Gabrielle Britton and Amador Goodridge have in common a passion for science, as well as a genuine mutual admiration on a professional and personal level. These Panamanian scientists are convinced of the importance of developing science in the country and investing in it, as it is a key vehicle for improving the quality of life.

Both researchers have devoted their efforts to the service of science in Panama: Britton holds a PhD in Neuroscience and Psychology and heads the Neurosciences Center of the Institute of Scientific Research and High Technology Services (INDICASAT AIP, for its acronym in Spanish) based in the City of Knowledge and researches aging. At the same time, she directs the Panama Aging Research Initiative (PARI) program, a cohort research aimed at finding biological markers that facilitate the early diagnosis of cognitive impairment associated with age, with a focus special in Alzheimer’s disease.

Goodridge, on the other hand, is a researcher with a doctorate in infectious diseases and immunity at INDI-CASAT AIP; he studies the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of tuberculosis and is the Vice-president of Panama’s Coordinating Mechanism for HIV and Tuberculosis. Through the study of biomarkers of tuberculosis, Dr. Goodridge focuses his efforts on contributing to improve human and animal health in Panama, fighting diseases by knowing in depth where they are and who suffer from it.

This interview is a conversation between colleagues. It is Britton who interviews Goodridge, overviewing his professional career, reflecting on the development of science in Panama and analyzing the challenge of tuberculosis in a country like ours, where -although we have made important advances as nation- we still suffer from diseases typical of the less developed societies of the world.

Gabrielle Britton: Amador, it’s been many years since we met and started working together. I would like to start by recalling your scientific career, your beginnings at INDICASAT and how all this led to the work you do now.

Amador Goodridge: Gabrielle, what a pleasure to speak with you. Since my undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Panama I had contact with several professors that motivated me to continue in the scientific area. From then on, I began to value what it means to do science in our country and how science can be the vehicle for new methods to enter the country, all for the improvement of Public Health. 

Then, when I got a scholarship / internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute during my master’s thesis work, I was fortunate to establish contact with a wider circle of international researchers. From this time, I’ve felt a stillness of wondering why other places in Panama did not have similar spaces for scientific research.

One thing led to another. Later, in 2002, I was invited to join the team that worked and inaugurated a project promoted by SENACYT, which at that time was known as the INDICA-SAT Laboratories, which was a source of pride for me: Panama finally had its own research institute, where students could come to work on their theses or to work on problems of national scope.

G.B.: About that time our paths crossed, remember? When you left to study your Ph.D. in the United States, I had just returned to Panama, and shortly after I became Director in Charge of INDICASAT. […] I remember that we worked together in your transition back into the country, because we needed people willing to return to work on priority problems for Panama. In fact, you came back and started working on tuberculosis. What led you to this and why have you focused mainly on the province of Colon?

A.G.: The focus of my doctorate studies was tuberculosis and my objective was always to return and be able to help the country. INDICASAT-AIP provided the connection that I needed with what was happening in Panama. […] My interest in tuberculosis as a research line, in fact, already came from my previous experience in INDICASAT, where I had already managed to get some international funding to understand the dynamics of the bacteria in several countries, including Panama.

But it was curiously being abroad that I started to investigate more deeply about the reality of the disease in Panama and I found very serious situations not only in rural areas, but also in urban areas. That’s why I decided to focus on this issue upon my return. Although I had some professors who encouraged me to work on discovering the mechanisms of bacterial pathogenesis from the United States, I always had a clear idea of ​​returning to contribute, as a researcher, to help solve this situation.

G.B.: We really needed you to come back [laughs]. Indeed, although as a country we have gone through an epidemiological transition where most of the diseases that affect us are not infectious, but chronic, tuberculosis remains an outstanding debt. Especially because it is closely linked to socioeconomic levels, which is typical of inequalities in our countries. Do you think we have advanced in that sense? Are we achieving greater equality between health and socioeconomic status?

