“When you’re doing what you love, giving up sleep isn’t much of a sacrifice”

Inspiring people

10/06/2016

Mercedes Balcells is a biomedical engineer and the coordinator of the RDI program at IQS-MIT. She divides her time between Barcelona and Boston. Through passion, determination and hard work, she has achieved her childhood dream of becoming a researcher. Modern technology makes it easy for her to stay in touch with friends and family on a daily basis. It also worked wonders for us in doing this interview.

 

How does one get to be a MIT researcher?

Great determination and effort. I'd say one needs a couple of functioning neurons (15% innate intellect), hard work (80% effort) and, as with all things in life, a bit of luck (5%). It has to be a calling of sorts otherwise you won't see it through.

 

What does the organization expect from its researchers?

For our research to have a social impact. In my case, that is to say in the health sciences and technology field, this translates into better solutions for current medical practice. It means pushing the boundaries of knowledge, publishing and/or patenting, and raising the necessary funds to do so through grants and working with the private sector.

 

Tell us about what you do at MIT.

My work revolves around four main tasks. I supervise the results of the research projects carried out by my master's and PhD students. I sell those results to obtain financing to continue our research. I read, think, talk to collaborators and try new things. And I participate in MIT's international programs.

 

What is the focus of your projects?

We’re trying to understand the mechanisms with which the cells that make up our tissues and organs interact with their environment, neighboring cells and the mechanical stimuli that they are exposed to (it's known by an awful word that will scare just about anyone, “mechanotransduction”).

These interactions determine the difference between health and disease. Expanding our knowledge in this area is key to thinking about early diagnoses for cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and developing appropriate treatments.

 

Is there someone who has significantly influenced your professional life?

Many people. My parents, who always encouraged me to pursue my dreams and never give up. My middle and high school teachers at La Vall, who taught me what was in the textbooks, but pointed out how much there was still to discover, thus awakening my curiosity.

And, of course, my time at the Institut Químic de Sarrià where professors like Dr. Molins, Dr. Nomen, Dr. Victori, Dr. Borrell, Dr. Espeso and Dr. Nonell gave me the necessary tools to solve complex problems and valuable practical experience in the lab.

And I would definitely not be who I am today without the person who brought me to MIT 17 years ago: Professor Elazer R. Edelman. He is still my mentor, my role model in how to be a socially committed researcher-professor, and a wonderful collaborator.

 

Did you have to make a lot of sacrifices?

No, not consciously at least. When you're doing what you love, giving up practical things like a few hours sleep before a deadline isn't much of a sacrifice.

If you want something enough, you shouldn't feel like you're giving up anything. I for one have always wanted it all: a family, a scientific career, and an active connection to my country.

It's possible, but you have to want it and be aware of the fact that you can't be the best mother, the best scientist and the best director of MIT's Spain program. But it isn't necessary to be the best, being the best you can be and consistently giving it your all is enough. It's been enough in my case so far.

 

Has there ever been a moment when you've considered giving up?

When you do a thousand things, especially as a researcher, many of them don't work out, but there's always at least one that does. Every day I find that one reason to not give up.

It might be an email from a student telling me how her time at my lab changed her life; or a conversation with the mother of a child who suffered burns on 70% of his body in an accident, thanking me for dedicating my life to tissue engineering; or, although less frequent, a fantastic result or the approval of a project; or simply my younger daughter telling me that when she grows up she wants to be like me or even better: a researcher, teacher and mother of 5!

 

Do you find it difficult to balance your professional and personal life?

I would be lying if I said it was easy. You need to have really clear priorities at all times, be incredibly efficient, have the discipline and spontaneity to deal with whatever complications may arise (and, if possible, do so with a smile), and have a great team at work and at home.

When my daughter Isabel turned 5, she had crossed the Atlantic 50 times. We'd land in Barcelona where her grandparents would pick her up at the airport while I dashed off to a meeting or to speak at a conference. Similarly, in Boston my husband and my in-laws have played a crucial role in my nomadic lifestyle.

I'm fortunate to have a team of students and collaborators, both at MIT and in Barcelona, that is made up of exceptional people who share my values and drive.

 

What have been the most important moments in your life?

I'd say three. Defending my PhD thesis in Germany, which opened the doors at MIT for me, on April 9th, 1996. The birth of my daughters, Isabel and Sofia. And finally, the first time I obtained artificially regenerated cartilage in the lab (January 6th, 2015).

 

Can talent be learned or is it innate?

I think you're born with talent, but it can grow exponentially through learning, effort and a nourishing environment to yield results that go beyond the most optimistic expectations.

 

You mentioned that you have 3 children. Your two daughters and Regenear. Tell us about your company and why you decided to start it.

Regenear, like many other successful ventures, grew out of a personal matter. Rather than turning into a tragedy, it became an opportunity to commercialize several years of tissue engineering research for a very specific application: the regeneration of facial cartilage.

Andrea, my goddaughter, was born with microtia, which means having a small external ear. While searching for possible solutions, her parents and I realized that we weren't satisfied with what we found. This led to the idea of developing and commercializing cartilage regenerated from a small sample taken from the actual patient.

 

Does Regenear work with any hospitals?

We work with the Sant Joan de Déu Hospital. Dr. Paco Parri, a pediatric surgeon who specializes in facial reconstruction, plays a pivotal role in the project. Thanks to him, we took a giant step forward, from lab and preclinical research to working with patient biopsies that would otherwise have been discarded.

 

What should we expect to see in science and research over the next 5 to 10 years? Will we see great advances in medicine?

The 20th century was the Age of Physics, and I'm convinced that the 21st is the Age of Biology. This will allow us to defeat a lot of diseases that are currently incurable or for which the cure comes late or accompanied by multiple side effects.

 

Would you like to move back to Barcelona? What do you miss the most?

My research and internationalization projects give me the perfect excuse to visit Barcelona 3 to 4 times a year. In fact, I don't really feel like I ever left. I miss the day-to-day, the direct connection, with my family and old friends, but modern technology makes it easier for me to handle.

 

What is left for you to do?

A lot. I'd like to do my part in consolidating the international collaboration between Europe and the United States so that science can advance as quickly as possible, and the results can lead to new and improved solutions for patients.

 

A BRIEF TASTE

 

Do you like wine?
I love it.

 

What is the best moment to enjoy a glass of wine?
Two moments: In the company of friends and family. After work, while cooking a nice dinner.

 

A song to accompany a good wine.
I can't think of a single song! It depends on whom I'm with, the place, and the time of year.

 

A place to get lost in.
Cala Saona on Formentera in time to enjoy the sunset or in Prats de Moixaró, above the forests of Riu de Cerdanya.

 

What do you do in your free time?
I spend it with my family and friends.

 

A flaw and a virtue.
Flaw: having almost pathologically high expectations of myself. Virtue: believing that if you work hard enough, anything is possible. I never give up.

 

What did you want to be as a kid?
A researcher.

 

And when you're older?
Researcher, mother, teacher, mentor, entrepreneur, international...as an adult, I realized I wanted to be a lot of things, and no one told me it was impossible.

Categorías: Inspiring people