For María Chaparro, establishing a research career that won her a Rising Star Award 2020 was anything else but a lonely quest. Together with Luis Bujanda, President of Asociación Española de Gastroenterologia (AEG), she gives insight to the story and the people behind her recent success.
Interview by UEG National Societies Committee
María, when and how did you become affiliated with your national society, and what have been your contributions so far?
María: From the beginning of my residency, the Asociación Española de Gastroenterologia (AEG) caught my attention because of its active role in the gastroenterology field in Spain. Therefore, I soon decided to join this society. Since I was a resident, I have actively participated in all the AEG meetings, I have been author of several book chapters and monographs, and I have acted as a teacher in numerous training activities of the AEG. However, above all, I would highlight my role as a promoter of collaborative research within the Inflammatory Bowel Disease working group of this society. In addition, I have been actively involved in Grupo Español de Trabajo en Enfermedad de Crohn y Colitis Ulcerosa (GETECCU) as coordinator of the Young Group, secretary and coordinator of the Research Committee of GETECCU.
Luis: María has always been very active in our society; we just provided her with the appropriate tools and environment to help reach her goals.
When did you first hear about the Rising Star Award, and how did you decide the time was right for you to apply?
María: The AEG is honoured to have several winners of the Rising Star Award among its members. For that reason, I became aware of the call for the Rising Star Award 2020 during the AEG annual meetings. I am lucky to know some of those who were previously awarded Rising Stars and they are great collaborators and friends of mine - I feel great admiration for them. The call is very competitive because we have excellent young leaders in the field of gastroenterology, both in Spain and throughout Europe. Many colleagues start their career with great enthusiasm but due to circumstances they are left behind. Recognition as a Rising Star is a privilege and a great opportunity and should be given to emerging professionals who have demonstrated stability in their trajectory, leadership capacity and commitment to gastroenterology. Therefore, in my opinion, the best time to apply for this award is after the career as a young researcher is consolidated (not at its beginning). At the time of my application, I truly felt that I was at this point.
How did you estimate – or even assess – María’s chances of being awarded?
Luis: The AEG Governing Board and coordinators of the working groups propose candidates who stand out for their research career in any areas of our specialty. All candidates are evaluated and the two candidates with the best career achievements are selected to apply for the Rising Star Awards. There was no doubt that María was a good candidate for the award. She meets all the requirements: young, actively participating, and showing initiative; an inspiration for other women for her ability to successfully combine her professional life, a research career and a family life.
María: I am lucky to be surrounded by previous Rising Stars who have inspired me and whom I deeply admire. In spite of this, I truly had no idea of my real chances of being awarded, although I wished for it deeply. It has been an enormous honour for me, and I will try to take advantage of this opportunity by contributing to the development of gastroenterology worldwide to improve patients’ health.
What is AEG’s approach to promoting young talents? What has worked for you so far?
Luis: It is crucial to introduce research values in young people who are starting their career, and to promote excellence. To this aim, the AEG created the research support group which tries to help the youngest ones, providing them with the necessary tools to be successful with their career development. This aspect - training in research - is poorly covered by gastroenterology training programs.
The AEG aims to promote research through collaborative groups. In that respect, interaction in working groups where senior and junior researchers can collaborate irrespective of their experience, location or other factors is essential for AEG’s successful achievements. Recently, we also established the AEG young group (up to the age of 40) with the aim of generating collaborative multi-centre research projects designed by young investigators who receive support of the more experienced ones.
And what is your approach to career development, María? Are you more of a strategic planner, or do you grab opportunities along the way?
María: At the beginning of my career, a world of possibilities that I had never dreamed of opened up for my career development. Therefore, I just took advantage of all the opportunities that arose around me. Subsequently, I developed my career following a strategic plan, the main goal of which was to make significant contributions to patients’ lives and have fun during the process. I think it is important to have clear goals and not to be afraid to reject options that might appear along the way but do not help reach your goals. It is essential to learn how to say no. But at the same time, you have to keep your eyes open to avoid missing other opportunities that might be interesting. In my case, reality has often exceeded my dreams.
What are some strategies to work around limited financial resources and achieve the track record it takes to become a Rising Star? Can you identify other key aspects that drive career development?
Luis: In AEG we think that financial support is important but not crucial. The most important thing is attitude, the desire to join forces to develop projects in a disinterested way, to create networks between people (professional and personal) and groups that collaborate to achieve common goals. The achievement of these goals brings the success to obtain financial resources to develop further projects in which our members can be involved. Research (creating knowledge) and teaching (transmitting it) is the best antidote for the burnout syndrome. Furthermore, researching and teaching is sometimes the only incentive for healthcare professionals who are, in general, little considered by the institutions.
María: Throughout my career, there have been some fundamental pillars to achieve my goals. First of all, my mentor Dr. Javier P. Gisbert who unveiled for me a world of opportunities and showed me my own capabilities to achieve them. He generously shared with me his time, his knowledge and his network of collaborators to create the best version of myself. In addition, he taught me that being happy in what you do is the most important thing and that it should be the first criterion taken into account before facing new challenges. I hardly believe it is possible to have a successful professional career without a mentor, but I am sure that it would certainly be much more difficult and less pleasant. In the same sense, my mentor taught me that individualism is not possible in science and that teamwork produces better results. He introduced me to the AEG and GETECCU, where I have met renowned professionals who have become my teachers, my collaborators and my friends, and without whom I would have never been where I am now. As Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Last but not least, all this would have never been possible without the support of my family and friends. They have always believed in me and made me feel that no goal was too difficult.
The Rising Star Award is very prestigious, and the Rising Stars receive a lot of well-deserved recognition. What would you like to say to younger colleagues or peers who are at risk getting “star-struck” when they look at you and your achievements?
María: I would like to encourage them to dream big, to be excited about doing things that make a difference and improve people's lives. It is important to maintain the innocence and curiosity that made us start a research study for the first time, because that is the essence that must remain intact. It is important to surround yourself with the best and always let others help you and maintain the humility of an eternal apprentice. It is essential to be generous, since none of us would have achieved anything without the help of others. And, most importantly, being willing to work hard, very hard, every day of our lives. There is nothing impossible for the perseverant.
Luis: Each stage in life is important. Each person can achieve their goals by being constant, striving and longing for them with intensity. We should not do things merely looking for public recognition. One should believe in what they do and do the best for our patients and our society. We must try to do more than just provide people with standard medical care. We owe our society much more than that. Our society has given us the opportunity to learn and practice our profession. A great way to give back is by collaborating on the improvement of knowledge, through research and training of new professionals who belong to a generation of employment and wealth in our society.
What sparked the passion for your specialty, and which of your findings are you most eager to share with the larger GI community?
María: Inflammatory bowel disease is my passion and to these diseases I dedicate all my effort, both in research and in the clinic. My lines of research focus on three aspects of inflammatory bowel disease. Firstly, I have led, and I am currently leading various studies on the efficacy and safety of drugs for IBD in real world, the results of which are essential to understand the role of treatments in clinical practice. Secondly, my group led several research projects on the safety of treatments for inflammatory bowel disease in pregnancy. Among them, the DUMBO registry stands out, supported by GETECCU and the Spanish Association of Medicines and Sanitary Products (AEMPS), in which more than sixty centres participate throughout Spain. Finally, through the application of “omics” technology we intend to deeply characterise patients with inflammatory bowel disease to understand the etiopathogenesis of the disease and provide data that allows personalised medicine.
What makes María’s research stand out to you?
Luis: Her ability to work tirelessly, her empathy, her humility, her ability to join initiatives and her great ideas that help advance knowledge of inflammatory bowel disease.