Feature Stories 2023: Filipe Pereira, PhD '23: Life-changing moments

SMAST PhD Filipe Pereira
Feature Stories 2023: Filipe Pereira, PhD '23: Life-changing moments
Filipe Pereira, PhD '23: Life-changing moments

First-generation college student Filipe Pereira, PhD '23, was recently awarded the prestigious President's Postdoctoral Fellowship at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego (UCSD).

Filipe Pereira's story is one of remarkable determination. He grew up in Brazil and was the first person in his family to attend college. He taught himself English in order to study in the U.S., where he completed his PhD in the dual-degree program between UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) and the University of São Paulo’s Oceanographic Institute (IOUSP). As a member of the dual-degree program between the two institutions, Pereira split his time between São Paulo, Brazil, and the SMAST campus in New Bedford. He worked with Amit Tandon (Mechanical Engineering/SMAST) and Ilson Silveira (IOUSP), studying ocean physics and biology off the coast of Brazil. 

Pereira was recently awarded one of the world's most competitive postdoctoral fellowships at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and will soon embark on a monthlong research expedition in the Arctic.  

Amidst all his accomplishments, Pereira remembers the unflagging support he received from people at UMassD who helped him make his dreams a reality, and the pivotal events that would change the trajectory of his life. 

Tell us about your educational journey  

"I come from a family of hard workers. My grandparents were illiterate, and my parents were the first in our family to go to school. I was fortunate because my mom valued education. She urged my sister and me to study hard so we could get scholarships and go to college. I was always interested in life, and I wanted to understand how the earth works. In the 3rd grade, I decided I wanted to become a scientist. 

"Here in Brazil, applying to college is different than in the United States. I had to pass an entrance exam for each college I applied to. I couldn't afford to travel far, so I studied biology at the State University of Feira de Santana (UEFS). I was dissatisfied with the biology major because I started missing physics and math. One day, my mother showed me an article about oceanography and said, 'you could do this!' So, I took another exam, this time for the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), where I could pursue an oceanography major. During my studies at UFBA, I became more and more interested in physical oceanography, and my academic advisor at the time, Carlos Lentini, recommended I consider transferring to the University of São Paulo (USP), which is more selective but also better equipped. I got in, but I struggled to feel at home there. There is significant racial disparity in higher education in Brazil, and there weren't many Black students at USP. I had a feeling of being unwelcome, or exotic, even though I was in my home country. 

"But it was at USP that I met one of the people who would have the greatest influence on my life, Dr. Ilson Silveira. I began working as a research assistant in his lab where I learned the basics of physical oceanography and learned to code. Studying English in Brazil is expensive, so I taught myself. In 2016, I got a scholarship from the Brazilian Ministry of Education to go to the U.S. and that's where I met Professor Tandon, another person who would have a profound impact on my life.  

"I learned about the partnership between USP and UMassD and was encouraged to go for a doctoral degree. To enter the dual PhD program, I needed to defend a project proposal. After my first presentation, I was told by the review committee that I wasn't ready for doctoral-level work and was rejected. When I asked what I needed to do to strengthen my proposal, I was told there was nothing I could do. My advisors, Drs. Tandon and Silveira, advocated on my behalf and urged me to try again. I am grateful life gifted me with people that encouraged me; I finally got accepted to the dual degree program in 2017." 

What was the focus of your research? 

"I became primarily focused on physical-biological interactions, or how ocean physics affects plankton and other life forms, and the implications for marine life, the economy, and the climate."  

A dream realized 

"The defense of my PhD was a very special moment. All the people who believed in me and helped me along the way – professors, mentors, friends I'd made – were watching in person or via Zoom.   

"After presenting, I left the room while the committee deliberated. When they called me back in and Dr. Silveira said, 'Welcome, Dr. Pereira,' it was a very emotional moment. As the first person in my family to go to college, I was so grateful to have had the luck of being born my mother's son, because I wouldn't be where I am without her. 

"I also want to thank Daniel Pirbudagov, executive director of the ISSC at UMassD. He helped me overcome the hurdles of traveling between Brazil and the U.S., especially during the pandemic. Without his help, I couldn't have made it here."  

Tell us about your upcoming fellowship with Scripps 

"It's a bit of a funny story. While I was at SMAST, Dr. Tandon convinced me to attend the Gordon Research Conference on ocean mixing. I was reluctant, but he urged me to go.  I felt intimidated because it was a small group, fewer than 100 people, and many of them were very important researchers in my field. Dr. Tandon introduced me to Peter Franks and Jen Mackinnon from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They were kind enough to listen to me talk about my work, but I didn't think anything else would come of it. Months later, Jen contacted me asking if I'd ever be interested in doing a post-doc working with her and another Scripps scientist, Drew Lucas. That chance meeting with her, facilitated by Dr. Tandon, ended up leading to an incredible career opportunity. 

"For the president's fellowship, I was competing with people from all over the world in all different fields— medicine, sociology, the arts — not just oceanography. I applied in November. In February I received an email asking for a meeting. When I joined the call, the committee informed me that they were calling to say I'd been accepted. My mother, who had made a lot of sacrifices for me, was with me when I learned that I had been chosen for the fellowship. I'm grateful I was able to share that moment with her. 

"It's a 2-year position that will begin with a monthlong trip to the Arctic. But this fellowship is not just about doing research; they also offer training and preparation for teaching, and other professional development opportunities.  

"My research thus far has looked at how ocean physics affected biology. Next, I will be exploring how biology affects the physics of the ocean."  

What advice would you give to younger students?  

"What is simple for one person might not be simple for you, so don't be discouraged if something doesn't come easily. Failure is not necessarily a bad thing; failure is part of the process. And, when things get difficult, don't forget the reason why you started. Especially as a graduate student, it's easy to get caught up in deadlines and the constant work. Remembering what your dream is will help you keep going." 

What are your hopes for your future? 

"I look forward to continuing to do research and I hope to become a professor. This fellowship will give me training toward reaching that goal." 

What are you most proud of? 

"I'm proud that I am able to make a living doing something I love. With the importance of climate issues and the environment, I feel blessed to know I'm doing something to contribute.  

"My path wasn't an easy one. When I think about the experiences I've had at sea, and meeting these people I look up to who are now my colleagues, I know it was all worth it."