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The music stopped

Gabriel Victora left his career as a pianist to dedicate himself to immunology; today he leads a team at Rockefeller University

Personal archiveGabriel Victora was on the verge of completing his high school education when his father, Cesar Victora, a distinguished epidemiologist at the Federal University of Pelotas (UFPel) in Rio Grande do Sul State, went to work for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York. Gabriel was 16 and decided to accompany his father to New York. Since he had studied piano in the cities of Pelotas and Porto Alegre, he tried his luck with music conservatories in New York. Several accepted him, but he decided to attend the prestigious Mannes College of Music.

He began his undergraduate studies in music in 1994 and finished in 1998, which was also when he began working on his master’s degree, also at Mannes, and he became a professional pianist. “I had a few recitals at Carnegie Hall in New York and at the São Paulo Municipal Theater, as well as appearances with the Porto Alegre Symphony Orchestra,” he says. Over time, however, his enthusiasm for the concert scene faded, and he decided to look for another career.

He began working as a translator of epidemiology articles for his father’s group at UFPel and later for other research groups in Brazil as well. In time, he gained experience and became one of the official translators of the bilingual edition of the University of São Paulo (USP) Revista de Saúde Pública [Journal of Public Health]. Since he had become increasingly interested in the field of immunology, his father suggested that he talk to immunologist Jorge Kalil, a researcher at the USP School of Medicine (FMUSP) and a colleague from his undergraduate days at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). As a result of the meeting, he was invited to intern at the Immunology Laboratory at the Heart Institute (InCor) at the FMUSP Hospital das Clínicas.

The internship led to another master’s—in immunology—at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICB) at USP, begun in 2004. Just before he completed his master’s degree, Victora attended a conference of the Brazilian Immunology Society, where he met Anjana Rao from the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in San Diego, California. “We talked about my enrolling in a PhD program in the United States,” he says. “I applied for a number of programs, but only New York University (NYU) was brave enough to admit a musician with no training in biology or medicine,” he says jokingly.

In 2006, he began his doctoral work at Mike Dustin’s laboratory at NYU. “I studied how B lymphocytes matured and generated more effective antibodies as the infection progressed.” One outcome was a paper published in the journal Cell. Then Victora received offers to set up his own laboratory. One offer came from the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He accepted, and spent four years heading a research group there. In 2016, he received two more proposals. One was from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the other from Rockefeller University. “I decided to go back to Rockefeller, which is where I always wanted to be,” he says. Today, at age 40, he heads a team of 11 researchers at the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Dynamics.