From: Saõ Paulo, Brazil 🇧🇷
Who: biomedical researcher
Quote of the interview: There are many different ways to help people, to make impact you want to make. You don’t even need to have a degree to help people – it’s really a matter of choice.
I am a biomedical masters student, a researcher focusing on research related to diabetes. Right now I live in Groningen, but I am originally from São Paulo where I lived almost the whole life. I started my bachelors back home in Brazil, then did a 1-year internship at University of Iowa and then Stanford. As I graduated my bachelors in In São Paulo, I decided to continue my research work in the Netherlands.
My whole of my family lives in Brazil, my mom is an ex-volleyball player and my dad works as a head of operations at a school. I love running – it’s the time for me to think and get back in contact with myself. My other hobby is reading, I actually read a lot of books related to my research field – in my case it’s hard to separate life and work interests. I also love having fun, joking a lot and being around people. I enjoy volunteering – helping the elder people or doing different initiatives for kids.
I am a researcher by heart, so right now I am planning to finish my masters, then do a Ph.D. at Stanford, and then work for a pharmaceutical company.
Have you found your way in life?
Every day I ask myself if I am in the right place. I ask myself: “Why am I here?”, “What am I doing?” However, I have to say I am certain I like the field that I chose.
What’s your story?
You know, Brazil is very different from the developed countries. There is a crazy divide between the rich and the poor. I was lucky enough to study in a private school despite the fact my family always struggled with money. My mom went through all the “no-s” to get me scholarships that would cover tuition. Thanks to my years in private school I got good education (on Brazilian standards).
As I was approaching the high school time my family happened to be in a financial crisis, so I had to quit the private school and spend the whole of high school in a public school. It was pretty tough, the public school was very different – very different crowd, mostly people coming from really poor families. I had to leave my friends back in private school, I was a newbie in that new public school and as I came from the private school most people just ignored me. They thought I was a rich girl and so would just avoid me. This changed with the time and I made friends. In this public school I realized that compared to their life, my life was easy and I think I wouldn’t be who I am now if not the friends I made there.
I’ve always loved biology, I was curious to understand how diseases come around, how to best cure them and why some people live longer than others. So I decided that I wanted to be a doctor, an epidemiologist. When I graduated high school I spent 3 years trying to get admitted into a public medical university – my family couldn’t afford a private one and at the same time the competition for a spot in a public uni was around 200 people for 1 seat. Those 3 years I just kept studying, didn’t work and luckily my parents supported me in those times.
2 years after high school I started dating a guy, he became my boyfriend and he truly changed a lot of things for me. He was the first one to challenge me saying I was born to be a doctor, he would always make a point that I can help people in many different ways being in healthcare. I was super stubborn and didn’t consider anything apart from the doctor path, so he just made me read what, for example, a biomedical scientist can do.
This convinced me that I have to open up to other options. At the same time, after the 3 years of trying to get into a medical school, my dad told me he couldn’t afford to pay my bills anymore. I didn’t feel like working at all, I wanted to study, so I decided to choose a different field in order to start my bachelors right that year. Surprise… 😀 I chose biomedical science and got into the University of São Paulo from the first attempt.
My boyfriend had type 1 diabetes. I saw his life every day – he needed the insulin shots 3 times a day, it was tough. One day we were at a restaurant and as he went to pay the bill he was struck by a hypoglycemic crisis. I took care of him and got him home, but that situation together with a push from the uni to specialize made me feel like I wanted to do research that would help fight diabetes. I wanted to have my boyfriend fully cured one day and not having to take the shots.
There were times when I happened to do very different kinds of research – cancer, molecular biology, dermatology, hematology, orthopedics, and many more fields. Sometimes I thought of changing from diabetes to one of those. But I always came back to diabetes, it was the only thing that truly interested and excited me despite the fact I broke up with my boyfriend at some point.
Back in Brazil I happened to be a part of several big projects and as they ended successfully I published this research. This helped me get invited to University of Iowa and Stanford and got me a scholarship to go there for a 1-year internship. The year in these 2 US schools was awesome and as I got back to Brazil I published another piece of research.
Brazilian universities back then were in a financial crisis – they simply didn’t have money to do research. As I wanted to continue my research I decided to go abroad. There was the only one chance for me – winning the scholarship from the Dutch government to study at the University of Groningen. My family couldn’t support me financially so that one scholarship given to one Brazilian per year was essentially my only choice.
Well, I also had an invite to go back to Stanford, but it wasn’t exactly the thing I wanted to do. Thanks to my contacts in Stanford and in Brazil, to their kind recommendations and to the experience I gained, I could apply for a scholarship to study at the University of Groningen. But…I didn’t get it, someone else was selected for that year. You can imagine I was super upset, just ruined – I literally had no money to study, not even to apply for a visa.
I knew I still wanted to go to the University in Groningen, I knew I failed and my family was telling me to search for something else. But I didn’t give up – I contacted the secretary of the scholarship program, explained to her that I didn’t have the money and told her how much I wanted to study and make impact with my research around diabetes. Surprisingly, she decided to help me and said she’d let me know if there is a chance in a matter of 3 days. Those 3 days waiting for an answer I was praying…I am not religious, but those 3 days I was praying. 3 days later the secretary contacted me saying that they would make an exception for me and provide a full scholarship for me to study at the University in Groningen.
As you can guess, I am now in Groningen, doing exactly what I wanted and with a great team. I work late hours in the lab each week, read a lot and still trying to get used to life in the Netherlands. I try to travel as much as possible over holidays and explore Europe – I am loving it so far.
3 key realizations
There are many different ways to help people, to make impact you want to make. You don’t even need to have a degree to help people – it’s really a matter of choice.
Never give up, always keep trying and looking for ways to do what you truly want to do.
Being flexible and respecting the differences is one of the most important things in life. Sometimes it’s really about putting yourself into others’ shoes and understanding how to build relationships, change things, make impact.
Who helped you most along the way?
My dad, he supported me at all times. My mom. My ex-boyfriend who opened up a world of big opportunities out there for me. Of course, my friends.
What are the top books/videos/movies that inspired you?
- “Wonder” by RJ Palacio (book)
- “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot (movie and book)
- “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” by Goethe (book)
- “Capitães da Areia” (Captains of the Sands) by Jorge Amado (book)
- A Beautiful Mind (movie)
- I origins (movie)
What does it mean to be lost and found to you?
I guess I never felt I am lost or found, I’ve always felt I am on some kind of a journey, on some track. I never really got desperate or frustrated. When I failed I didn’t really feel stressed or ruined, I just felt like I need to solve it, ASAP.
Do you think you’ll be doing what you do now for the whole life?
Every day I change my goals. Some days I like the idea to have a job – when you are a researcher many times people think you’re not working. So sometimes I want to get a job just to feel what it’s like to have a real job outside of uni. Other days I want to do research.
I feel like I will change directions within my field – I could work for a pharmaceutical company or keep doing basic research at my university, or maybe do something else. I will probably be working on this topic forever, but I might be switching and doing different things.
What’s your purpose?
I can’t define that quite yet. I am just taking the opportunities in my life. I am doing my best to be good to my family. As a researcher, I think what Ben Feringa, a recent Nobel Prize winner, said – “We don’t need to work looking for a prize…” basically sums it up. I would be happy to discover something new, something that no one has discovered yet. I just love building knowledge.
Get it touch
Feel free to reach out to Erika on Facebook.