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Knowledge for all

Biologist Filipe Oliveira took a break from his PhD in Finland to make science more accessible in Brazil

Personal ArchiveBiologist Filipe Oliveira’s interest in evolutionary developmental biology began in 2009 after he took a summer course at the University of São Paulo (USP). The field—which compares the developmental processes of embryos to help understand the ancestral origin of biological patterns—was still nascent in Brazil at the time. After graduating from the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV), Oliveira was given the opportunity to study a master’s degree on the subject at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, under the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program, funded by the European Union.

He moved to Sweden in early 2010, at the age of 23. The program allowed him to study some semesters at different institutions. He chose the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, and Harvard, USA. “I defended two dissertations,” he says. “One in Germany, on the evolution of cervical vertebrae in birds, and another that I wrote in the US and defended in Uppsala, on the evolution of bird beaks.”

After completing his master’s degree in 2012, Oliveira returned to Brazil to take a course on organic evolution at the São Paulo School of Advanced Science (ESPCA), a FAPESP program for master’s, doctorate, and postdoctorate students from Brazil and abroad. A few weeks later, he began a new project with a grant from the UFV General Biology Department, studying the mandibles of bee embryos using scanning electron microscopes.

“At the same time, I was working with undergraduates to create the Miró in Darwin leaflet, which gave me an opportunity to put my interest in connecting science and society into practice,” he says.

Personal Archive Microscope linked to a cell phone made from reused electrical parts during a Conector Ciência workshopPersonal Archive

The biologist did not spend long in Viçosa. In 2013, he applied for a position as a research assistant at the Institute of Biotechnology of the University of Helsinki, Finland, where he began his PhD studying the skulls of snake and lizard embryos. “I deepened my academic activities at museums in Finland, Germany, and the US,” he recalls. “These experiences made me think about the processes that connect people to science and technology.”

At Lungi, an entrepreneurship program run by Helsinki Think Company, Oliveira used these ideas to develop a social project. In 2016, he completed his PhD and returned to Brazil to start a new venture called Conector Ciência (“Science Connector”). He moved to Lençóis, Bahia, with a colleague, Finnish designer Tuomas Saikkonen, where they began social projects to improve access to science in schools by reusing microprocessors and sensors to make new equipment.

“The idea was to put on workshops in schools and encourage creativity and innovative thinking through scientific and technological experimentation,” the biologist explains. More than 34 workshops have been conducted so far, with just over 800 participants, and the project is gradually expanding its reach. Based in Rio de Janeiro, Conector Ciência has held workshops at universities, schools, and businesses throughout Brazil.

More recently, it has partnered with German initiative Prometheus Science. “We are now focusing on the manufacture and use of scientific-quality digital microscopes. The aim is to give people the encouragement and means to develop innovative products, research, and businesses,” he says. “We want to engage young people, children, parents, and educators by making science more practical in schools.”