Centro de Biologia Molecular e Ambiental

Centre of Molecular and Environmental Biology

Quem somos # Célia Pais EN



was what l did not live



She lived her youth intensely, and her wavering pathway resembles that of today’s youth. Currently is a professor in the Biology department of University of Minho and an integrated member of the Centre for Molecular and Environmental Biology (CBMA) where performs research in yeast microbiology. Those who know her, highlight the constant smile, the "good vibes" and the open mind. Throughout her academic career, she successfully held several management positions despite encountering some mishaps in the first management experience. 

Jeremiah the Out-Law 

Born in Algarve in the 50’s, Célia Pais attended Liceu de Portimão. It was her first year and in the classroom, there was not a single familiar face. Despite, it did not prevent her from being designated class delegate in that year, as well as the following years. As a delegate, she was responsible for selling a magazine named Fagulha, twice a month, from the Comissariado Nacional da Mocidade Portuguesa Feminina. Each magazine costs 1$50. 

 "I wasn’t used to handle money, so the cash I received for selling the magazine, I spent in sweets and chocolates. When the time came to return the money, I hadn’t any". At home, she told her parents, who eventually gave her the money to repay. At school, nobody ever knew. "It was my first and only embezzlement, but I learned the lesson well", she says smiling. 

 This small episode at 11 years old did not stain her reputation as Célia Pais worked six years as Head of Biology department and was the first director of the degree in Applied Biology, a position she held for three years. She was also vice president of School of Sciences for four years and most recently from 2012 to 2014 returned into the direction of the department. 

"Those years I dedicated most of my time to the department and to teaching and I ended up leaving research behind. I was fortunate to have exceptional PhD students who contributed to lessen my lack of time for research. "She emphasises Paula Sampaio, Alexandra Correia and, more recently, Raquel Sabino, and acknowledges that their PhD work consolidated her research in the area of human health and fungal infections. 

 Alexandra Correia, researcher at the Institute of Research and Innovation in Health at the University of Porto (I3S) says she started in research with Célia Pais and loved it. "As an advisor she was faultless, she was very concerned with her students and with their future in research. She never looked at us solely as workers. We are still great friends. It is someone whom I value greatly, and it is thanks to her that I still work in science. " 

That girl 

She was always a better student in Humanities, but decided to follow her sister’s example as and opted for Science. Besides, biology and medicine were subjects that fascinated her. However, the school was near the beach and when the weather smiled, the beach and sun spoke louder. In that last year of high school, she neglected the studies, and despite having good grades in sciences, she did not enter directly to the university and decided to find a job. 

 It was 1971, and she moved to Lisbon to work as a trainee in the newspaper "A Capital". Célia didn´t intend to work as a journalist, instead, she was interested in translation work as the news at that time used to reach the newsrooms from foreign press agencies. However, not having a language course she ended up being sent to the newsroom. 

 She interviewed Tonicha, the winner of the national song festival that year, wrote fashion articles and football reports. The horoscope she would seek inspiration in other periodicals. Although it was an adventure, the adaptation was not easy. At the age of 18, Lisbon had many secrets and sometimes she even asked for a car to go to news sites that, after all, were at the end of the street. "I decided it was not what I wanted to do and I went back to Portimão." 

Let me laugh 

In Algarve, tourism was expanding and several agencies were interested in selling properties; so, through a friend of her father, she went to work for Real Estate in Praia da Rocha. Despite knowing that it was not what she wanted, her father would not let her quit her job. "The only solution was to get fired." 

 In order to achieve it, she often organized parties at the office with loud music and invited her friends; however, never managed to be dismissed. Finally, she decided that the best option was to study hard and try to go to university. The following year, she enrolled to Biology at University of Coimbra.

Portugal, Portugal 

At the time, Portugal was living restless times and revolution hours. In University, Célia Pais participated in major assemblies, academic commissions, film festivals and all type of cultural activities. Besides all these events, she had good grades and she acknowledges the presence of inspiring people in the academic life in Coimbra, such as Professor Pato de Carvalho, Professor Jorge Paiva and Professor Vítor Madeira. 

