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Mariana Osswald wins L’Oréal Medal of Honour

How do epithelia respond to pressure, preserving their shape and functions that are altered in various pathologies such as cancer and inflammatory diseases? It was with this question that the project presented by researcher Mariana Osswald won one of the four L’Oréal Portugal Medals of Honour for Women in Science, awarded in the 20th year of the initiative. She will receive 15 thousand euros to study a network of proteins that regulate the shape and mechanical properties of cells – actomyosin.

Although the term epithelium is little known, it gives its name to one of the types of structural tissues in our body, which cover the surface of the various human organs - and animals in general - including the skin and the internal organs of the various corporal systems, from digestive to respiratory. As the i3S researcher and guest assistant professor at ICBAS explains “epithelium or epithelial tissues form a protective barrier that controls the substances that enter and leave the body – for example, they prevent excessive loss of water and the entry of unwanted organisms (pathogens) – and play other important roles, including temperature control and organism development”.

Disorders in the shape or organization of epithelium occur in numerous pathologies, including cancer and inflammatory diseases, so “understanding how epithelia are able to respond to the forces to which they are subject and maintain their shape is a fundamental question in biology”, explains Mariana Osswald. “It is also essential knowledge to build the foundations of future studies that seek to understand the causes of specific diseases or design treatments for these diseases”, dhe adds.
Mariana Osswald’s project will be developed in the i3S group “Epithelial Polarity & Cell Division” and will specifically focus on the study of a protein network that regulates the shape and mechanical properties of cells – actomyosin. “We want to investigate how cells in an epithelium control these proteins to adapt and respond to mechanical forces. To do this, we will use innovative techniques, including super-resolution microscopy and ablation of subcellular structures by laser microsurgery”.

The other medalists

In addition to Mariana Osswald, the following researchers were awarded a L’Oréal Medal of Honor: Laetitia Gaspar, from the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology at the University of Coimbra; Cláudia Deus, from the Multidisciplinary Institute of Aging at the University of Coimbra; and Sara Silva Pereira, from the Biomedical Research Center at the Portuguese Catholic University.

The four researchers, already PhDs and aged between 31 and 37, were selected from several dozen candidates due to the relevance of their projects presented in 2023. The selection was made by a scientific jury chaired by Alexandre Quintanilha, retired professor and Physics researcher.

About Mariana Osswald

With a Master's degree in Bioengineering from the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto (FEUP), Mariana Osswald began her career as a researcher at IBMC, more precisely in the group led by the current director of i3S, Claudio Sunkel. In 2015, as part of her doctorate on cell polarity and cell division in epithelial tissues, she joined Eurico Morais de Sá's group at IBMC/i3S. In 2021, she was one of three i3S researchers rewarded in the 1st edition of the Maria de Sousa Prize.
She is currently carrying out postdoctoral research in the group where she completed her doctorate, with the aim of understanding the mechanisms that ensure the architecture and integrity of tissues in proliferative epithelia, and is a guest assistant professor at the Abel Salazar Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICBAS).

About the L'Oréal Portugal Medals of Honor for Women in Science

L’Oréal's support for women in science formally began in 1998, with a partnership with UNESCO, which gave rise to the L'’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program, rewarding five renowned scientists annually, one from each region of the world. 132 great women scientists have been awarded, seven of whom later received a Nobel Prize.

This international program served as inspiration for dozens of local initiatives aimed at young and female researchers, supporting them to continue their scientific careers and raising awareness among decision makers, and society in general, towards science without gender barriers. It was in this context that in 2004 the L’Oréal Portugal Medals of Honor for Women in Science was created. The national initiative annually recognizes young scientists with PhDs, aged up to 35 years (plus one year for each child) and with promising projects in the areas of Science, Engineering and Technologies for Health or the Environment.

Since 2014, 69 young researchers have been recognized in Portugal, including ten from the University of Porto: Sandra Sousa (IBMC, 2005), Maria José Oliveira (INEB, 2009), Joana Marques (FMUP, 2010), Inês Gonçalves (INEB, 2014), Joana Tavares (IBMC, 2014), Sónia Melo (Ipatimup, 2015), Maria Inês Almeida (i3S, 2017), Joana Caldeira (i3S, 2019), Sandra Tavares (i3S, 2021) and Andreia Pereira (i3S, 2022).

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