Interview Valeria Bonapersona

The limits that you have, are the limits that you pose yourself

Valeria Bonapersona
Portrait Valeria Bonapersona

Originally from Italy, neuroscientist Valeria Bonapersona has lived in the Netherlands for almost a decade. Over those years, she has established an impressive name for herself in the scientific world. Not only has she obtained her bachelor, master, and doctorate degree with the honorary distinction ‘cum laude’, she also completed a training in classical piano performance at several conservatories in Italy. Add a highly appraised paper in the scientific journal Nature, a 400-paged PhD-thesis, numerous awards and prizes, and you capture her academic excellence quite well.
But what truly adorns her, is her down-to-earth mindset and self-knowledge. ‘From an external point of view, I indeed have accomplished a lot. But that is just because I was doing what I liked. I consider myself lucky that, from a young age, I knew what I enjoyed and what my talents are. I have my parents to thank for that. They have always supported my ideas and taught me that the limits that you have, are the limits that you pose yourself. In our culture, we have the dichotomous belief that you cannot be multiple things at the same time. So, I could either be academically trained or a musician – but not both. However, the only way to be true to myself, was in fact to do both.’

Besides playing the piano, you are passionate about stress research. What was it that attracted you to this field?
‘Stress has been an interest of mine ever since I was a teenager and I had to write a biology essay. I was intrigued by the relationship between the mind and the body. That was 15 years ago. Now we have a completely different understanding of the concept, of course, but the fascination stands. For me, to study stress basically means to study what life is. It is about how we, as human beings, respond to our environment. It is about understanding how we are made, about the philosophy of life itself – it is truly fascinating.’

Fundamental stress research often requires you to perform animal experiments. How did you experience that?
‘I hate doing animal research with my whole heart. I distinctly remember that during my masters, we had to visit the animal facility as part of a course, and I dreaded it. But it was such a mind-blowing cognitive dissonance in my head in which my expectations clashed with reality, and I soon realized: I need to work here. But then I went to the UK for an internship, and I had to do a lot of animal experiments; that really broke something in me. I started questioning: we have been studying stress for so long, is it really necessary to do all these experiments? Or can I gather that information in other ways? It turns out that if you want to answer those questions, you need to study statistics. So that is what I did.’

I went to the UK for an internship, and I had to do a lot of animal experiments; that really broke something in me.

You have developed an open-source tool that uses existing data to reduce animal experimentation. Could you explain the rationale behind it?
‘99.9% of what we investigate has already been done in the past hundred years. This means that new studies are rarely disconnected from earlier ones, and we can use data from prior research to improve our own. That is why we developed the RePAIR tool (Reduction by Prior Animal Informed Research). In our Nature paper, we validated that the number of animals can indeed be reduced by incorporating information from previous studies – whilst still performing well-powered research. I am really proud of this paper, especially of everything that it represents: collaboration, the support of my professor, and that the message of being critical about animal research and how we do it, came from a biologist.’

In August 2022, you successfully defended your PhD-thesis. What’s next for you?
‘I recently moved to Germany, where I started as data scientist at a company, using data in innovative ways to improve animal research in drug development. One important thing that the Nature paper did for me was to give me and my research exposure. It showed to the outside world what I like, and it got me a job that I like.’
She pauses and laughs: ‘I never imagined myself working for a big company, and now I do, and I really like doing it. My parents have taught me to not let other people set my limits for me. This attitude makes me creative and aware of every opportunity that presents itself. It is up to you to grab it.’