Close up of Luiza de Oliveira Saad

Luiza de Oliveira Saad


Gretchen Ertl/Whitehead Institute

Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Luiza de Oliveira Saad

Luiza is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Peter Reddien’s lab developing a slug as a model species to study development and regeneration. We sat down with Luiza to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.

What is your current research focus?

I’m interested in understanding the mechanisms involved in regeneration, and I’m currently developing a slug, Berghia stephanieae, as a new model organism to study this process. There are various animals with different capacities for regeneration. Many researchers focus on highly regenerative organisms such as planarians, which are flatworms studied extensively in the Reddien lab. Planarians have remarkable regenerative abilities in which any piece cut from them can develop into a whole new organism. On the other hand, vertebrates like axolotls, a type of salamander, exhibit more limited regeneration. They can grow a new limb if one is removed, for example, but that severed limb won't form an entirely new animal. Finally, there are species like humans that lack significant regenerative capabilities.

The question that researchers are interested in is why some animals have these different regenerative abilities while others don’t. Studying less familiar regenerative animals, like Berghia stephanieae, can help us complete the picture of what mechanisms drive regeneration. What is conserved among different species, and what characteristics are unique to each species? The mollusk phylum, to which the slug belongs, offers a fascinating array of creatures with varying regenerative capacities, making it an intriguing subject for understanding the processes behind animal regeneration.

How did you become interested in a research career?

I'm from Brazil, where the PhD and research paths are not as well-known or as common. My family still doesn't know what I do. They always ask, "When will you finish studying?" and I have to explain that I probably never will. So, growing up I wasn't familiar with the academic pathway. However, in school, I had an excellent biology teacher who sparked my interest in the subject. Growing up by the beach, I was always fascinated by marine animals. Then in college, a researcher named Carlo Magenta gave a lecture at my university about mollusks that caught my attention. After I introduced myself to him, he generously sat down with me for coffee and explained what biologists can do and what research entails - including opportunities in industry or academia, along with details of how to pursue them. It was then that I first realized this could be a path for me; it's a conversation I'll never forget. He became my first mentor, and since then I have luckily encountered many great mentors who have assisted me in pursuing this career path.

Could you say more about growing up on the beach and how that influenced your interest in biology?

I'm from Santos in Brazil, which is a beach city, so I have always felt connected to the ocean. Although I have moved around a lot in my life, being far from the water always feels strange. When I was growing up, we'd go to the beach every single day. Even in high school, we'd wear our swim suits under our school uniforms and then head to the beach after school for the rest of the day. I've always been curious about the shells on the beach and all those tiny creatures and bubbles in the sand. My interest stems from observing these things, and my curiosity and desire to understand what I see has influenced me a lot.

A slug with long tentacles in front and a body covered in cerata, or horn-like protrusions

Berghia stephanieae


Luiza de Oliveira Saad/Whitehead Institute

What led you to Whitehead Institute?

During my first year of college, I fell in love with mollusks and their incredible diversity, and I started to pursue different studies focusing on the phylum. While studying ecology in college and morphology during my master’s program, I realized that neither research area felt quite right to me. A fellowship program in Brazil offered the opportunity to conduct part of my research abroad, which led me to a lab in Vienna, Austria focusing on evolution and development. It was there that I truly fell for this field as I researched the genetics of development. What fascinates me the most is how every tissue is formed through a connected program of cell division and movement within embryos. It is so pretty and coordinated that it looks like a dance. What's most intriguing is the conservation of genes responsible for this coordination across species despite the species’ remarkable diversity. It's like they're using similar instruments to create completely different music. I find that fascinating.

For my PhD, I focused on developmental biology and I worked with a professor in Brazil who studied cave planarians in the lab. Although I had to change the species I was used to studying, since these creatures are not mollusks, I ended up also being captivated by the planarians and their incredible regenerative capacities. The surface-dwelling planarians, like those studied by the Reddien lab, have pigmentation and large eyes, whereas the cave planarian lacks pigmentation and (we initially believed) did not have eyes. My research aimed to understand the development and evolution that occurs to adapt to the cave environment.

I started to pursue this research, and, again taking advantage of this Brazilian fellowship that allows you to perform research abroad, I saw an opportunity. I was always referencing Peter’s work on planarians, and I decided to reach out to him. I was thrilled when he agreed to the collaboration and offered me an internship. After returning to Brazil to complete my PhD, I maintained communication with Peter as we both talked about a possibility for my return for a postdoc opportunity. We were both exited to extend the regeneration work to a new model organism. Now we have combined the Mollusca phylum that I love so much with the regeneration and developmental biology field. This is the project I have been working on since February 2023 and I couldn't be happier.

What’s the most exciting moment you have had in the lab?

One that really speaks to me is from when I first got here during my PhD. We were working with this cave planarian that I mentioned. They were described as being eyeless, and at first glance, I could not see any eyes. However, during my initial work here, we conducted a series of fluorescence experiments to visualize gene expression. We tested several eye-related genes just out of curiosity and placed the cave planarians under the microscope. I was very surprised when I saw that the genes lit up in the eye region. This discovery revealed that this organism actually still possessed a very tiny preserved eye. It changed completely the direction of my research. I was very excited to witness this discovery.

What are your hobbies?

I enjoy watching reality dating shows for the silly drama. I think it is good for when you need a break from thinking about anything. I also like exploring new places to eat with friends and trying different foods. One of my favorite things to do is taste vanilla ice cream in different ice cream places. I know it’s a bit strange because vanilla is a very bland flavor, but I do like it a lot, and also, I have a memory of every place that I have visited and tried the same flavor. It allows me to compare and rank my favorites based on my travels.

What’s your favorite ice cream place?

I have a special connection to the ice cream in my hometown of Santos; the place is called Sorveteria Royal. It is a traditional ice cream place that has been making homemade ice cream for generations. My grandmother used to take us there. It's still my favorite. In the Boston area, my favorite is Amorino Gelato in the Back Bay.

Any other hobbies?

It’s not a hobby, but maybe a fun fact is that before college I used to work in kids’ party organization and I really enjoyed it. I’m very good at making balloon decorations, that’s my secret skill. I have crafted graduation hats for colleagues to wear and made a flower bouquet as well. My friends often invite me to help out with party decorations, and it is always something that I enjoy doing.

A colorful flower bouquet of balloons with a big pink balloon bow

A balloon bouquet made by Luiza.


Luiza de Oliveira Saad/Whitehead Institute

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I’ve always wanted to return to Brazil, to become a principal investigator there: have my own lab, teach classes, and mentor students. It's important for me to give back because the fellowships I received in Brazil were crucial for my career. I am fortunate as very few people in Brazil have the opportunity to learn English or travel abroad, and pursuing a PhD is quite rare. My journey was only possible due to professors who encouraged me. If I can inspire and guide students towards a career in science, or simply show them that such paths are possible if they choose, then that would make me feel very fulfilled.



Communications and Public Affairs
Phone: 617-452-4630

Peter Reddien stands with his hands in his pockets.

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