A.G.: In 2011 when I returned to Panama, the tuberculosis situation was complex in several dimensions: first, we have the social component – inequality- which means that the most vulnerable are the most affected. On the other hand, there is a social dynamic of people migrations from rural to urban areas, as well as migrations from other countries. This is not always the case, but on many occasions, this is a cause of urban poverty because people who arrive in cities are not able to take good care of their health or cannot access health services, because they do not have the resources or because of a lack of awareness.

The other dimension of the problem was, at that time, that the health system could not do an adequate diagnostic work, the existing methodology was very outdated, which made the management of tuberculosis very complicated. In this context, finally, as an investigator I asked myself the question: what do I choose to investigate in this context?

G.B.: Right. Your research is peculiar in a way: you work at an applied clinical level, but also in basic research mechanisms; a kind of multitasking in science, which is unusual …

A.G.: The reality of the tuberculosis situation in Panama required it. I don’t focus on a single applied line because our country needs everything: on the one hand, we had to make evaluations for immediate response, but also in-depth studies to provide basic information on how this disease operates. Faced with the reality of tuberculosis in Panama with which I met in 2011-2012, I was concerned and knew something had to be done somehow.

In fact, we had to work hard on public education, since there existed a perception that tuberculosis was not a problem in Panama, that it had been eradicated. We made efforts to communicate to people that if they present symptoms or are suspicious of possible contagion, they should approach the health centers so that they can be diagnosed and treated correctly.

There is also the issue of stigma; there’s also a lot of ignorance about the disease; for example, a company may want to fire a collaborator with tuberculosis, but the reality is that once a person starts their treatment with antibiotics, it stops being contagious. It also has a cure, there are specialized drugs in Panama, and everyone may survive and return to their normal lives.

In other words, I knew that people’s living conditions could not be changed from one day to the next, but at the country level, I knew we could immediately begin to improve the response of the health sector and diagnoses. In that sense, we have worked with the Ministry of Health and achieved international support, attracting country funds to improve much-needed aspects such as purchasing equipment, medicines and training personnel to improve the diagnosis and management of tuberculosis.

G.B.: Now that you mention staff training, I have noticed that you work with many young people and many women, groups that despite being underrepresented in science, are over-represented in your work teams. Do you do this on purpose?

A.G.: It’s certainly not a coincidence. I think that the country has to be strengthened with greater gender parity and diversity in teams, not only in science in general, but in terms of response to tuberculosis. I am convinced that women have the capacity to harmonize what we do, and we are trying to achieve, which is why my research groups are currently made up of 80% women.

We try to help them and follow their paths of professional development; it makes me very happy to say that we have research students who have gone on to study at the best universities in the world, with the support of SENACYT.

G.B.: This is critical – what I call generational change-over, training young people so that we have a critical mass of scientists in the future, who will be trained and, as you did, come back and can continue to develop the program you have put in place. What specific advice would you give to a young student who wants to be a scientist?

A.G.: I would tell them to take the time to get to know their country: before going to study abroad, go to the different research institutes, universities, research centers affiliated with them; this way they will be able to know and evaluate directly what the researchers are doing, what is currently  happening and what the country needs in terms of research and science. […]

Did you know, for example, that near Pedasí, in the province of Los Santos, we have the laboratory for International Center for Tropical Tuna? There, for many years, scientists have been working to close the yellowfin tuna breeding cycle. This is a scientific achievement that is sold from Panama to the world. Seeing things like this reminds you that in our country you can do science.

I would also tell them to visit the City of Knowledge, for example, where there are many organizations that do teaching, research, innovation, entrepreneurship, all this must be known.

G.B.: I agree with you. The City of Knowledge, for example, has been an unprecedented project, not only in the region but in the hemisphere: a place for academic and scientific development, innovation, home to many NGOs. What role do you see for a space like this in making visible and popularizing science?

A.G.: I am fascinated with the City of Knowledge (CdS), it is a conglomerate that attracts people from different areas of knowledge and this mix of organizations and minds have allowed me to expand my vision of what science can achieve in our country. I think that if I were in an institute located in another place that did not allow me this type of interaction, I would end up discouraged; I think I would feel very alone! […].

