KINGSTON, R.I. – May 11, 2023 – Tania Silva de Oliveira is a chemical engineer and an analytical research scientist at a Boston-based global pharmaceutical company that develops drugs to treat some of the world’s most serious conditions.
But in addition to being a research scientist at a top global company, this year’s University of Rhode Island graduate student commencement speaker and native of Brazil is also a woman of faith, courage, and diligence.
With her drive and the support of her mother Betania, grandmother Tania, and other family members, she completed two bachelor’s degrees in Brazil and also left her small city to complete an undergraduate study-abroad experience at URI. After completing her studies in Brazil, she returned to URI to earn her doctorate in chemical engineering in December 2022. She will give her address at the Graduate Commencement on May 19 at 5 p.m. at the Ryan Center.
“Coming to the U.S. for the first time was an opportunity to grow in life,” Oliveira said. “There are opportunities in life that we do not know why they come, but when they do we must hold on to them with our two hands. During my exchange program, I made sure I did my best to have good grades. I presented my research from my Brazilian college at MIT. I developed research at the corrosion lab at URI. And I kept focused on learning English as best as I could.”
The oldest of five children born to a mother who took care of the family and who is now an occupational therapist, and to a father, Joao, who worked in a factory, she is proud of her roots.
“I knew that the only way for me to grow in life was through education,” Oliveira said. “I have always been a dedicated student. I always had good grades, and always put myself out there to participate in school competitions. Life was not easy, I didn’t even have money to buy school materials. I did, though, dream of going to college. With all of the difficulties, my mom was always there feeding my dream, and saying she would do whatever it takes to help me fulfill my dream to go to college.”
Oliveira first came to URI without being able to speak English. A native of Pirapora in the Brazilian State of Minas Gerais and now a resident of Quincy, Massachusetts, she completed two bachelor’s degrees, one in chemical engineering and the other in science and technology, at the Federal University of Vales of Jequitinhonha and Mucuri, Brazil.
She said her family did not have the means to take her to the university or pay for her housing. She credits her grandmother for paying for the buses that she and her mother rode to the university, a half day away, to finish her application.
Once she began her studies at the federal university, which is tuition free but does not pay for housing, she woke up early every morning to carpool with other students to get to campus.
In her first semester, she did well in calculus, so she started teaching her fellow students for a fee.
“I needed money to stay in school for the second semester, so I put an advertisement on the college mural, saying that I was giving private classes for calculus. I started to bring in more clients and then I started giving private classes in other subjects, but assistance in calculus was what most students needed,” she said.
When she was an undergraduate in Brazil, she learned that the government was advertising for a scholarship for students to study science and engineering in other countries.
Her mother ensured that she was able to apply to a program run by Science Without Borders by going into an establishment that allowed people to use computers. The family did not have a computer at the time.
“I said, ‘No. Let’s buy bread so all of us can have breakfast.’ She did not listen to me and made me go there and apply,” Oliveira said. “Thank God things worked out.”
“Back then I couldn’t speak English,” Oliveira said. “I speak Portuguese, so I applied to Portugal. Well, most of the students applied to study in Portugal, and so the government told us, ‘We can’t send everyone to the same country.’”
She learned of another option in the United States that would provide her with training in English.
With the Science Without Borders scholarship from the Brazilian government, she traveled to Rhode Island and enrolled in a program at URI. Oliveira studied English for about 10 months and then enrolled in undergraduate chemical engineering classes at URI in fall 2014 for her study-abroad experience.
One of her four study-abroad classes was fluid mechanics with Professor Arijit Bose.
“He was always very helpful, always willing to help students as much as he could,” Oliveira said. “I emailed him to tell him I wanted to apply for the Ph.D., and he looked at my grades. He told me to go for it.
“Dr. Bose was really crucial at this time, helping me to get teaching and research assistantships at URI.”
In reflecting on her decision to attend URI, she said, “When you go to other colleges, you don’t really find them as diverse as URI. You really find your place here, and the people listen to you. When you come from another country, you have a period of adaptation, but URI has this welcoming aspect.”
Oliveira was the assistant manager of URI’s Engineering Analytical Facility and a graduate research assistant. She was the lead author on several articles for peer-reviewed scientific publications. While at URI, she received a Career Development Program certificate and a travel award to attend the Second Pan American Congress of Nanotechnology.
She already misses URI. “Before leaving, I went to the lab. I called it my lab, and looked at my bench in the lab, and I started crying. I went through so many things, met so many friends, and I have so many memories.”
She is excited about her sister Dalyla, who is studying to be a physical therapist, completing an internship this summer at URI.
“I told her she is going to really enjoy it and that she should embrace all aspects of it. I told her It will be one of the best times of your life.”
Oliveira is also grateful for the love and support of her husband, Khaled Ibrahim, who she met while they were both students at URI. Ibrahim also earned his master’s degree in pharmacy at URI.
“Having him at my side was so important,” she said. “There were days that concern you, when experiments don’t go right, and things are not delivered as they were supposed to be. So you go home crying, and he was always there, listening, supporting me. I cannot describe how important he was during this journey. There was always a word of wisdom coming out of his mouth.”