For much of her early life, Brazilian Ana Beatriz Bonfim assumed that the only path to studying, and possibly curing, diseases like the genetic condition that affects many in her family was to become a medical doctor.
“I come from a very large, close family. The severity of spinocerebellar ataxia was always present for me,” she says of the disease that has inspired her education. Then, as a senior in high school, at a STEM summer program at Yale University, she experienced a world-class research setting for the first time.
“That’s when I found out research could be a career path, too,” she says.
She briefly attended University of Brasília to study chemical engineering, but withdrew after discovering a dearth of funding and encouragement for research careers. Soon, Bonfim enrolled at Barnard College in New York as a first-year student to pursue her desire to study problems related to human health.
This past summer, Bonfim joined the Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship program — SURF. The program demanded that she make something of a mental shift by pairing her with Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Michael Lepech and Dr. David Loftus of the NASA Ames Research Center to study biopolymer-bound soil composites – a novel material developed for future extraterrestrial construction. A biopolymer is used to bind regolith, which is already abundantly present in the surface of the moon or Mars. Bonfim’s research contributed to the understanding on the adhesion between biopolymers and silica, the major chemical component of lunar regolith.
Bonfim, who is continuing her study of biochemistry at Barnard, says the unfamiliar nature of her summer project forced her to step out of her comfort zone. She credited her student mentor, SURF alum and CEE master’s student Andrea Coto, for helping her understand the unfamiliar material and out-of-this-world problem, and for helping her gain interdisciplinary and transferable skills to help her pursue a PhD in in any of several fields – materials science, chemical biology or bioengineering.
In the past, as part of an NGO, Bonfim organized a science Olympiad to help encourage low-income students from underfunded public schools in her hometown to enter STEM fields. At Barnard, she works to help low-income students manage the transition to college that she had to make herself. As secretary of the Brazilian Society at Columbia University, she plans to serve as a SURF advocate.
“I want more Brazilians to be aware of this great opportunity, since as international students, we can’t apply to a lot of summer programs and internships,” she says. “SURF is an exception and one of the few programs that doesn’t take the applicant’s citizenship into account and doesn’t deny us the possibility of having such an important research experience.”