Here we have a neutral ground to exchange ideas and discussions in an open manner on various topics; and above all, being here allows you glocal access: that is, we are projecting ourselves in our local environment in Panama, but here there are also international agencies that put us in global contact with organizations from other parts of the world.

In addition, the City of Knowledge supports and accompanies people in innovative endeavors. Do you remember how they supported us when we started a few years ago, in our scientific communication project? As a result, the movement ‘Science in Panama’ is a result of this.

Thanks to this movement, for example, we have scientists who have been able to promote at the national level evidence-based decision-making. Just as an example, this year they held a fabulous congress of the Network for the Popularization of Science and Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean (RedPOP) in Panama, precisely here at the City of Knowledge. None of this would have been possible without their support.

G.B.: Let’s talk about the scientific landscape of the country. You and I work in health sciences, with human beings and studying specific diseases that need a lot of work at the diagnostic level. […] What do you think are those challenges we have as scientists regarding the country’s vision? Where are we and what do we need to get where we want to go?

A.G.: That question has many answers, Gabrielle [laughs]. Look, I think that Panama has advanced a lot in terms of science: we have many of the important and necessary elements for the articulation of a science ecosystem in Panama ; such as appropriate legislation for scientific research calls, generation of scientific skills, a number of young scientists, business innovation for the national system of researchers, the Health Research Law, and relevant initiatives such as INDICASAT-AIP and the other associations of public-private interest carried out by SENACYT, among others. The issue is that this ecosystem needs resources and currently our investment in science does not even reach the regional average. This level of investment is insufficient to solve national problems. We need an investment that can tackle several components:

On the one hand, it is necessary to invest in research institutes: we already have several initiatives in this dimension such as the Agricultural Research Institute of Panama (IDIAP, for its acronym in Spanish), the Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies and various universities nationwide. The education of future generations must be strengthened so that they are inspired and able to study and develop as scientists.

On the other hand, we urgently need to include some of the scientific investigators of caliber who are arriving at Panama after their doctorates to be included as professors at the university. In other words, to start the systematic insertion of teachers with new enthusiasts of science, so that these institutions develop research centers and laboratories where we can stimulate the new generations of professionals to generate knowledge. The idea is to insert scientists into university environments so that students can practice and learn from them.

Finally, we must invest so that science has a more participatory role in the country’s decision-making: here I think we have to do a better job at bringing companies, the political class and science closer together. Create the necessary spaces for these three actors to exchange and generate new strategies to take our country forward.

G.B.: That’s true. Why not include researchers and scientists in the ministries in order to contribute to country plans and policies, for example? I would add another challenge, Amador: the management of science. We must improve governance systems, how decisions are made, where priorities lie.

Your career is far from over, Amador, and I wonder: what now? What do you still need to do? How do you foresee your research program and your life project?

A.G.:  I have been thinking a lot about where we are going and I always end up at the same idea: we have not yet solved the tuberculosis problem in Panama, although we have understood several issues around this illness. For me, there is more to be done in terms of implementing strategies to strengthen its eradication.

This means that we must enter more complex studies. We have to research tuberculosis in children. We have observed congenital tuberculosis, for example. Also, the intrinsic reasons that allow the high rates of tuberculosis in indigenous communities (from the biological point of view, but also social). On the other hand, studies of vaccines should be carried out: we should start to test the new vaccines against tuberculosis, make inquiries about the new drugs approved for tuberculosis and also start to carry out scientific studies that involve the participation of society. We need to attract a citizenship effort to control the disease, an effort similar to that of organizations such as Living Positively, Probisida, HMNP, APPT, MDDP, etc. Most likely, we must reactivate the Panamanian Anti-Tuberculosis Organization (OPAT) with new technological strategies and citizen participation.

Our role here would be to “translate” and provide information, with the scientific elements we have, to society so that they can also be agents to eradicate this disease. That I have not achieved yet and I would like to do so in the next years.-

G.B.: I have no doubt that you will. Thanks for talking with me, Amador, I hope we do this again sometime!

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