Take someone who’s passionate about microbiology, teaching and research. Then add a dose of internationalization to the mix and what do you come up with? The answer is Dr Verónica Veses, a researcher and lecturer on our international Health Sciences programmes.
But what stands out about her is her warmth and enthusiasm, something which comes across in everything she does, in her day-to-day work at the Faculty and in the European projects she takes part in. So, we decided we’d take a few minutes to speak to her and ask the burning question: why do students like microbiology so much?
Verónica, you teach both Microbiology and Genetics on the Dentistry and Medicine degrees. Could you tell us a bit about these courses?
Microbiology is a course which is taught in the second year of the Bachelor’s Degree in Dentistry and, as I always say to my students, it’s something which is not just of interest to health professionals – it’s something which affects us all. For example, for every human cell in our bodies, there are three bacterial cells. Our brain weighs around 1.4 kilogrammes, but there are 2.2 kilogrammes of bacteria in our bodies. This is no accident. We can explain it: most of these bacteria are beneficial to us. They help us to synthesize vitamins, they block other less useful bacteria and they train our immune system.
However, in the course, we focus specifically on those bacteria which cause disease, what we call pathogenic bacteria.
“WE’RE MOVING TOWARDS A MORE PERSONALIZED FORM OF MEDICINE, AND SO WE’LL SOON BE ABLE TO OFFER DIAGNOSES AND TREATMENTS THAT ARE TAILORED TO EACH INDIVIDUAL.”
The Genetics course is taught on the Bachelor’s Degree in Medicine. In this, students learn that, at the genetic level, every one of our cells is the same. So, each human cell has the same 30,000 genes. However, some of these cells develop to form part of the liver and others become neurons. Why does this happen? The answer lies in the expression of these genes: depending on which genes are switched on and which are turned off, the cell will develop in one way or another. That’s why it’s so important to know how these mechanisms are regulated and how the functions of the human body are genetically programmed: armed with this knowledge, we can prevent certain illnesses from appearing and provide better treatment to those patients who do have them.
Both courses form part of what we call the Biomedical Sciences, but always with a special focus on the medical. We do study biological organisms, but always with a focus on health and disease. Our aim is always to support health and to prevent or cure disease.
A Spanish expert at international scientific meetings
You’ve recently represented Spain at the 1st FEMS Summer School on Microbiology Education, an event which sought to create a common European curriculum on microbiology. Why is it important for this project to come to fruition and how can it benefit us?
The explanation for this lies in the changes and the increase in our geographic mobility. Right now, I have students of up to ten different nationalities in my lectures and each of them will probably end up working in different places. So if we can standardize the curriculum, then this facilitates our students’ mobility when they graduate: they can then apply for jobs across Europe, safe in the knowledge that they possess the basic skills required.
So, in short, the idea is minimize the differences between the different European countries and thereby to increase graduate employability.
Obviously, this is a long and rather complex process, but it already exists in the USA. You have to remember that microbiology is studied on a range of different degrees. I attended the event to provide the perspective from the health sciences. However, in Eastern Europe, they’re much more concerned about this issue from the industrial point of view: many of the vaccines we use are made in laboratories there, along with the insulin that diabetic patients inject themselves with, which is made using microbes. So, in those countries they’re really focused on the industrial side of things.
The first thing we’re going to do is to create common framework for general microbiology, and then move on to develop three branches: industry, the environment and health. This is the basic structure that we’ve designed and that we’ll fine-tune at future meetings. The goal is for all members of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies to be able to vote on the proposed curriculum next year.
We’ve also discussed our model of teaching and how this can be adapted to suit modern students’ needs and expectations. For example, the flipped classroom approach is fashionable at the moment, but we can’t forget the workload that students already have: it isn’t practical to use this for all courses, in all years. We want to use it in a measured way and for content that is shared across different disciplines.
We try to use flipped learning in small doses, because Medicine students, for example, have to spend a lot of time working at health centres and hospitals. So, in a case like that, using this approach can over-burden students with work and this can be counter-productive. However, it certainly is useful in other cases. Right now, I’m taking part in an innovative project alongside colleagues from pharmacology and epidemiology with our Spanish and English Dentistry groups. We’re using a flipped learning approach with these students as they learn about antibiotics in dentistry: they have to create a blog about this. We’ll vote on which ones are the best and then seek to promote and publicize them.
Through activities like this, we can discover a lot of interesting things! For example, I have four students whose parents are also dentists, working in different countries. They ask their parents about a specific pathology and the treatment that they would recommend. Then, we can compare clinical practice and the antibiotics used in different countries! This kind of approach can be really rewarding.
Passion for teaching and research
As well as being a lecturer, you’re also involved in a range of research projects concerning microbiology: what kind of projects are they?
Right now I’m working with Dr Chirag Sheth in the Oral Microbiology research group, which has three different research areas. The first of these concerns “the study of the response of oral microbiome to the consumption of stimulants: alcohol, tobacco and caffeine”. In this, we look at how the consumption of these substances affects the bacteria present in the oral cavity and how this may predispose people to certain oral and systemic diseases. This research area is now well established with several funded projects, and we’re now trying to raise its profile at the national level.
