From the Baixada Fluminense to California: The Brazilian Scientist Chosen to Study Coronavirus

Rômulo Neris was one of seven young researchers chosen to study Covid-19 with a scholarship awarded by Dimensions Sciences: Personal archive

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For the original article in Portuguese by Mariana Alvim published by BBC News Brasil, click here.

As a child, Rômulo Neris loved the Jurassic Park films. It was this that helped him decide, at age 13, that he wanted to be a biologist when he grew up.

Now, at 27, Neris isn’t studying long-extinct gigantic dinosaurs—rather, he’s rolling up his sleeves to investigate the microscopic coronavirus, responsible for the current global health emergency, a pandemic that [as of June 8] already infected more than six million people and killed more than 380,000.

Born and raised in Duque de Caxias, a municipality in Greater Rio de Janeiro‘s Baixada Fluminense region, Neris returned home from California at the end of May.

Neris is working toward a PhD in immunology and inflammation at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and, since August 2019, has realized a research exchange at the University of California, Davis, researching the Chikungunya arbovirus, which is the subject of his dissertation.

In addition to writing his dissertation about the Chikungunya virus for defense later this year, Neris is currently waiting to finish his quarantine after his international flight, staying in a room at a friend’s place, before beginning his research on the novel coronavirus.

Neris was one of seven Brazilian researchers selected to study Covid-19 with a grant from Dimensions Sciences, an organization founded in the United States by Marcia Fournier, a Brazilian biotechnology specialist living in Washington, DC.

With the grant, which lasts three months, Neris will work on two primary tasks. The most immediate is to get to work helping to process molecular testing being carried out in the Covid-19 Diagnostic Screening Center created by UFRJ. Brazil’s capacity to carry out and analyze tests has been one of the country’s main obstacles in the fight against the coronavirus.

“We are lagging behind with testing in Brazil. Coronavirus cases have been underreported to the point that we can no longer even get a good estimate of the extent of underreporting in the country,” reported the young scientist during a telephone interview with BBC News Brasil.

The other task will allow Neris, who has an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s in microbiology from UFRJ, to carefully study the coronavirus in the laboratory.

“I am going to study the genetics of the virus and its mutations, but also the effects observed in infected individuals, like metabolic and pulmonary changes. The idea is to gain an understanding of how the virus infects cells in different ways and why there are so many different and serious manifestations of the virus’ symptoms, even in cases where there is no comorbidity.”

“One of the most probable explanations is that the coronavirus causes an exacerbated immune response. In other words, the infection could cause a high level of inflammation, principally in the lung tissue, and this inflammation spreads to other tissues, causing different symptoms.”

Private Primary School and Public High School

Rômulo's scholarship will allow him to ‘get to work’ on Covid-19 testing and do laboratory research: Personal archive

Long before becoming a scientist and looking for answers about the novel coronavirus, Neris used to have fun watching paleontologists in movies and catching bugs in the yard of his home.

The son of a railroad worker father and an administrative assistant mother who later earned a degree in education, Neris remembers that, at home, the family always talked frankly about how to finance his education and that of his sister, who is now a graduate of Law.

From first to ninth grade, Neris earned a scholarship to study at a private school, and later went to a public high school: the Colégio Estadual Círculo Operário in Duque de Caxias. He remembers that his parents’ encouragement that he read and study at home played an integral role in his academic development.

Thanks to a partnership between the local education ministry and the National Institute of Metrology, Standardization and Industrial Quality (Inmetro), while he was in high school, Neris was given the opportunity to undertake a technical program in metrology and industrial quality while also attending his regular high school.

“A family friend recommended this technical program, so I read up on it and liked it quite a bit because I saw that we would have a range of classes like physics, chemistry, electronics, mechanics. And the program really helped prepare me to go to university, because, in my day, free community-based college entrance exam preparatory courses were not so common and my family couldn’t afford to pay for a private preparatory course,” said Neris, who would later be accepted at [top Rio university] UFRJ.

Looking back at the schools he attended, Neris remembers “inspirational” teachers who encouraged him to pursue science, as well as the encouragement he got from his high school, such as booster classes for technical skills and school mathematics olympiads.

Neris also took part in competitions outside of high school, and was among the highest-scoring entrants for the Brazilian Astronomy Olympiad and the Prova Brasil test in 2019.

Personal Effort as a ‘Catalyst’

Neris points out that the encouragement, scholarships, and prizes that he has won had not only a motivating effect but also played a material role in keeping him studying.

“I did a math test organized by the Rio de Janeiro state government, which offered the prize of a laptop for the best 1,000 students, and I was one of the top competitors. I used this laptop to study during my first two years at university.”

“At the end of the technical program, I got a scholarship for an internship—my first scholarship. I remember that I used the money to pay for transportation, lunches, and other university costs.”

On the topic of the recurring debate in education about the balance of personal achievement and external incentives, the scientist points out that it’s a complex equation.

“When I think about my trajectory, there are so many things, so many details and events that happened together that helped me get to where I am now that it is impossible for me to say I am here solely on my own merit. To start, from a young age, I remember my parents investing in my education however they could, encouraging me to read…”

“I know that if I compare my trajectory to that of people with whom I grew up, I am in a unique position, considering the opportunities that I had. But I don’t attribute most of my success story to personal merit alone, not at all.”

