In this podcast, journalist Estela Cangerana interviews Professor Benedito Fonseca, a Yale alumnus and a graduate of the University of São Paulo (USP) School of Medicine. Professor Benedito Fonseca was featured as part of the Yale and Brazil ‘Supporting Future Science Research’ webinar series on February 23. Watch the webinar video and learn more about the webinar series here.
At Yale University, Professor Fonseca earned a master’s degree in Epidemiology and Public Health and a Ph.D. in Molecular Virology. Apart from being an associate professor at the USP School of Medicine in Ribeirão Preto, he is one of the directors and co-founders of the USP-Yale partnership for Global Health. Academically, he has an extensive background in the research of infectious and parasitic diseases—especially dengue and Zika—and, more recently, has also been coordinating research projects to address the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil.
You often say Yale was a turning point in your career. What were the main opportunities and new prospects it provided you with post-Yale??
Well, after studying medicine and doing my residency in infectious diseases at USP School of Medicine’s hospital in São Paulo, I became a clinician. When the opportunity to complete a master’s degree in virology at Yale University came up, I was exposed to the greatest scholars of virology and viral diseases transmitted by arthropods. The experience provided me with an entirely new background in scientific research; the knowledge I acquired during my seven years at Yale while doing a Master’s and a Ph.D. was precious.
For this reason, after returning to Brazil, I was able to lead research initiatives at the USP Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine to further investigate the diseases I had directly studied during my stay at Yale. The focus of these initiatives is the illnesses transmitted by arthropods, especially dengue, which has become the flagship of the research I do in Ribeirão Preto. From an academic point of view, the time I spent at Yale and the outstanding relationships I built there were extremely fruitful. Moreover, in regard to personal development, I had to learn how to interact with people from different backgrounds while speaking a foreign language. This all brings personal development, which is often difficult to assess in its entirety.
You still maintain close ties with Yale given that you work in a diverse environment with professionals from different backgrounds. What are the benefits of cross-national collaboration to joint projects and the advancement of scientific research?
This type of partnership with Yale is of great importance because it allows us to learn from the expertise of the university’s faculty and to conduct experiments we would not normally have the equipment for here in Brazil. The dynamic of these projects is very collaborative, having some of the experiments done at Yale and others here at USP.
Recently, we worked together with other researchers to develop a dengue vaccine, which uses a virus (the vesicular stomatitis virus) to express dengue proteins. Additionally, we have also started to study molecular epidemiology. Through the analysis of several dengue samples collected here in Ribeirão Preto and other parts of Brazil throughout several years, we were able to show the evolution of these viruses during that period.
These are just some examples of the types of collaborations we do. Because such initiatives are student-oriented, they have also provided my students—and me—with an opportunity to learn quite a bit. Our students go to Yale to learn specific techniques, which are then implemented here in Brazil when they return to the institute.
Additionally, from a personal standpoint, I still have a very close relationship with Yale because of the many friends I made there. These are people I really like spending time with so it is always a pleasure to return to campus to see them.
You are responsible for the Brazilian side of the USP-Yale partnership for Global Health. In practice, how does this exchange program work?
When we launched the partnership, the goal was to implement a program that would promote a greater exchange of students between the two institutions and increase academic cooperation between researchers. The program has been active since—excluding the past years due to the pandemic—and we continue to seek funding in order to remain so. To sum up, this has been an extremely productive partnership on both sides. All of our students who participated in it returned with new and different ideas and many of them are currently abroad, working at institutions that value the experiences they gained during this exchange program.
What joint projects would you like to highlight?
My two most recent projects are quite interesting. The first one is the research I had previously mentioned—we made a dengue vaccine using the immunization vector from the vesicular stomatitis virus. The second project is the molecular epidemiology study of the dengue virus in Brazil, particularly in the Northeast and the Southeast regions.
Additionally, I hosted students here at Ribeirão Preto who were georeferencing infections to determine transmission hot spots. There was another group of researchers in the field of Entomology who came to collect egg samples from the mosquito that transmits dengue, Aedes Aegypti, during the phase when the disease is not so prevalent (called the inter-epidemic period). Together, we proved that, even if the disease is not active, it is already in circulation since there is mosquito activity during that period. Finally, we had a project a bit outside of the scope I usually work with that was led by a student studying the adherence of HIV-infected patients to antiretroviral therapy. Therefore, there have been many collaborative research projects lately. It is even hard to cite every single one of them given that the partnership has been in place for many years now.
Finally, I would like to ask what suggestions you would give to young professionals who want to follow this research trajectory and pursue global collaborations in their careers?
I would advise them to do everything possible to achieve this goal. In my opinion, this type of experience is an opportunity to get in touch with other cultures and to really develop academically. With that being said, if there is a will and an opportunity shows up, I think anyone should take it. Most importantly—and it is not because I did it myself: go abroad, learn, experience, but return back to Brazil to establish the same standard of scientific investigation that we find at institutions like Yale University.