The second research area is “analysis of microorganisms associated with black stains on teeth”. Normally, the plaque that we have on our teeth is white or yellow in colour. But there are some patients who, for reasons unknown, develop black stains on their teeth. These patients then need regular cleaning of these stains by dental professionals and this may cause wear to the enamel. Our research is carried out in conjunction with three dentists: Dr Jovani, Dr González and Dr Cortell, who are also lecturers here at CEU UCH. Together, we study the reasons for these black stains and we look for possible solutions. We’ve carried out several clinical trials of approaches using phototherapy in order to eliminate the bacteria which cause these stains. Patients from across the country have got in touch with the University’s Dental Clinic to receive treatment!
We’ve recently begun work on a third research area with Medicine students: “Natural substances for the treatment of multi-drug resistant bacteria”. The aim here is to assess the usefulness of natural compounds for certain pathologies, employed both on their own and in combination with antibiotics. Dr Marina Pascual has joined this group and we’re looking to add more international participants so that we can consolidate this research area. The preliminary results are very promising! For example, we recently supervised a student’s end-of-degree project which found up to ten compounds which can be used to treat infections of the oral cavity with the fungus known as Candida albicans. Substances such as Camellia sinensis or peppermint, at specific concentrations, can be useful for infections of this type, making antifungal medication unnecessary. It’s a new and exciting area.
Have you always had this passion for research? Did you always know that you wanted to devote yourself to teaching and research or is this something which you came to realize over time?
I’m a trained pharmacist and that’s something which runs in the family. But I do remember that, in my very first days as a university student, I fell in love with teaching. So, I got a doctorate in pharmacy by doing a thesis on molecular microbiology and then I started out on my career. I worked at CSIC, the Spanish research council, in Salamanca for a while and then I went to Scotland. The plan was for me to go for three months and I ended up living there… for four years! Another thing that I’ve always been passionate about is working from an international perspective, as I find this very rewarding.
So, you love microbiology and teaching and preferably with an international twist: working at this university must be a dream come true for you!
Absolutely! I remember getting the call from CEU UCH when they were going to start the Dentistry degree in English. I didn’t think twice: having that international link was something I wanted to maintain. So, I’m lucky that, in my job, it’s something that’s always there. For example, every two years, I apply for an Erasmus+ grant. That has allowed me to teach in Porto, at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and at the RUDN University in Moscow. It’s really enriching to see how people teach in other countries, although I have to say that we do things well here and there’s not so much of a difference with what you see abroad.
“THE USE OF ANTIBIOTICS AND VACCINATIONS IS A VERY SERIOUS ISSUE. THAT’S WHY IT’S IMPORTANT FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC TO HAVE ACCESS TO HIGH-QUALITY INFORMATION.”
And then to be able to teach students from the United States, Sweden and Taiwan is a real pleasure. I love it and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. For me, it’s a day-to-day challenge because I discover something new about my students every day. But the nice thing is to see that, despite our differences, we all have a common interest: an interest in science and in education.
And then, when you have a bit of free time, you manage to fit in your participation as a reviewer in the EU’s Fast Track to Innovation programme. Could you explain to us what this programme is?
The European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme is all about innovation and research covering several project areas. One of these is the Fast Track to Innovation (FTI) programme, which I take part in.
In these projects, companies from several countries come together to look for solutions to real problems. Participants need to have already developed a project which hasn’t yet been marketed – in other words, a prototype already exists and market research has already been carried out, but what’s missing is funding. After submission, the programme brings together four reviewers, from different European countries, who then study the proposal. An individual analysis is carried out first, and then the proposal is scored and a joint report drawn up. If the final assessment is favourable, then the project receives the desired funding.
I’ve taken part in several projects of this type and in others, such as Eurostars. It’s a great experience, but the analysis you have to carry out is very demanding.
On communication and science
Do you think science is communicated to the public in the right way in Spain? Being able to transmit scientific progress to society is very important, not just from the purely informative point of view, but also from the point of view of teaching. How do you think communication about science could be improved in Spain?
I think this is an issue which has only recently come to prominence, as people weren’t really aware of it so much before. But communicating this content to the general public is important for several reasons. First, it raises the profile of scientific work and makes people aware of its importance. This helps a lot with regard to generating funds for research: such resources are limited and we have to show that there is a point to the research we do. The University’s “Ciencia con Conciencia” (“Science with a Conscience”) project aims to do just that: to make people see that scientific work makes a contribution to everyone’s wellbeing.
It’s also essential that the general public has access to high-quality information. Today, anyone can publish information on the internet and that can be harmful. The use of antibiotics and vaccinations is a very serious issue, and it’s very important that people get the right information. To do that, as researchers, we have to come out of our comfort zone and make a contribution to get this information out there. For example, the fact that at CEU Valencia we have a unit devoted to science news is a great thing, and something which doesn’t exist everywhere else.
It’s absolutely true that you have to get your information from reliable, trustworthy sources, and from people who have published high-quality research. The general public have a right to accurate information.
And we know that, at the University, we can always rely on people like Dr Veses for that: an established scientist, with real knowledge and passion in her area of expertise. But we finished our conversation without having asked her the question which started our quest for knowledge: why do our Health Sciences students love Microbiology so much?