Francisca Leite could never resist an opportunity to learn. First, she enrolled in a Ph.D. program in biophysics in her native Portugal. Then she went to the United States to carry out her doctoral research. She changed doctoral programs twice before finishing a Ph.D. in medical engineering and medical physics from the Harvard University-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Division of Health Sciences and Technology in Cambridge. She worked as a postdoc for a while.
But when circumstances drew her back to Portugal, she found that the unique set of skills she had acquired were not in demand in her country. That's when she learned about a very different sort of opportunity at a management consulting company with an office in Lisbon.
She saw it as just another opportunity to learn. "I had this sense that I had absolutely no idea how the real world works," she says. "So I thought, well, if I cannot get the job that I've always dreamed about, … [let's] do something completely different and learn something new."
Medicine's strange attraction
Leite comes from a family of pharmacists and medical doctors, and she always loved medicine. But she had other scientific loves. When the time came to go to university, she says, "I really didn't know what to do, and then, on a whim, I just decided, 'OK, let's try physics.' "
She started her 5-year first degree in physics, engineering, and technology at the Technical University of Lisbon (UTL) in 1992. But by year four, she says, "I missed the medicine part a lot." She took all the medicine-related courses UTL offered and steered her research toward medical applications. She worked with Portuguese biophysicist Eduardo Ducla-Soares at UTL on algorithms for localizing active brain regions, as revealed by electroencephalography. Later, she compared the permeability of polymers using solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).
After graduating, Leite entered the only Portuguese biophysics Ph.D. program she could find, which Ducla-Soares ran at the University of Lisbon. She took classes in anatomy, physiology, medicine, and molecular biology. The rules of her Ph.D. program allowed her to carry out her research project anywhere; she decided to study functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the United States. She just wasn't sure exactly where.
At the 1998 Human Brain Mapping conference in Montreal, Canada, a poster on fMRI caught her attention. It was presented by Joseph Mandeville, a researcher at the NMR Center of the Massachusetts General Hospital (now called the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging) in Charlestown, Massachusetts. "I asked him a few questions about the poster, but I never mentioned any interest because I was just too shy," Leite recalls. But upon returning to Portugal, she sent a letter to Bruce Rosen, the center's director, who forwarded it to Mandeville. "She had an excellent academic record," Mandeville recalls in an e-mail to Science Careers. Also, "she had a reasonably good idea of what type of research interested her." And she brought funding of her own, which always helps.
Leite joined Mandeville's lab in spring 1999. She went to work setting up a new series of fMRI studies for observing neural activity in the visual cortex of awake macaque monkeys. In those days, most researchers were using fMRI on anaesthetized animals, because the animals needed to be completely still. But a collaboration involving Mandeville, other Martinos Center researchers, and a lab in Belgium had recently developed a technique in which restrained monkeys were injected with an MRI contrast agent and trained to fixate quietly on a visual display.
It was difficult work. "There were so many challenges associated with fMRI in awake monkeys," Mandeville says. "Students had to learn to work with the animals for training and experiments. Most aspects of data acquisition and analysis were new, ... [and] there were a few long forays into techniques."
Leite's contribution was "invaluable," Mandeville says. She "did some excellent work, both scientifically and programmatically," and helped get the technique working. She used her physics and math skills to optimize the acquisition and reconstruction of images. But her most important achievement, she thinks, was shedding new light on the physiology of brain activation by using a variety of different contrast agents.
A year into the program, Leite changed her affiliation. She continued her research but joined the radiation science and technology graduate program at MIT. She took 2 years of courses there and was about to get her first paper out when she became aware of yet another opportunity. In September 2002, she entered a doctoral program in medical engineering and medical physics run by the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. All the while, she continued work on the fMRI project.
In the new program, Leite took most of the courses required for the first 2 years of medical school. She also got clinical experience at the Mount Auburn Hospital, going to the emergency room every day for a few months to discuss with an intern how to best examine and treat patients. She says she really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of medicine and the contact with patients.
"My only regret is that in the end I didn't finish the medical degree," she says. But that would have required at least two and a half more years, and all this education had stretched out the project. She was also starting to think about going back home. "So I decided, no, I just need to complete" the Ph.D.
All told, her research yielded three papers, two as first author. She presented her research at seven international conferences.
'Someone who values what I have'
After the Ph.D., she stayed on for a postdoc for a while. About a year in, family issues drew her home. But, "research-wise, there was really no place in Portugal [where] I could do anything like I was doing in the States," she says. She looked for a professorship, but few were available, and strict eligibility requirements excluded her, she says. "I had a Ph.D. that no one in Portugal has, but ... it didn't count for anything." That's when McKinsey & Co., the management consulting company, began to look like a good opportunity.
Leite got an interview at McKinsey and prepared by reading books and talking to people who worked at McKinsey and other consulting companies. She joined the company as a junior associate in December 2007. Within a year, she was an associate. A year after that she was promoted again, to senior associate.
As a McKinsey consultant, Leite helps companies in the banking, media, and health sectors solve strategy, operations, organizational, and finance problems. She interviews client-company employees to figure out what the problem is, presents an analysis to the client company, helps them think their way through possible solutions, and builds models to quantify the impact. "Usually, our job is ... helping them to frame and solve this problem using the knowledge they have," Leite says. One case she particularly enjoyed was helping a hospital reduce long waiting lists, which were causing patients to leave, the hospital to lose money, and the staff members to become frustrated.
The work is very different from what she did previously, yet Leite found her training very useful. Thanks to her experience as researcher, she is very good at analyzing data, and at "finding the problem and how to solve it," she says.
Leite says the learning curve was flattened a bit by McKinsey's abundant training opportunities. When she first joined the company, she attended a 3-week 'mini-MBA' where she learned the basics of finance, microeconomics, and other business-relevant subjects. As an associate, she attended a course on leadership to prepare her to join the management ranks and run her own team.
What Leite found most difficult was dealing with people. During her Ph.D., she says, "I didn't really need to interact with people very much. It was myself, my adviser, and the monkey." But, in her job, she says "you have to ... be very assertive. You have to pick up the phone all the time and ask something else. That, to me, was a real struggle."
Adapting to a faster pace has also proved challenging. During her Ph.D., she enjoyed being able to analyze a set of data several times. Now, she says, "you don't really have time to go back and do it better."
Leite expects more challenges, mostly relating to new personal circumstances: She's finishing her maternity leave and will go back to work soon, part time. "It's going to be a real challenge to go back as a mum," she says -- all the more because her husband, a Portuguese theoretical physicist who switched to quantitative finance -- works in London. She plans to hire a nanny to help care for their daughter.
"I've really enjoyed that I am forced to do everything I don't like to do -- you really grow from that -- and to see that I learned [so] much in just a few years," she says. She also likes feeling valued -- a nice change from academia where, on coming back from the United States, she found that "the people that should appreciate my degree don't really care," she says. "I want someone that values what I have."
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.