Note from BW of Brazil: And one more “hidden figure”! Back in March, I posted a story influenced by the popular American film that asked, “Where are Brazil’s ‘Hidden Figures’?” The piece went on to mention that although they represent only 5.5% of the total, over 5,000 black Brazilian women conduct research in the exact sciences. Well, we can add one more shining star to that total. Today’s piece demonstrates once again how Brazil is possibly missing out hidden geniuses by not allowing more opportunities to develop the 54% of its population that doesn’t have white skin or have privileged backgrounds. The question is, out of 207 million Brazilians, how many more Joana D’Arc de Souzas could be out there?
‘I went hungry, but I decided that I would win through my studies’
By Flávia Junqueira
A Ph.D in Chemistry from Harvard, Joana D’Arc de Souza conducts state-of-the-art research with students from the Escola Agrícola de Franca and has 15 registered patents
A sweet voice, short, with an accent, already gives the clue. That woman of fragile appearance, not much more than five feet tall, has the gift of circumventing obstacles. From a poor family from Franca, in the interior of São Paulo, 53-year-old chemistry professor Joana D’Arc Felix de Souza studied with borrowed books and often slept hungry while living in Campinas, where she did her grad work, master’s and a doctorate at Unicamp. From there, she left for the United States, where she completed her postdoctoral degree at Harvard University. Life preached a piece to her, and she needed to return to Brazil, where, since 2004, she has been doing cutting-edge research with high school students at the Escola Agrícola (Agricultural School) in her hometown. Since then, in partnership with her students, she has registered 15 national and international patents.
This surprising story began when Joanna was only 4 years old and was accompanying her mother, a maid, to work.
“I had the opportunity to start studying early because my mother was a maid,” she says.
If you are looking for some logic in this sentence, forget it. Few things in Joan’s life follow the “expected” course.
“To keep quiet, my mother taught me to read the newspaper that came to the house. I was about 3 years old. One day, my mother’s boss, who was the director of a Sesi school, saw me with the newspaper and asked if I was looking at the pictures. I said I was reading,” she says.
Her mother’s boss gave a text to Joana to read. Impressed, he asked permission for the girl to attend school for a week. If she went with him, she would get a place.
“And it worked. I started 1st grade of elementary school at 4 years of age. Without studying, my mother was my first teacher. She went up to 4th grade of primary (school). And my father, the fifth grade,” she says.
Joana finished high school and decided she would study Chemistry.
“My family lived in a house in the tannery where my father worked. The tannery chemist wore a white coat. Since I was a little girl, I was in love with that lab coat and said, ‘I want to wear one of these.’ In the 3rd year of high school, a teacher explained what the vestibular (college entrance exam) was and offered handouts for a prep course. I passed for Chemistry in the three state universities of São Paulo: Unicamp, USP and Unesp.
Memories of hard times
Joana chose Unicamp in Campinas. With the help of her father and his employer, she moved to a boarding school. Money was counted for transportation and one meal a day at the university cafeteria.
“I kept the roll to be my dinner. On Fridays, I would order more breads for the weekend. I saw the girls buying ice cream and thought, ‘Someday, I’ll get it too.’”
Joana tells about this phase of her life without any trace of bitterness:
“I was starving, but I decided that I would win through my studies. My father always said: to achieve your goals, you have to go through the sacrifice. People who were not born in a cradle of gold have to roll up their sleeves. If you give up, you’ll never get there.”
And she got there. When she finished her doctorate at Unicamp, she received an invitation to do postdoctoral studies at Harvard. Her counselor suggested that she take a national product to study. Her father gave her idea of working with tannery residue, an important environmental liability for Franca, the capital of footwear. The local garbage industry generates 218 tons of waste per day.
Joana studied English with books with CDs sold at newsstands and left for Boston. Since then, tannery waste has been her raw material. From that mud, she developed an artificial skin to be used in burns; collagen for the treatment of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis; bone cement to reconstitute fractures; fertilizers; a fish scaling filtration system and several technologies that are already being transferred to the industry. But all this production did not have the Harvard laboratories as a background, but simple cement benches in the technical tanning course of the Agricultural School of Franca, of which Joana is the coordinator.
“My intention was to finish my post-doctorate and stay in the United States. But when I was a year and a half old, my sister died. A month later, my father also had a fulminating heart attack. And my mother remained with my four nephews, then of 2 months, 1, 3 and 4 years. I finished the course and in 1999 I returned to Brazil to help my mother, who was sick. I didn’t know what to do.”
Joana became a scientific advisor to the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (Fapesp or Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo) and entered a competition professor at the Escola Agrícola Técnica Professor Carmelino Corrêa Júnior, where most of the students are like her, of humble origin. Her arrival revolutionized the college. With Fapesp scholarships, it implemented the scientific initiation, which improved the structure of the laboratories.
“She has the gift of being an extraordinary scientist and bringing people together in the development of science. In all its simplicity, it involves students and encourages them to seek solutions to real problems through chemistry”, says the director of the school, Professor Cláudio Ribeiro Sandoval, 61.
The pedagogue Roberta Real Suaroz, 33, one of Joana’s scholarship recipients in the Agricultural School, keeps in mind the patience and persistence of her teacher:
“I’ve never seen her lose her temper. My alligator skin design was not working, and she said, ‘You have to make it work, and if you have to try it a thousand times, do it a thousand times.’
Besides the 15 patents, Joana is developing about 20 projects.
“With a 14-year-old student, we started researching an antimicrobial tissue to fight hospital infection. This year, for the second time, we were presented with award-winning projects at the Genius Olympiad in New York. – It is not necessary to be in a university to develop advanced research.”
Source: BV FAPESP