Throughout our 75 year history, Southern Research has worked to empower interns, women and people of diverse backgrounds to succeed in the sciences and we are proud of the hard work and unique story of our summer intern, Rafaela “Rafa” Medeiros. Originally from Brazil, Rafa joined our Infectious Disease Research team in Frederick, Maryland from North Dakota State University in Fargo, and will be analyzing ZIKV samples for clues that may help lead to a vaccine.
We sat down with Rafa to learn more about her unique story.
Tell us a little about where you’re from.
I’m from Natal. It’s a coastal city located in northeastern Brazil, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte.
(Note: Natal is the capital city of Rio Grande do Norte, and was a host city for the 2014 World Cup. It is also one of the cities where the Brazilian Zika outbreak was first noticed in 2015.)
And, what do you study?
I completed my undergraduate studies in Biomedical sciences in Brazil, and am currently in the second year of a Masters in Public Health with an emphasis in Management of Infectious Diseases at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota.
What brought you to Southern Research?
I’m actually here because a former professor of mine, Nathan Fisher, introduced me to Southern Research, and recruited me to work on Zika with the infectious disease research team in Frederick, MD.
I first met Dr. Fisher when I was was in Fargo interviewing for the MPH program. We discussed the possibility of me applying for the Cellular and Molecular Biology Ph.D. program at NDSU, but he has since left and taken a position with Southern Research in Frederick, MD.
As I began my search for internship opportunities, I contacted Dr. Fisher because he knew my background, research interests and capabilities. I’ve been interested in Zika since coming to the U.S. for my program in 2015, but did not know of Southern Research’s work on the virus. So, Dr. Fisher surprised me by introducing me to the team and providing me the opportunity to join the global fight against Zika through this internship.
The work is very important to me because of the impact Zika has had on the region of Brazil where I am from.
What are you working on, specifically?
The internship is a 10 week program, so I’m working to get as much experience as I can. Right now I’m exploring the similarities and differences between two different strains of the Zika virus — African and Asian — and how both strains replicate in vitro.
This means, I’m exploring how the Zika virus replicates in human neuronal cell tissue so that we can get a better understanding of the exact mechanisms of how this virus affects neural tissue.
The research we’re conducting is exploratory in nature, but the Infectious Disease Research team at Southern Research has already made significant progress on a number of assay models that I am getting to learn about.
As a Brazilian, what are your personal thoughts about how the Zika virus is affecting your country?
This is obviously a very hard thing for Brazil, and this outbreak comes at a very difficult time given the state of our government and the lack of funding available for research. But, there are a lot of great people working to fight this virus, both in Brazil and around the world. As a future public health professional, I would love to see our work at Southern Research lead to a vaccine or future eradication of Zika.
What are your career goals?
Research. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, and my ultimate goal is to help people and make an impact in the community.
As we’re seeing with Zika, research plays a tremendously important role in helping combat the break of an infectious disease, or other major public health crisis. So, my goal is to continue doing research, and stay on the frontline of trying to fight outbreaks, while making a difference in the world.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I’m crazy about movies, books and theater — I was very involved in theater since I was a young girl and it helped me overcome my fear of public speaking. I also love traveling and sports, especially Marta! She’s broken so many barriers for Brazilian women soccer players.
(Note: “Marta” Vieira da Silva was named FIFA World Player of the Year a record five consecutive times, beginning in 2006, and in 2015 she set World Cup record with her 15th career goal.)
Southern Research has a long history of working to empower women and people of diverse backgrounds in STEM careers. What advice do you have for young women who are considering going into science?
Stay focused and believe in yourself.
I always knew I wanted to come to the U.S. to study, and it wasn’t easy, but I jumped at the first opportunity I had. The trick for me was having supportive friends and family. When times got hard, they helped me stay grounded and remain focused on reaching my goals. Life and science can be hard, so it’s important to always believe in your own abilities to succeed.