When I was 12 I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I decided to leave my home in a small town in Brazil to find opportunities for a better life. I had been raised by my grandparents since I was 2, soon after my parents got divorced.
We lived in a simple house in a rural town in Brazil. I remember playing outside on the street, covered in red dirt. Our street wasn’t paved, so I would walk into the house with my dirty shoes bringing the red dirt inside, which made grandma very mad. It wasn’t easy to wash the dirt off our clothes, so grandma had to let the clothes sit in detergent in the sun before hand washing them. We didn’t have a machine washer or a microwave, but there was a nice old fashioned wood burner stove where my grandparents would make fruit compote or roast coffee. Sometimes they would cook dinner there too; my grandma believed that food made on the wood burner stove tasted much better. She had a lot of beliefs that would be fun to share at some point; for example, she would get very mad if I took a shower right after eating because she thought I could die from it. Never mind drinking coffee after eating a banana or drinking milk after eating mangos, which she believed, would cause stomachache… Well, I guess she never had a smoothie before.
For a while we had a black and white TV so I was very excited when my grandpa was able to afford buying a color TV. I was very young, but I remember that the old TV had an antenna on top of it, and sometimes the channels wouldn’t work well so we had to put some steel wool around the antenna to get a better signal. It worked just fine.
Every month, I looked forward to the day my grandpa received his retirement salary. It was grocery shopping day, which meant that he would buy yogurt! He used to buy this set of 6 yogurt cups with strawberry and coconut flavors. The yogurt was a treat to have after lunch or dinner. I wished I could eat them all, but it was shared between us.
My grandfather was a loving man, a retired mason that worked hard all his life to support his 12 children alongside my grandma. Grandma wasn’t so loving; she was a great woman, don’t take me wrong, but she wasn’t the loving type. She had rigid rules and didn’t smile much. I always thought she was a grumpy lady and I didn’t understand how my grandpa and her were able to stay together for so long while being so different — they were married for more than 60 years! Looking back I couldn’t respect my grandma more: if I had to raise 12 children, especially given the conditions that they lived, I would be grumpy too! She not only raised them all, but also worked by washing other people’s clothes and selling homegrown vegetables and homemade soap (the soap was weird, it was shaped like a sphere and was made from old fat that my grandma saved in the kitchen). People would swear by this soap saying that it was the best to wash dishes and clothes. I never particularly liked it, but had to use it once in a while.
Anyways, I was 12 years old and thought that my life was boring. I looked up to some of my cousins that lived in big cities — they practiced sports, took language lessons, and went to good schools. The life in that small town didn’t seem right to me. I knew that if I stayed there, I would marry young, have lots of kids and my husband would probably spend most part of his free time with his buddies drinking in one of the many bars around the town. But, if I left and was able to get a better education like my cousins, maybe I would have a better life. But how would I do that? I was only 12, my grandparents didn’t have much money and I couldn’t count on my parents. Well, I was lucky enough to have other family members that cared for me.
I wrote a letter to my aunt that was living in the capital of Brazil, Brasilia, and I asked if I could move in with her to study. I explained that I didn’t want to end up like many girls in my situation and that I wanted to be something better one day. My aunt was a math teacher and a good friend and role model for me. She didn’t have kids and was respected in the family and among people in our town, so my grandparents allowed me to move in with her. It wasn’t smooth — I remember drama involving my mother not wanting me to go but in the end my decision was respected and I moved to the capital of Brazil with my aunt.
Here I was, in the capital. I had never seen so many cars! I was so scared to even cross the streets on my way to school that a friend called me little turtle, a nickname that stuck with me for a while. I was self-conscious, had a very strong accent that people loved to make fun of and I missed my grandpa so much! It was tough, but I didn’t give up. I could write a book just telling you all the experiences I had in Brasilia. If you persist, things get better. I persisted. I made friends, I went to school, I studied English (I really hated English class at the time) and I persevered.
The story doesn’t end here. I made a lot of mistakes, wasn’t the best in class, and was a bit of a rebel. Maybe because I was angry inside, maybe because I was insecure, or maybe because I was simply a teenager. I would challenge everything and everyone, sometimes silently other times with a good fight. But let’s skip these teenager years and insecurities. After high school, I moved back close to my hometown to go to college. I had to study an extra year until I was accepted to college while living with other family members. My aunt and my grandpa supported my studies and I also worked as a secretary in a carwash company. Before this job I worked for 2 weeks trying to sell funeral insurance door to door with the promise that I could make more than a three figure monthly salary — of course I didn’t sell anything and gave up. It was definitely an eye opening experience: I learned that I better study to not have to do that again!
