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NEWS20 Dec 2023News

Meet the Researchers: Sonia Rocha

Photo of Sonia Rocha in her lab

Meet Professor Sonia Rocha, the Executive Dean at the Institute of Systems, Molecular and Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool

Please would you tell us about your research and the area it focuses on? Plus, how you became interested in this?

My research focuses on analysing how cells and organisms sense and respond to reductions in oxygen availability. Oxygen is of course essential for viability of most multicellular organisms. So, it is imperative to have oxygen homeostasis to be well. I became interested in this aspect when I was doing my doctorate work in radiation oncology, where lack of oxygen in a tumour is a very bad prognostic factor for therapy success. When I had the opportunity to start my independent research career, I decided I wanted to understand this better. This area of research is now even more important with climate change impacting on oxygen levels in waters, soils and even the atmosphere. It is also important for conditions of pathology such as stroke, heart failure and cancer.

Please would you provide a short list of the highlights of your career to date? 

Originally from Portugal, I obtained a Biology degree from the University of Porto, Portugal. FCT scholarship to conduct research in biotechnology, between Porto and Uppsala University in Sweden. PhD at the ETH-Zurich in Switzerland in Natural Sciences. Postdoctoral research at the University of Dundee. There, I started my independent research career with a RCUK fellowship, Tenured and then a CRUK Senior Fellowship. Moved to the University of Liverpool to become Head of the Department of Biochemistry. Became Executive Dean, leading a fantastic institute at the University of Liverpool. I’ve had the pleasure to train several students and postdoctoral fellows. I work in one of the most collegiate research areas I have encountered (Hypoxia Research) where everyone shares knowledge freely: from Nobel prize winners to newly started group leaders. I’ve had the honour of organising several workshops and conferenced to allow for collaboration and knowledge exchange. I’ve mentored Early Career Researchers to tenure and beyond. Plus I’ve worked with National and International funding bodies to promote grant funding.

What is your typical workday like?

Being an Executive Dean means, I need to make sure the Institute is working well, being a place for excellence in teaching and research but also a place where students and staff want to be in and are proud of belonging. I also have an active research team, and I do try to engage with them as much as I can. Then I have my teaching commitments, either lectures or tutorials plus the final year honours project students and MSc students that I host in the lab. I cannot say, I have a typical workday, as I need to address the needs of many different people at unpredictable times.

What has it been like working at University of Liverpool?

Working at the University of Liverpool has been very educational, a great challenge and inspirational. The University of Liverpool has amazing staff and students, and the potential is enormous. We are ambitious but also, we want what is best for others including our city.

How do you find living in the city of Liverpool?

The city is beautiful, making it even better is it’s people. Authentic, generous, full of care for others and very giving. It is filled with culture, sports, great restaurants and surrounded by great sea and countryside. I would say it is wonderful to live in this region, as the quality of life is exceptional.

As the Executive Dean at the Institute of Systems, Molecular and Integrative Biology, do you have any advice for early career researchers pursuing a career in academia?

Yes, believe in yourself. Surround yourself with people that believe in you and support you. Find your passion making work feel like a vocation. Hold on to all your victories to allow yourself to pass the less good times. Use the mishaps as building blocks moving forward.

How have you had success securing funding for your work?

Success is a case of persistence and resilience. Competition for funding is extremely high and you must believe in the work you want to do. Many times, you must perfect your proposal to have it funded. I have been lucky to have been awarded grants either as lead or in a collaborative effort. However, I have had many failures as well.

Could you tell us a little about your background, where you are from in Portugal, where you have studied and how this led to you researching in the UK?

I am originally from a city in the North of Portugal called Vila Nova de Gaia, on the other side of the river Douro, across from Porto. I went to university in the best university in Portugal, the University of Porto. Graduated in Biology on a 4-year course. I was lucky to secure a scholarship from the Portuguese Science foundation to conduct research in a biotechnology project. Then I was successful in an application to an EU network COST action, to secure funds for a trip to Uppsala in Sweden to conduct some collaborative work. From that I knew I wanted to do research, but not sure in which area as I was interested in many things. Eventually, I became fascinated by the process of cell suicide and that lead me to my PhD in the ETH in Zurich Switzerland, under the supervision of Prof. Martin Pruschy. During my PhD I was very lucky to attend and present at many conferences and decided I wanted to investigate things even more mechanistically. This is when I applied to two different groups at the University of Dundee, and eventually joined the group of Prof. Neil Perkins, as a postdoctoral researcher.

As an international researcher in the UK, what advice would you give to others considering working or studying outside their home country?

Leaving your home and country is a huge personal sacrifice. However, it can also be very rewarding and fulfilling. I would say: if you believe the opportunities for you are best outside your country, you should be brave and follow your dreams. You will meet wonderful people who will become your friends for life.

You can find out more about Sonia and her work using the links below:



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