“I can say that, in some ways, success is proportional to the effort put in… Success is a consequence of effort, to tell the truth. But it’s not effort that will determine the extent of this success, for this is entirely reliant on the context. This is something that many people don’t factor into the equation. People think that effort alone leads to success.”

“I think of my personal effort as a catalyst, but success is completely dependent on context. You could be very strong physically and end up working in construction your whole life, or you could be a wrestler. This doesn’t depend on the effort put in. Rather, it’s about the context.”

Brazilian Scientists as ‘Eternal Students’

If, in the past, scholarships and prizes helped Neris pay for bus tickets and won him a laptop, now, as a PhD student, they act as a salary.

After his experience in the United States, where he was a Fulbright scholar, financed by the US government, Neris has returned to Brazil with the impression that graduate study in Brazil is seen as being an “eternal student.”

“Brazil still deals with researchers in a very amateur way, especially in the sciences. People doing masters, doctorates, or laboratory work are seen as eternal students. While there is nothing wrong with being a student, science is a profession in its own right.”

“For many of us, our scholarship is our salary. So, when people ask me, ‘What’s it like to not have a scholarship?’ I respond, ‘It’s like being a 27-year-old, at my age, with a job but no salary attached to it.’”

Neris in California: Kindallas

At the beginning of his doctorate, Neris says he received a scholarship from the Brazilian government through CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel). However, after he received a scholarship in the United States, the Brazilian scholarship money was diverted elsewhere.

When contacted by BBC News Brasil, CAPES said that the UFRJ’s graduate program in immunology and inflammation—which Neris is part of—had an increase of eight scholarships awarded in 2020 for PhD students and three for masters students.

Back in Brazil, Neris is celebrating being selected for the Dimensions Sciences grant, which involves holding meetings and writing periodic reports on how his studies are unfolding. During the coronavirus pandemic, he has been working with his supervisor, Iranaia Assunção Miranda, in her research group, on projects specifically looking at the new disease in partnership with other laboratories and groups at UFRJ.

Another thing that changed during his experience in the United States was his perception of racial issues. He now identifies as black but recognizes that this was a recent change, having identified as pardo (mixed race) for many years.

“I realized that, in the United States, race is a more open subject than it is in Brazil. Here, we use other terms to identify as black, like, moreninho, pardo, but in my case, I now consider myself to be black, having better familiarized myself with the issue.”

“While I was in the United States, I saw lots of people discussing the representation of black people in different areas, including many people who possibly wouldn’t be considered black in Brazil, precisely because, in Brazil, we tend to separate more—with subcategories of skin color.”

Arboviruses and Coronavirus

While still in the United States, Neris saw the coronavirus cause a pandemic, and, from there, he began to study it.

It is a virus like many others, but it is also different from arboviruses— the subject of Neris’ studies for several years and which don’t fit into a taxonomic classification but rather are a generic group of viruses that spread via insects—like the yellow fever mosquito—and arachnids.

“I have always worked with arboviruses: dengue, yellow fever, Zika, Chikungunya, or Mayaro… But despite being caused by a virus, respiratory syndromes are very different. Because of that, I have spent the last two months studying a lot about the biology of respiratory viruses. In the field of virology, it’s a whole new world.”

The scientist explained some of the differences, for example, concerning the “replication sites.”

“With arboviruses, the majority of the time, the virus replicates itself on the upper layers of the skin before it spreads to the blood and moves to other areas of the body. However, the coronavirus replicates primarily in the lungs. In that sense, the way in which the cells respond and die is different, as is the time it takes for the virus to reproduce.”

“This alone is enough for us to change our whole approach to treatment,” he noted, highlighting the difference in the ways the different viruses are transmitted, such as via mosquitoes or, in the case of coronavirus, humans.

For his doctorate, Neris is focusing on a group of proteins present in many of our cells: immunoproteasomes. These can explain why many people who are infected with Chikungunya continue to feel pain in their limbs and muscles even after the virus is no longer present in the body.

“Immunoproteasomes have many functions, but one of the main ones is to act like a garbage sorting device for the cells. We have found evidence that, when someone is infected by Chikungunya, the virus causes a strange activation of immunoproteasomes, which start to lose control of what they are destroying. It’s very possible that they start to destroy things that are important for the infected cell even after the infection has been brought under control.”

The Importance of Raising Scientific Consciousness

This interview with BBC News Brasil is not the first time Neris has needed to explain his doctoral dissertation in a small number of words. In 2018, Neris was a semifinalist in FameLab Brasil, a competition about spreading scientific awareness organized by the British Council, in which competing scientists were given a few minutes to explain scientific concepts to an audience.

In February 2020, Neris wrote on Twitter about ways to prevent coronavirus, and his tweets went viral. His posts were retweeted and liked tens of thousands of times.

“I didn’t expect it—I woke up the next day and saw that I had gone viral and many people were sending me messages and asking questions. It was a really cool experience.”

“It was a shock too, because the things I wrote in the tweets were very basic to me. I was surprised that most of what I was writing was not of general knowledge.”

“I have always sought to share my research—when I have an article published, I post about it on my social media accounts, summarizing the article in a simple way. But over the last two years, I have understood that raising scientific awareness is a duty of mine as a researcher.”

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