Campus and Community

Professor Joana Gonçalves de Sá nominated for the Activa Inspiring Women Awards

Joana Gonçalves de Sá, Técnico alumna and Técnico professor at the Department of Physics (DF), and researcher at the Laboratory of Instrumentation and Experimental Particle Physics (LIP), is nominated for the ACTIVA Inspiring Women Awards 2020, in the ”Science” category.

“Some of the other nominees are women who I really admire, so it is an immense honour to be part of this group”, says the Técnico professor.

According to the Técnico alumna, what might have influenced jury selection was her multidisciplinar background and “the work I have been developing to promote science in Portugal and abroad”. Professor Joana Gonçalves de Sá coordinates the Science and Society initiative and she is the director of the PGCD PhD Programme , aimed at improving education and scientific research in Portuguese-speaking African Countries (PALOP).

The Técnico professor shares: “These awards are important not only because they make known the work of the nominees but also the important role of women in various areas”. “Research around this issue shows that it is much more difficult to be able to carry out some projects when you are a woman, and in the world of Science there is a clear bias”. “This is also why these awards exist, because typically men are over-represented in other awards”, she stresses next. “On the one hand, we would expect that this type of positive discrimination would no longer be necessary at this point, but, on the other hand, the evidence is overwhelming and shows that we are a long way from achieving equality”, she adds.

The study of human behaviour through data, Artificial Intelligence and other experimental and computational techniques

Professor Joana Gonçalves de Sá coordinates the Social Physics and Complexity (SPAC) research group at LIP. Through experimental and computational techniques (big data and complex systems), the research group studies the decision-making process, particularly related to health policy.

“The work of my research team has a lot to do with what is beginning to be called Computational Social Science, which is the attempt to answer social and behavioural questions,”, explains the Técnico professor. One of the research priorities of the group is related to the identification of disease outbreaks through the analysis of digital data. “Many people turn to Google before their doctor. The insertion of symptoms as research data allows those who monitor this research in real time to follow the diseases in a much faster way than traditional doctors. They are complementary measures of epidemiology”, she explains.

On the other hand, the team is also involved in the study of fake news. “We try to understand how people are infected with this virus of disinformation, how it spreads in the community, using many of the epidemiological principles to study the behaviour of disinformation,” she explains. Through this work, the LIP researcher and her team try to understand the susceptibility of individuals to this false information, trying to understand how the information spreads, and the role of social and human networks in this process. “Right now, we are fighting two epidemics in parallel, the virus epidemic and the disinformation epidemic, and strangely the two end up spreading in very similar ways”, she warns. “Basically, we try to answer questions that fall within the scope of Social Sciences, but we use computational methods to do so,” she says.

A career based on multidisciplinarity

After graduating in Engineering Physics from Instituto Superior Técnico, the alumna enrolled in the Gulbenkian PhD Programme in Biomedicine and carried out her PhD thesis on Systems Biology at Harvard University, USA.

From 2012 – 2018, she was principal investigator at the Gulbenkian Science Institute. In 2019, she was awarded a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to study cognitive biases using the spread of fake news on social networks as a model system.

“Técnico offered me a very comprehensive training and taught me to develop important skills to identify and solve problems”, she highlights. According to the alumna, doing her PhD “was a smooth experience”, although she was forced “to learn a series of concepts, problems and techniques”. “I think that biology is one of the fields that most easily integrates people who come from other areas”, she underlines. “I use much of what I learned from mathematical and statistical analysis in my work, but I also apply a lot of Biological thinking to experimental design”, she highlights.

The jury of ACTIVA Inspiring Women Awards 2020, composed of Maria de Belém Roseira, Conceição Zagalo, Luís Marques Mendes, Mafalda Anjos and Natalina de Almeida, selected four nominees in the following categories: Arts, Science, Sports, Business, Solidarity and Sustainability. The winners will be announced soon.

Professor Clara Sousa e Silva, researcher at Harvard University (USA), professor Patrícia Costa Reis, pediatrician at Hospital de Santa Maria, professor at the Faculty of Medicine – Universidade de Lisboa and researcher at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, and also professor Joana Cabral, researcher at the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute – University of Minho are also nominated in the “Science” category.