Fernando Schmitt is one of those big names in medicine that practically need no introduction. He is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts in cytopathology and breast cancer. He is a pathologist, a researcher of CINTESIS, and the RISE coordinator (Health Research Network – From the Lab to the Community) proposal for Associate Laboratory, submitted in the framework of the call launched by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) in 2020.
His personal and professional path has been marked by great challenges and risky journeys between continents, in a constant search for higher flights and the pursuit of a place in the sun for which he has worked throughout his life.
He was born on August 16, 1959, in Santa Maria, in the heart of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. His father was a doctor, a son of German emigrants (hence the surname Schmitt), and his mother was a dentist of French origin. “My father had the only rheumatologist’s practice in town, but he never got rich. Patients used to give him chickens, even though we live in an apartment”, he remembers and laughs.
He studied at the Colégio Marista Santa Maria, always a straight-A student. Some thought he could be a priest or a lawyer. He dreamed of being a fireman, the “garbage man” or a lion tamer. In 1978, he was accepted in the Federal University of Santa Maria to study Medicine, the very same place where his father worked as a professor, but he says he never felt pressured to become a doctor, and he decided on studying Medicine on the very last day of his application for Higher Education. The passion for medicine was almost instantaneous. “I never regretted it, and I can´t even imagine what my life would be like if I had another profession.”, he admits.
He chose Pathology in the third year of studies because of the professors teaching that subject, who inspired him. In the fourth year, he was already doing autopsies, taking advantage of his free time, such as nights and weekends. He believes that “Pathology is the specialty that best summarizes Medicine as a whole. We need to know a little bit of everything”. On the other hand, “pathology is in between the basic and the clinical areas. If there is a specialty that can speak to the scientist and the surgeon in the same language, it is Pathology”.
He graduated in 1983, and soon he wanted to do his internship at the Botucatu School of Medicine of the Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP), the most respected, but more than a thousand kilometers from his native town. He recognizes that it was difficult in the early days. He even considered accepting an invitation from his professors to teach at the university where he graduated. Still, he wanted to make a career and grow without anyone’s shadow, so he chose Botucatu. At the end of the internship, the question arose again, and the decision was the same. In 1987, he finally became a professor at UNESP, and a year later, he completed his specialization at the Karolinska Medical Hospital in Sweden.
“Karolinska was the Mecca of interventional aspiration cytology. It was the best in the world. It was also the first time that I lived abroad. I was married and had my oldest son. At the time, he was only a few months old. It was a very difficult decision to make. When I returned, nine months later, he didn’t know me. I’ll never forget that. Today, my son, who is also a doctor, is my best friend”, he says, with undisguised pride.
Back in Brazil, he continued to teach and research at UNESP, where he completed his Ph.D. in Experimental Surgery in 1990. Everything was ready to do a post-doctorate in the USA when the opportunity to come to Portugal came up in 1992, with a scholarship from the National Research Council of Brazil. He moved with the whole family, including his two children. He abdicated comfort and “luxuries”. The adaptation was easy, except for the cold inside the house.
He still had to return to Brazil, but he would settle permanently in the city of Porto. His children were the main reason for that decision. “It was the riskiest thing I did in my life. My ex-wife, who is a pediatrician, and I resigned our contracts as public employees. It was a long shot. If it didn’t go well, I was lost,” he says.
Fortunately, it went well. In 1997, Fernando Schmitt became a member of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto, where he is an Associate Professor with Aggregation. From 2015 to 2016, he worked as a Full Professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Toronto (Canada), one of the world’s ten best. He loved the experience. There was only one problem: this time, the family did not go with him. From Canada, he flew directly to the National Health Laboratory in Luxembourg via a head hunter or talent scout office.
“I was interviewed and appointed for the position. I worked as a director for two years, leading a team of around 200 people. I’ve never been so well paid in my whole life, but money isn’t everything. I learned a lot during that period, but I had to stop teaching and doing research, which is what I like to do the most. So I decided to go back to FMUP”, he explains.
Currently, he is one of the most renowned specialists in Cytopathology and Mammary Pathology worldwide. He is the head of the Molecular Pathology Unit at IPATIMUP Diagnostics. Molecular changes in breast cancer have been one of the main themes of his research, from molecular mechanisms to clinical application. He is a publishing champion, with more than 500 articles in scientific journals and book chapters, in addition to 5 books.
He is president-elect and secretary-general of the International Academy of Cytology (IAC). He is also president of the International Society of Mammary Pathology and editor-in-chief of the international journal Pathobiology: The Journal of Translational Pathology.
He has won several awards, including the Dário Cruz Prize, from the Portuguese League Against Cancer, the GoldBlatt Award of the IAC, and the 2011 Educator Award from the Papanicolaou Cytology Society. He still works as a cytologist and sees patients. “I am not the one providing treatment to patients, but I like to help and show the way”, he justifies.
At the invitation of Professor Altamiro da Costa Pereira, he is now the coordinator of the application to Associate Laboratory RISE. Once again, he decided to take risks and leave the I3S to join CINTESIS, the research unit that together with UnIC -both headquartered at FMUP; The Cardiovascular Center of the University of Lisbon – CCUL, and the Research Center of the Portuguese Institute of Oncology of Porto – CI-IPOP acts as proponent institution of the application submitted to the FCT Call to obtain the Associate Laboratory Statute.
“This is my drive now. RISE is a strong network that can act as a catalyst for research. CINTESIS and FMUP win because the network expands. There is a lot of competition, and fragmentation only undermines research. We must be united in the same direction”, he concludes.
I want to be healthy, first of all, because, without health, nothing can be done. And I want RISE to start working.
10 years from now, I would like to leave RISE as a well-established network and, when that time comes, I will be able to retire a very happy man. I want to be like Pele and not like Maradona. Pelé left when he realized he could no longer be what he used to be, and he continued to be respected. Maradona tried too hard and, when you try too hard, you can destroy in months what took you a lifetime to build. I have my head well prepared to let it go when I have to.
Life Beyond Research
I love to read. I am a voracious consumer of literature, and I read anything. Now I am reading a very old book by Vinicius de Moraes. I also enjoy watching television, especially watching series, and I like to walk in Foz or along the beach. At the weekend, I walk with Sule about 10 kilometers.
I love to travel and have traveled a lot in recent years. It wasn’t easy to be in Porto for two straight weeks. There was a time when I arrived from Australia, and the next day I went to Brazil. Maybe because of that, I didn’t miss it very much during the pandemic.
I’m not too fond of the phone [laughs], and I don’t like social media. I like to be with people. One of my greatest talents is meeting people and having friends in many countries around the world.