Interview with Raquel Texeira De Sousa
13 September 2023
Enterprise Training and development
MPLS Enterprise Fellow Raquel T De Sousa is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Oxford Bee Lab at the John Krebs Field Station in the Department of Biology. Here, she tells us more about her innovation journey and her aspirations for the future.
Tell us a little about where you come from, and what moves or motivates you?
I was born and raised in Porto, Northern Portugal, the Invicta city. My interests are wide-ranging, including science, creative arts, and cookery, but my underlying drive has always been observing and learning from nature and understanding animal behaviour (all credit to Sir David Attenborough, who was my first inspiration in this area!).
I hold a BSc in Applied Biology from the Universidade do Minho (Braga, Portugal), an MSc in Toxicology and Ecotoxicology from the Universidade de Aveiro (Aveiro, Portugal), and conducted research at the Universidade do Porto before commencing my PhD in the UK. I enjoyed moving places and research projects, but I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to follow an academic path further. It wasn’t until I started my beekeeping endeavours while photography training (having the bees as my muses) that I connected the dots and decided to pursue a PhD in honeybee research.
I first enrolled in the GABBA PhD Program (ICBAS, Portugal), which is unique because it selects a dozen students each year from a wide range of STEM and beyond, trains them in areas of basic and applied biology and funds them to travel and visit the research groups around the world of their own choice before committing; this is important because it gives agency to the students, who will dedicate their next four years to that lab environment and that specific project.
And so, in 2014, this opportunity paved my way to join Prof. Wright’s lab at Newcastle University (UK), where I found that honeybees have an appetite for mineral salts in food. Now, I am a postdoctoral researcher in the Oxford Bee Lab at the John Krebs Field Station (Department of Biology, University of Oxford). Here, I study the lipidome profile of honeybees and how lipids influence feeding behaviour, health and reproduction using laboratory and semi-field approaches.
How is Entrepreneurship and Innovation connected to your area of study or research, and how is it evolving?
Innovation in the beekeeping industry differs from other livestock industries in many ways; Climate change, intensive land use and subsequent shortage of forage (floral pollen) render the hives more susceptible to malnutrition, diseases, and colony collapse, but also increase the operational beekeeping costs; beekeepers must feed supplement the hives with expensive but suboptimal products, generally derived from other livestock. Therefore, past research and expertise in bee nutrition and the necessity took me on an entrepreneurial journey to conduct R&D in Israel, Italy, and the UK to develop a honeybee pollen substitute for commercial beekeepers.
By designing and producing a pollen substitute tailored to match the nutrient profile of bees, we aim to promote more robust and resilient bee colonies that can endure the lack of appropriate forage and pesticide exposure without collapsing. We co-founded a spin-off company that will likely take off to the market soon.
The great technological innovation in the beekeeping sector happened in the 19th century with the development of the movable frame hive and the centrifugal honey extractor (before, beekeepers would destroy the colonies and brood).
More recently, the advent of the ‘smart hives’ using internal sensors and Infra-Red cameras to monitor and measure internal conditions and features of the hive (e.g. weight, temperature, acoustics, humidity) as well as Radio frequency identification (RFID), Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and AI technologies have been used by both researchers and the beekeeping industry to remotely collect data and track hive performance, manipulations, foraging patterns and predict colony failure. In addition, RNA Interference (RNAi, which inhibits gene expression) may tentatively fight bee viral infections induced by the parasitic Varroa mite, and the USDA-approved oral vaccine for honeybees that attempts to curb foulbrood disease (bacterial infection) is among new tools that can help bees and beekeepers overcome colony collapse. The way forward is, therefore, to use these new technologies for monitoring and predicting, combined with precision nutrition and medicine for honeybees and potentially other pollinators.
Why are you attracted to entrepreneurship?
I resonate with and appreciate some of the characteristics associated with being or becoming an entrepreneur: knowledge-driven, risk-tolerant (resilient), curious, creative, leadership, exploring resources, breathing change, pursuing innovation, providing service, or creating value. I believe that everyone can be enterprising and should be able to receive some training in management, business, and leadership, regardless of if you are from STEM, literature or elsewhere. Of course, not everyone needs to create a business. It is hard work and can be overwhelming if you have no business mindset or training. You may have a good idea that needs to be validated, vouched for, and groomed to succeed. It helps if you find yourself in the right environment and are fortunate enough to have some mentorship.
Tell us some of the things that you hope the Enterprise Fellowship will help you to do or achieve, for yourself or for others.
Academia is a niche, and Oxbridge is a niche within a niche. I don’t think of myself as a ‘typical Oxford’ type, but I am here now, and I can appreciate the resources, initiatives, and opportunities. As a postdoc, I can attend training programmes and workshops and be part of the network that can help me, for example, enhance my employability skills or venture through a start-up idea.
Still, when it is most critical for us to choose the next career moves, I think that here as elsewhere the support available for postdocs falls short; most postdocs leave academia to find a job or career elsewhere. As an MPLS enterprise fellow, I would love to create a platform, for example, in the format of a podcast, deconstructing real-life career moves from Oxford research staff and beyond. This media approach would cover topics such as science, research, innovation and entrepreneurship, delving deep into the Hows and Whys, the tactics and rationale that listeners who are at a crossroads or facing the same decisions could use or feel inspired by.