 Being a teacher was not in her plans, after experiencing it for three months, between the newspaper internship and the job in real estate, so she opted for following the scientific pathway. By the end of the degree, she came to Minho along with two colleagues, Teresa and Olga, who are currently teachers in the Biology Department. She initiated her scientific career in Nematology in Coimbra, but it was the Imperial College, from 1980-82, that provided her with a completely different view of science. 

Land of Dreams 

England was an enormous challenge. At that time, Portugal did not belong to the European Union and crossing borders could be a complex process. However, it was a very rewarding experience. "Names we read in books worked next to her in the labs; nevertheless, sometimes may be for of the accent or because they were from different fields, their classes often meant staying to zero from the beginning to the end. Nevertheless, it was inspiring." 

 She worked a lot in the lab, learned to live by herself, to travel and to write well in English. Here again, her social and cultural side has not faded. In the field station in Ascot, near the Imperial College, there was a Pub run by the students in rotation. "I signed up for Pub rotation and so I had to learn how to change beer barrels, prepare shandies and serve at the counter”. 

Alexandra Correia says that Célia Pais is one of the most open-minded people she has ever met. "She would have no problem doing any task or accepting innovative ideas." 

Simple walkers on the walk of prodigies 

She enjoyed working in nematology. However, at the time, the Biology department, directed by Professor Cecilia Leão, becoming more robust in microbiology; so she began driving her work to yeast identification. "Since nematology days, my research has always been focused in developing diagnostic methods to differentiate species and strains." Currently and after a long journey, her main work is with yeast in human health field.

 Another aspect that makes working in microbiology rewarding is bioeconomy and biotechnology, where Celia has been working since 2009 in European projects that focus on the use of by-products by microorganisms to produce value-added products. "I started working with yeasts in the food area, then in pathogenic processes and now with biotechnological applications. Fungi are at the core of my research and I believe they will be until the end of my scientific career. " 

The Wrong Side of Night 

She recalls with enthusiasm her high school French teacher, who declaimed poetry in the class and with whom she bloomed to the French culture. She points out Jacques Prevert and recites some verses: "In sortant de l 'école, nous avons I found a grand chemin de fer qui nous to emmenés tout autour de la terredans un wagon Doré". She also states her admiration for Manoel de Barros and praises Nuno Júdice for a remarkable poem he wrote about this writer when he died. 

While talking about music, she takes a John Coltrane CD from her purse, "I have not even heard this album, I have it here to listen to it in the car”.  Since Cascais Jazz Festival in 1972, when she heard Miles Davis, Jean Luc Ponty and Dave Brubeck, she lives fascinated by Jazz.?“I go to Guimarães Jazz every year; this year I heard Carla Bley and Charlie Adam orchestra”.?She points out Jorge Palma at Casa da Músicaas as one of the best shows she has recently been.?"I love the wrong side of the night," she says with her eyes full of memories. 

We’ll carry on 

In her opinion, one big difference in Science is that initially, there were nearly no research centres and was hardly  any funding available for research. Those entered the teaching career used to perform research. Since the time of Mariano Gago, definition of Science in Portugal changed radically. Funding became available more consistently, research grants appeared, and researchers started to get hired. 

She has no doubt, that Portugal today has a place in European and world science. "We are recognized and competitive and we are able to attract funding and maintain scientific quality." However, a current constraint is the major focus in applied science, because that influences the way of orienting and asking the scientific questions. "The discovery of things should be spontaneous and free of impositions, but I understand that it is necessary to justify the investment." 

For Célia Pais, one of the most rewarding things in science is the opportunity to learn and teach. To take and pass some knowledge to other places and to participate with others in new discoveries. There is also the human and cultural interaction that broadens horizons and that "is also part of our presence in science". 

Andreia Pacheco 


Thanks to Arunava Pradhan and to Delfina Miranda for the review 

*The title and subtitles are songs by Jorge Palma 

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