Growing up in Lisbon, Portugal, Ana Sousa Dias attended St. John de Britto College, a school whose science teachers inspired her to go on for an undergraduate chemistry degree at the city’s Nova University. It was while she was doing research on an Erasmus scholarship at the University of Castilla–La Mancha that Sousa Dias discovered organometallic chemistry and the role of catalysis. “There were difficult techniques, glove boxes, and everything had to be done in an oxygen-free environment. It was very interesting,” she says. She honed her understanding of organometallic chemistry doing her PhD work at the University of Aveiro, where, in 2003, she immersed herself in the then-obscure field of converting xylans into furfural.
In September 2007, Sousa Dias began a postdoctoral fellowship at Nova and thought she was headed toward an academic career. “I was back in the place that I loved,” she says. But within weeks of starting, she received an email from her PhD adviser that changed her life: an offer to apply her knowledge of catalysis to make novel industrial products for Avantium, a green technology company in the Netherlands. Arriving in Amsterdam for the interview, Sousa Dias, who had been living in a small city in Portugal, experienced culture shock. “It was crowded, as there were festivities, and I couldn’t understand a word. It was overwhelming,” she says. It would also be “very difficult” to leave her family and friends, she recalls.
But she clicked with the team at Avantium, was impressed with the lab facilities, and felt this was her chance to convert her knowledge into commercial “reality,” Sousa Dias says. She started working for the company in January 2008 with plans to return to her postdoc in a year. Initially, her role at Avantium was based in the lab and involved using catalysts to develop processes for making hydroxymethylfurfural from sugars. With high-throughput technologies on hand, she says, “I was impressed that in 6 months of being here I was able to do many more experiments than I was able to do during my entire PhD.”
Some 15 years later, Sousa Dias is Avantium’s head of product stewardship and regulatory affairs and has settled in the Netherlands. Her day-to-day activities are no longer in the lab; she’s a manager overseeing the safety of products that Avantium is developing, including polyethylene furanoate, a novel polymer for beverage bottles, and others made entirely from biochemicals. “I am doing the legal side of the technology,” Sousa Dias says. She has a positive approach to her career and life in general. “I try to take the opportunities that life has brought me. There was a flow that in the end directed me here,” she says of her time in the Netherlands. She didn’t end up pursuing an academic career, but it worked out for her, she says. “I recommend people follow their ambitions.”