Professor Maria Carmo-Fonseca

By Rui Fu

Dr. Maria Carmo-Fonseca is a Professor at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Lisbon and the currently elected RNA Society President (2021-2022). The work in her lab focuses on understanding the contributions of RNA splicing to the development of cancer and disease. She describes her path to studying RNA splicing as “pure serendipity”. As Dr. Carmo-Fonseca told it, one day during her postdoctoral work at Dr. Ed Hurt’s lab in Heidelberg, she made an “unexpected observation [that] triggered a collaboration with Dr. Angus Lamond, and subsequent work in his lab led me to the discovery that spliceosomal snRNAs concentrate in a sub-nuclear compartment later identified as coiled or Cajal bodies.” Since then, Professor Carmo-Fonseca has dedicated her research career to studying splicing and RNA processing. The ultimate goal of her current research program is to “identify disease-associated defects in co-transcriptional RNA processing and devise strategies to correct them”.

Dr. Carmo-Fonseca received both her MD and PhD in cell biology from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Lisbon, and completed her post-doctoral training at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. Initially, when she returned to Portugal to establish her independent lab, proved to be the greatest challenge of her career. In her own words, “I felt scientifically isolated. International collaborations helped but were not enough.” As a means of attracting young talent and to nurture a vibrant scientific environment, she co-founded the Lisbon Institute of Molecular Medicine and served as its first Director for 14 years. She said, “I am very proud to say that the Institute became a success story and continues to thrive under new leadership.”

“The founders of the RNA Society had clear values in mind that must be perpetuated, while adapting to modernity. I think it is the right timing to re-shape the interactions between the Society and the RNA journal, and to introduce a fresh view on matters related to transparency and diversity.”

A similar sense of duty brought Dr. Carmo-Fonseca forward to serve on the RNA Society board. As she puts it, “I have reached a point in my life [and career] where I feel I should give back to the younger generations the type of support that I received in the past.” Her vision for the Society is to “keep traditions alive, and yet introduce change”. She appreciates the RNA Society as a caring and inclusive community. “The annual meetings are like a family reunion, where all RNA biologists feel at home. The founders of the RNA Society had clear values in mind that must be perpetuated, while adapting to modernity. I think it is the right timing to re-shape the interactions between the Society and the RNA journal, and to introduce a fresh view on matters related to transparency and diversity.”

One of Dr. Carmo-Fonseca’s new initiatives is the addition of five new yearly awards to RNA Society’s award structure. These new awards include four categories dedicated to recognizing the contributions of often overlooked individuals or aspects of academic research.  Two of these new awards recognize the importance of having a diverse RNA community. The Research Excellence by an Underrepresented Scientist celebrates accomplishments by diverse scientists, and the Excellence in Inclusive Leadership recognizes the critical efforts of individuals working to enhance diversity in RNA research.  The Outstanding Career Researcher Award will acknowledge the important work of non-PI scientists. Training the next generation of scientists has long been an central goal of the RNA Society, and the Distinguished Research Mentor Award “celebrates outstanding scientific mentorship by our members and highlights the importance of fostering academic and professional development of trainees in RNA research”. The fifth new award, The Eclipse Award for Innovation in High Throughput Biology, “recognizes research achievements by junior researchers in the growing areas of high throughput experimentation and analysis.”

When asked about advice for trainees, Professor Carmo-Fonseca highlighted the importance of exposure to different opportunities to broaden trainees’ scientific perspectives and to strengthening their mentorship circles. She urges young scientists to “go to international meetings, work at different institutes, and do not remain confined to your own lab.” Talent, passion, and dedication are all important for a successful research career, so Dr. Carmo-Fonseca believes every trainee must discover their own calling. This is a process mentors can actively facilitate. “My mentor in Portugal, Prof. David Ferreira, gave me unconstrained scientific freedom while guiding me through the University system. My mentor at EMBL, Dr. Angus Lamond, was instrumental for scientific networking.”

Commenting on the new-found fame of RNA in the context of COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Carmo-Fonseca says, “It makes me so proud now to tell my family and non-science friends ‘I work on RNA!’” She recalls a bus ride to Chicago airport several years ago, after the conclusion of an RNA Society meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. Together with other meeting participants, she tried to explain the concept of RNA to the friendly bus driver. “Despite his goodwill in listening to our sophisticated explanations, ‘RNA’ was an utterly bizarre and cryptic word to him. I keep the memoir of this episode as a token of appreciation for the overwhelming popularity of the RNA vaccine.” 

Prof. Carmo-Fonseca can be found on Twitter at @MCarmoFonseca.

Dr. Carmo-Fonseca's favorite RNA journal article is one that she co-authored with Dr. Elisa Izaurralde, on molecular interaction facilitated by the C-terminal domain of the mRNA export factor TAP, ( “I first met Elisa when we were both post-docs working late hours in labs that were next-door to each other at the EMBL. I developed a deep respect and admiration for Elisa, and I feel immensely privileged for our past scientific collaboration.”