I got into college and graduated in chemical engineering after 5 years. I had a lot of fun. My acceptance to college and graduation on time was a surprise to some people as some never really thought much of me. Except of course from my loving grandfather and my aunt that invested hard on my education. I had put my mind to it, so I did it. Not that it was easy, not that I was the best at it. But I did it.
I don’t blame people that didn’t believe in me. I overcompensated my insecurities with a behavior that undermined my intellectual capacity. I was always joking and gave the impression that didn’t take anything seriously. I liked to party, started to drink in college, and drank more than my girlfriends. But I persevered.
After college there were even more uncertainties, I didn’t have a job lined up and wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do with my life. Then, a kind professor and mentor opened my eyes. He told me these words (in Portuguese) “I want to give you the advice that my father gave me once. Never stop investing in yourself and your education. I see a sparkle in your eyes and I know you can do so much more. If you take any small job now (there wasn’t many jobs available in the region) what you will get paid will seem a lot to you (as I didn’t really have money at all) but in the long term, when you have a family this won’t be enough and you will wish you had done more for yourself. Try going to grad school and it will give you the opportunity to accomplish more. I know you can be a great scientist one day if you put your mind to it.” Even as I write this today, I feel my heart tighten. This professor had just influenced another big decision in my life. I was going to go to grad school.
It wasn’t easy… my grades were not as good as my peers so I didn’t get a scholarship right away which meant no money for a while longer. I ended up being accepted to a prestigious university in the state of Sao Paulo with a potential to get scholarship 6 months after enrolment. Once more, my aunt and my grandfather tightened their belts and sent me out to study. I dared to choose one of the most prestigious professors to mentor me but she wasn’t sure about taking me in because of my low grades. I think she was impressed with my convictions when I said I would work for her no matter what it would take. So she said “I will only advise you if you get A in all disciplines this semester” I said okay, I will do it. Here I go again, this time daring myself to be a nerd. It was hard, especially thermodynamics! I never studied so hard in my life… I used to get bored studying because I didn’t like to sit down for too long. I couldn’t keep focused unless there was a strong motivation behind it. Now I had a motivation to be the best I could be. So I did it. Got all A’s. Then, by the end of four years I got a master’s degree and a PhD in chemical engineering. Look at me!
I should be happy right? Wrong… I wasn’t there yet. During my PhD my advisor gave me the opportunity to come to US for an internship at MIT. Yes, I said MIT. Well, she actually wanted another student to go but he wasn’t ready so I offered to go instead. Again she was not so sure but I insisted and I made sure to fill out all the requirements, including asking my poor aunt to once more support me and lend me some money for the tickets. I was on my way to the USA!
The first time I ever entered an airplane was for this nine hour flight from Sao Paulo to New York. It was okay until we entered in the US and the flight attendants switched from speaking Portuguese to English. I was terrified, I couldn’t understand anything. After all the English classes I took I was still completely lost and scared. My hands were shaking and I kept asking myself what have I done? If I could I would have gone back home in that moment. In New York, I had to go through customs and take another plane to Boston. I don’t even know how I did that, honestly I can’t remember. In Boston I got this nice cab driver that took me to my future apartment in Tang Hall and there I started my MIT adventure.
Tang Hall is an MIT dorm where I was subletting an apartment for the first few weeks in Cambridge until I could find something else for the rest of my 6-month stay. I shared the apartment with a girl that would never talk to me, not even say hello. The view was gorgeous, overlooking the Charles River but the bedroom was extremely hot that summer, cooled only by a window fan. I remember that I could not even understand what the prices in the supermarket meant. It was quite complicated, because there was a price before taxes and price per pound so I didn’t know how much I was supposed to pay. I went to Shaw’s and I bought sliced bread, a big bag of pepperoni and cheese. When I got home the cheese was not really cheese, but something else made of soy, I guess. It didn’t taste good at all! Well, I couldn’t waste, so this was my lunch and dinner for at least a month almost every day. As you can imagine I still can’t stand to eat pepperoni even to this day. I also missed eating meat, as a good Brazilian, so I tried to order a sausage pizza at the student center building at MIT but somehow I manage to say cheese in my sentence and the person gave me a cheese pizza. When I realized the mistake, I was frustrated. I wanted to cry and I didn’t know how to explain to her fast enough that it wasn’t what I asked for. So I ate the cheese pizza… Thank goodness for all the free food at MIT though! Life saver!
