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Dreaming Beyond Horizons: A Young Girl Scientist's Odyssey

Karen Gonçalves
Photo: Canva

At the age of eight, Karen Gonçalves had a dream in her modest neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro. At 15, she was selected for a programme for young scientific talent. Know her story.


The invitation to write this post to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science took me by surprise. I spent several days contemplating how I could approach it in a genuinely inspiring manner without appearing egocentric. I opted for a less academic and more informal tone, an attempt to engage in a conversation with those who dedicate precious moments of their busy days to reading a bit of my story. I decided to explore themes like dreams and inspiration.

A Rio de Janeiro girl having a dream

At eight years old, I had a peculiar dream: I was wearing a white lab coat, working in a laboratory, surrounded by students as I wrote a mathematical formula on a blackboard. The dream was weird because, at the time, I had no idea of the profession it represented. Would I become a doctor, biologist, mathematician, or physicist? It was a big question mark in my childlike mind. This dream seemed distant for a Brazilian girl born and raised in a modest neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. Opportunities were different worldwide, and some paths were more challenging.

My first article as a teenager

Life, however, holds surprises for dreamers. At 15 years old, I was selected to participate in a program that sought young scientific talents. I found myself at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ), one of the largest research centers in Brazil. I published my first article as a teenager, traveled to the first conference before college, and presented my first poster, trembling and stuttering, enveloped in the shyness of a girl unaware of what awaited her. A world of possibilities opened up for me early on.



People who awaken our professional potential

I began my career as an entomologist, studying the taxonomy of insects, including the Aedes aegypti, well-known in Brazil for dengue cases. My first supervisor was a woman, a recently graduated biologist in Germany, who was crucial. Her patience, encouragement not to give up in the face of challenges, and emphasis on reading to improve texts were fundamental to my journey in science.

My academic journey is extensive, and I recognize that a hurried reader might not have the patience to follow all the nuances of my path: master's degree, Ph.D. in Switzerland, experience as a single mother, projects, awards, consultancies, codes, algorithms, calculations, the transition to teaching, some students, and the experience as a visiting researcher in Granada during the pandemic. I don't aim to focus the text on myself but emphasize recognizing and inspiring people who awaken our professional potential. This potential sometimes needs to be noticed, either due to our inexperience in seeing it or the obstacles of the academic journey.

Inspiring women

The central question is: Would I be Karen, an epidemiologist and data scientist, if I hadn't known inspiring women like Maria Conceição Messias, Sandra Hacon, Maria José Sanchez, and Paula Petrone? This text is a sincere thank you to everyone who crossed my path and was not mentioned here. Representativity makes all the difference.

Regarding my future in science, I am still venturing into unexplored territories. Nevertheless, the prospect of inspiring, learning, and dreaming alongside resilient and empowered women will continue to be my inexhaustible source of motivation.