SMPH Chats with Vanessa Sperandio for Women’s History Month

Vanessa Sperandio, PhD, comes from a family of academicians in Brazil. Being surrounded by sociologists, philosophers, historians, and business administrators fostered an initial love of classics, Egyptology, and archeology. Then her high school biology teacher introduced her to the biological sciences, and the rest is history. Today she is chair of the school’s Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, and the school’s first Latina chair.

For Sperandio, Women’s History Month makes her think of all the women in science with underappreciated discoveries who charted the trajectory for women like her. But this month also reminds her of her grandmother, who separated from her husband in the 1940s in Brazil. Alone on a teacher’s salary, she then raised seven children — including Sperandio’s mother — all of whom earned a college degree.

“I came from a different kind of family, led by strong women,” she laughs.

In Brazil’s culture when Sperandio was young, being devoted solely to science as a career was not viewed as high status or lucrative, Sperandio says, although there was a high representation of women. The career paths to follow were medical doctor, engineer, lawyer, or businessperson. “If you were a good student and you wanted to study the biological sciences, everyone assumed you were going to attend medical school,” Sperandio says. “It took some convincing for my family to believe I could have a successful career in science.”

College sparked a passion for microbiology, and she pursued graduate studies at Brazil’s State University of Campinas, performing most of her PhD research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore thanks to a fellowship from the Pew Foundation. She was recruited to the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas as an assistant professor in 2001. In 2022 she joined the school as chair.

In the United States, she sees women in science as underrepresented and facing perceived societal expectations, such as that to have a family, they must give up a successful career. In fact, she says, having a family helps you as a scientist and mentor. She adds that the desire to have equal gender representation in different committees can strain their work because the same small group of female scientists are taxed over and over. A more thoughtful and patient approach is needed, she says, as she advocates for her faculty members.

“Networking makes a huge difference in our careers at multiple levels, and I don’t hesitate to use my network to help my young faculty present at conferences and be nominated for awards,” she says. “As a chair, you have to be an advocate for your faculty. I enjoy helping shape the department and mentor and work with the faculty, post-doctoral fellows and students.”

We join Sperandio in celebrating Women’s History Month and women’s contributions to science and medicine.