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.