After a few days, people in the lab didn’t really talk to me as I was temporarily using a corner space in the lab because there were no offices available. I could barely understand what my professor was telling me to do and everything seemed so intimidating. I remember crossing Massachusetts Ave, talking to God, saying “please give me a sign or I am going back to Brazil. I can’t do it anymore!” Right after I thought that, a man next to me spoke Portuguese on the phone. Was it a sign of God? Maybe. It reminded me that my Brazilian advisor asked me to deliver a gift to this Brazilian friend. I met with this woman and it was a blessing. She did cleaning services at the MIT dorms and had a lot of family in the area. She was so welcoming, she introduced me to her family and I finally got to eat good meat again! Anyways, she opened her house to me and was super helpful as I settled in.
Eventually my English improved, I could understand what my boss expected from me and I made good friends in the lab. I sublet a room in an apartment with three boys, which was kind of scary at first but they became like brothers to me. They supported me and introduced me to all their friends which made me feel comfortable and secure again.
MIT was a tough place, but it was one of the best things that happened to my life. I cannot measure the amount of knowledge I acquired there, not only scientific but cultural too. Meeting people from all over the world with completely different backgrounds and doing amazing ground-breaking science. Sometimes, I felt so small comparing myself to them, but I knew it was a once in a lifetime experience, and it was something that I had never dared to dream of. When I asked my Brazilian advisor to come to MIT I didn’t know what I was signing myself up for. I saw an opportunity to do something different and I did it. MIT was so much more than I could have ever imagine.
I was leaving church one Sunday morning with one of my Irish roommates when it started to snow, just a few flurries. I got so excited! It was my first time seeing snow. I wanted to eat it. I think my roommate was a bit embarrassed next to this crazy weird Brazilian lady excited with a couple snowflakes falling down from the sky. Remembering this moment brings a smile to my face.
There are just too many stories at MIT, all the challenges, all the fun, and all the first time events in my life. But for now, I want to focus on something that made me dare my future again. I was ready to finish my appointment at MIT and head back to Brazil, finish my PhD and get a job. But things didn’t go quite that way. Among my new friends there was a special man that took my dreams to the next level. We were studying in the same department. He was popular, handsome and had this big welcoming smile. I could barely understand what he said at first, as my English was not that great and he spoke quite fast. But there was something about him. If I go on telling you how we met and how I fell in love with him, it would take another post. What is important to say here is that we dated for 2–3 months before I had to go back to Brazil, but our feelings towards each other were already strong. We tried dating long distance but there were too many uncertainties so we broke up. Again, I was not good about accepting I could not do something, so I emailed my boss at MIT asking if there was a chance he would hire me back as post doc. He said yes, so as soon as I defended my PhD thesis in Brazil, I came back to the USA to be a post doc at MIT.
I went back to MIT exactly a year after I left. I lied to myself and to my friends that I wanted to go back just to continue the amazing scientific journey I started there, but truth be told, I really wanted to go back with that tall handsome boyfriend. My friends in Brazil told me I was silly, a cousin told me that what I lived with him was a dream but now I should wake up to reality. People were scared that I was going back with too much hope, that he was probably with someone else and what we had was just like a summer love thing. So, to avoid more judgment, I said I was just going back for the science. I emailed him telling the news “I got a post doc at MIT and I am coming back!” He seemed quite excited about it, but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen once I was back there. We hadn’t seen each other for a year and we only had a few months together before that. But I dared again. When I arrived at Logan airport, there he was waiting for me with his big welcoming smile. We gave this awkward kiss as both of us were not very sure how to behave after such a long time. We continued to date throughout very difficult times as I was adjusting myself to that new life and he was working hard on his PhD, but our relationship just got stronger. After he finished his PhD we moved in together, got married and now we have two beautiful girls. Meanwhile, I finished my post doc at MIT, got a scientist job in a biotech company, was promoted to manager, then quit the job to take care of my girls for a little while.
It is hard to summarize all of this without missing important things, like how this relationship taught me about love and respect, how I only became confident after overcoming panic attacks and a depression, and how I learnt that I could actually be a good mother, a good wife, and a good scientist.
I accomplished it all, not that I am perfect in the things that I do, but I do it. I don’t give up, I keep investing, I keep trying, and I keep daring. Even when I didn’t believe in myself, even when no one believed on me, I dared. So I invite you to dare, don’t take life for granted and fight for the future you dream of.