies the cholinergic system, a system of neurotransmitters responsible for everything from learning and memory to muscle movement. Specifically, she is studying the chemical acetylcholine, or ACh, which carries signals from the brain across neurons, the cells that make up nerves.

Prado says when people age, neurons break down and can’t hold as much ACh. Brain signals can’t travel along nerve pathways and parts of the brain can’t communicate with each other, leading to many diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Prado genetically modifies mice to produce less ACh and studies the effects, which range from reduced physical strength and deformed bodies to learning difficulties.

She says she hopes her research will lead to better treatments for Alzheimer’s and memory loss.

Neurological research wasn’t always Prado’s specialty. She studied dentistry as an undergrad at the University of Itauna but found the experience unsatisfying. She was uncomfortable with the level of closeness dentists have with their patients.

“I'm not very good at relating to people,” she says.

As an undergrad she worked as a teaching assistant for her biochemistry professor and found the experience much more enjoyable. For her master’s degree she switched into molecular biology.

She met Marco during her PhD studies at the University of Minas Gerais. She was studying proteins in the amniotic fluid. He was already working on the cholinergic system.

Prado says he would always talk about his research.

“I was not happy with what I was doing. He came and said I would be much happier working with him,” she says.

The two married before they finished their PhDs, but their professional relationship took longer to blossom. Marco says they didn’t want to “rush into anything.” It was five or six years before they started working on all the same projects.

“There was a lot of dating, beforehand,” says Marco.

In the meantime, Prado accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at McGill University. Marco went with her.

“We made a decision very early in life that we would never be separated because of work,” he says.

Vania’s first son, Thiago, was born in Montreal. It was also at McGill where she met Stephen Ferguson, now Canada Research Chair in Molecular Neurobiology at Western, a contact that would eventually bring her to London.

Prado’s second son, Bruno, was born after she moved back to Brazil in 1994 to study the genetics of the Brazilian population. But she also started spending more time in her husband’s lab.

She says studying neuroscience made her feel like she was helping people, a feeling she just didn’t get from population genetics.

When they came to London, Prado and her husband also brought a team of grad students with them, some of whom have been with them as long as eight years. They have grown quite close, says Prado.

“(They are) like our kids.”

Outside the lab, Prado says the students will often come over for drinks and parties.
In her spare time, Prado says she enjoys painting and drawing. She and her husband also like to get on their bikes and pedal around the city.

The couple celebrated their twentieth anniversary last July, shortly after moving here. After almost as long working as lab partners, Prado is glad her husband succeeded in convincing her to make the switch.

“Knowing that the results of your experiments can help a lot of people, it's wonderful,” she says.

“I’m much happier now.”

Fact Box:

• Parents: Father worked in a textile factory, mother was a homemaker
• Siblings: Older brother is an engineer; younger sister is a civil servant.
• Children: Two boys, 16 and 13
• Ph.D Thesis Title: Identificação eCaracterização das Proteínas Fetais do Líquido Amniótico  Humano de Fetos Normais e Patológicos
• Lived in Montreal for three years
 
The writer is a graduate student studying Journalism. This feature profiles faculty members hired over the past two years.

 

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