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From Highly Cited Researcher to Secretary of State

How can a career in research lead to new and exciting opportunities? As International Women’s Day fast approaches (March 8), we wanted to share the story of Isabel Ferreira's inspiring career.

Isabel has been a Highly Cited Researcher for five years running. She has published numerous innovative patents and prospected more than 300 species, whereby she’s discovered their differing bioactive, preservative, and coloring capabilities.

Isabel has also secured a range of accolades for her impact in Food Chemistry, for her advancement of research in Portugal, and for her outstanding work as one of the country’s top women in science. And now, she is Portugal’s new Secretary of State for Interior Valorization.

We talk with Isabel about her inspiring move into government, and what this year’s International Women’s Day theme, “Each for Equal”, means to her.

Isabel Ferreira

What have been some of your research highlights?

In recent years, I have been mainly dedicated to technology transfer processes. Most of all, we are trying to use knowledge accumulated over a significant number of years to improve specific industrial processes, for economic and environmental benefit. In this context, I should highlight all published patents (which are attracting the attention of different industries), the international innovation prizes and, of course, the funded projects resulting from collaborations among scientific and industrial institutions at national and international level. Nonetheless, scientific productivity is mandatory for everyone pursuing a scientific career, so I am very proud of my position as one of the most influential researchers worldwide, as well as for having been recognized as a Highly Cited Researcher.

You’ve always been at the forefront of innovation and discovery in your work. How do you think your career in research will benefit your new role in government?

It is very hard to be a scientist. You need to be highly resourceful and able to find opportunities in contexts that initially look like constraints. Likewise, a huge amount of information is necessary to define the best working strategies. So, if you think it through, the required expertise is actually similar, despite, of course, the big dimensionality difference.

“It is very hard to be a scientist. You need to be highly resourceful and able to find opportunities in contexts that initially look like constraints.”

What does this year’s International Women’s Day theme “Each for Equal” mean to you?

International Women’s Day represents an important benchmark and celebration of women’s capacity and expertise throughout the world, in all scientific, cultural, economic, political and social areas. This year’s theme “Each for Equal” is particularly meaningful, as it materializes the concept of collective individualism, that is, the relevance of aggregating our individual efforts towards achieving a cohesive whole. We are like the pieces of a huge puzzle where each of us is absolutely necessary and unique; we need the collaboration of all when the purpose is forming and keeping the “big picture”.

Women represent 51% of all researchers in Portugal, well above the EU average — why do you think that is and how might other countries enable more women to get involved in research?

For several decades, Portugal has promoted the involvement of women in scientific activities (as well as in several other areas). This is not, obviously, a rapid process. So, it might take a few years for other countries to reach these equality levels, but I am sure that those countries will also reach this level of fairness. Women have (at least) the same working capacity as men, so if we get the right chances, we’ll achieve the expected results.

“...if we get the right chances, we’ll achieve the expected results.”

What do you think the research world will look like for women in 2050?

I am not expecting that it should be too different from the current scenario. You see, there were a few, but difficult steps, to be conquered before we reached the position where we are now. From this moment on, it is simply a question of keeping up the good work. I think that women will have a higher representation among the most important leading positions, but in terms of research per se, I anticipate a performance close to what we have now, adapted, of course, to the scientific challenges of that particular chronological context.

What are the priorities of the Secretary of State for Interior Valorization and what are your aspirations in this role?

The challenges that we are presently being faced with are highly demanding and we have identified our priorities to address these. We are preparing, among several other tasks, The Program for the Valorization of the Interior, which will bring strong and differentiated measures to boost these typically more deprived territories. Some of the flagship initiatives will include valorization of endogenous resources, interregional and international cooperation, attraction of people and investment to the Interior and ultimately making these territories more economically competitive.

Minister of Territorial Cohesion, Ana Abrunhosa, and Secretary of State Isabel Ferreira with representatives of regional houses, Lisbon, 17 February 2020.

You have had a very successful research career while working outside of a big research institution (or even a big city like Lisbon). What’s your advice for others looking to do the same?

Achieving success does not depend on a specific geographical position; it depends on your dedication, availability and the excellence of the outcomes you are able to reach. Nevertheless, there are some structural constraints for those willing to develop their careers in these peripheral areas. But, you know what? I am perfectly aware, by self-experience, of those specific constraints, and I am doing everything in my current position to minimize or eliminate them. And we should always emphasize that quality of life is very important.

“Achieving success does not depend on a specific geographical position; it depends on your dedication, availability and the excellence of the outcomes you are able to reach.”

You have also been a perennial Highly Cited Researcher — what does this recognition mean for you?

When you submit a scientific manuscript to be published, you believe that it fulfills all necessary requirements to be accepted by the scientific community. Hence, there is first a sense of achievement when you get your work published. This sense is boosted when you realize that your peers are acknowledging your work by using it as a reference in the process of writing their own papers. Therefore, being a Highly Cited Researcher is definitely an achievement that makes me proud.

You’ve carried out a large number of peer reviews throughout your career. Why do you review, and what tips can you offer new academics starting out in peer review?

Reviewing activity is essential. After reaching a top scientific status, I think that it is mandatory to contribute a critical opinion and point out issues that should be improved. This is like a quality stamp. One should guarantee that any published work achieves the quality and innovation needed to reach that status. Independent of your career status, you should always assure your work is reviewed effectively for scientific soundness and innovative character. Reading the overall indications of the journal is also mandatory.

“Reviewing activity is essential. After reaching a top scientific status, I think that it is mandatory to contribute a critical opinion and point out issues that should be improved.”

Thank you, Isabel.

Isabel Ferreira has edited four books, 60 chapters, and published over 600 papers in refereed journals and national and European patents. Many of these patents impacted the industry in which they were based and led to the creation of spin-offs within the Polytechnic Institute of Bragança. She has been presented with awards from different institutions for her work in advancing science in Portugal. These include Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Ciência Viva, the European Social Innovation Competition, as well as the merit medal of Bragança (among others). She is also a Highly Cited Researcher (top 1%) awarded by Clarivate Analytics in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, one of the most important indicators of research quality.

If you like what you read, make sure you share Isabel's story with the International Women's Day hashtags, #IWD2020 and #EachforEqual.

Join us in celebrating International Women’s Day. See more profiles of women leaders, activists, scientists and engineers here.

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