Mother, daughter – and a predilection for the chemistry of medicinal plants

More than 30 years ago, pharmacist and chemist Maria Graças Lins Brandão received a DAAD doctoral scholarship to come from Belo Horizonte in Brazil to Germany – to conduct research into the chemistry of medicinal plants. A fascination that she has passed on to her daughter: Fernanda Lins Brandão Mügge is a cell biologist who is currently taking advantage of a PRIME scholarship from the DAAD to conduct research at Heidelberg University. PRIME stands for ‘Postdoctoral Researchers International Mobility Experience’ and links 12-month research stays abroad with six months at a German higher education institution. An interview involving mother and daughter regarding academia, the preservation of traditional knowledge – and the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Mrs Lins Brandão, you received a DAAD scholarship to come to Germany for your doctorate in 1987. How did that come about?

Maria Graças Lins Brandão: Anyone wishing to obtain a doctorate in medicinal plant chemistry in the 1980s had to look to Germany, since that was where a number of world-famous professors were conducting their research. In that respect, I was very fortunate to be able to travel first to Hanover and then also on to Munich. And even if many things were very different from today: back then the DAAD still had a very active scholarship community in Germany with whom I had a lot of interaction. I went on excursions and got to know the former DDR, Leipzig and East Berlin for instance. I was in Hanover when the Berlin Wall fell, and it wasn’t long before the first Trabants came driving into the city. An historic moment – which I could only describe to my family in letters at first. Phoning was very expensive.

Fernanda Lins Brandão Mügge: I was born in Hanover in May 1989, so I don’t really have any memory of the fall of the Wall. And just a year later my parents moved to Brazil. In the 1990s, my mother was a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Even as a child I spent a lot of time in the laboratory – test tubes were my playthings, so to speak.

I found this exciting from an early age, also because my mother became a pioneer in the exploration of Brazilian flora. Among other things, she created a database containing traditional knowledge relating to medicinal plants in Brazil. A lot of information had been recorded by European naturalists in the early 19th century, by Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius for example. As a young girl, I went along on European trips to see these researchers’ collections. I therefore became increasingly drawn to the subject.

You ultimately studied pharmacy at your mother’s university, were awarded your doctorate in cell biology – and are now also conducting research in Germany as a DAAD scholarship holder.

Fernanda Lins Brandão Mügge: Yes, although that’s also down to my dual nationality: my father was German, so I frequently spent time with relatives in northern Germany during holidays and I studied here for a semester. I’ve wanted to move for a long time and research here in the long term. And the PRIME scholarship is also designed to be international: I spent the majority of my time in Maryland in the USA, I only came to Germany in August 2020...

Maria Graças Lins Brandão: ...in the midst of the pandemic. I visited Fernanda in the USA for Christmas 2019. But the COVID situation in Brazil is now so terrible that I’ve withdrawn to the countryside and am not going anywhere for a while. We’re fortunate to have lots of opportunities for academic cooperation.

What do these involve?

Maria Graças Lins Brandão: I’m sitting here at the source of valuable plant species, so to speak, which still need to be investigated. The traditional knowledge is very scattered and at the same time more and more natural areas and thus important ecosystems are being lost. The Brazilian government is deforesting at a vast rate, especially near the Amazon, to provide the land for industry to export agricultural products like soya beans and meat. This means that important plant species and local knowledge are both being lost simultaneously.

And are there no research laboratories in Brazil where the plants can be investigated?

Fernanda Lins Brandão Mügge: Research in Brazil is facing an unimaginable decline. There are universities which are unable to pay their water and electricity bills – in light of this, you can imagine what it’s like in the laboratories. Increasing numbers of researchers are leaving the country. The plan is for my mother to send me material and for me to investigate its biodiversity here in Germany. After my scholarship ends, I want to qualify as a lecturer teaching cell biology of Brazilian medicinal plants at professional level; I’m taking up a post for this at Giessen University in May 2021. And then I’d ideally like to become a professor, with my own laboratory.

Mrs Lins Brandão, would you not also like to move to Europe again?

Maria Graças Lins Brandão: No, after all someone has to take care of things here on the ground. Safeguarding traditional knowledge remains just as great a challenge as passing it on to future generations. Even the schools could play an important part in this. I recently created materials for teachers to use in their science lessons. Ideally they’ll succeed in inspiring pupils to such an extent that it will build a bridge to research – and that more Brazilian students will devote themselves to the study of medicinal plants in the future.

Author: Jeannette Goddar

  • Maria das Graças Lins Brandao Maria das Graças Lins Brandao
  • Fernanda Lins Brandao Mügge Fernanda Lins Brandao Mügge

Graduated in pharmacy at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG, 1981) and qualified as a lecturer teaching natural sciences (chemistry) at the same university (1991). She is a retired professor at the UFMG Faculty of Pharmacy. She also founded the CEPLAMT centre for aromatic, medicinal and toxic plants in the Museum of Natural History and Botanical Garden at the UFMG. Maria das Graças Lins Brandão conducts research into the natural history of useful medicinal plants in Brazil and is involved in developing and disseminating didactic and scientific teaching materials.

Currently she is working as a postdoc at Heidelberg University and in May 2021 she is starting a qualification as a lecturer teaching at professional level at Giessen University. She has a doctorate and a master's degree in cell biology and a bachelor's degree in pharmacy from the UFMG. She has worked on various aspects of cell and molecular biology, including the bioactivity of medicinal plants, host-pathogen interactions and the investigation of intracellular signalling pathways.

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May 2021

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