Campus Life a misti summer

Biofuels and karaoke

My summer in Brazil

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Rebecca Grekin '19

This summer, I worked in a lab in Brazil at a university call UNICAMP. Working and living in Brazil was an experience like none other, and I learned so much about chemical engineering, biofuels, Brazil, and myself. 

In lab, I focused on the production of ethyl levulinate which is produced from sugarcane bagasse, a biomass that is readily available in Brazil. Ethyl levulinate can be added to diesel to decrease transportation pollution, and this addition does not significantly decrease mileage like other currently available additives do. Most of my work dealt with helping to create simulations for the production of ethyl levulinate. We wanted to make a more categorical economic analysis of possible starting biomasses and process options. The goal was to determine the most promising combinations around the world.

In my free time, I explored different parts of Brazil and its culture. A very important part of this culture is soccer, and I got a once in a lifetime chance to experience the sport firsthand. When I went to São Paulo, I visited the Soccer Museum (Museo do Futebol) which gave me a taste of what it’s like to be a soccer fan in Brazil. The museum was amazing and introduced me to several of the big names in Brazilian soccer, and it did a really good job of conveying the excitement of watching a live game in Brazil. However, nothing could prepare me for the actual Olympic soccer games I watched!

I was able to get tickets to the Canada vs. Zimbabwe and Germany vs. Australia women’s soccer games, which were absolutely incredible to watch. First of all, because of the last FIFA World Cup where Germany creamed Brazil by 7 to 1, 99.9 percent of the spectators were rooting for Germany at the second game, which is not a very common experience — to have practically all the spectators rooting for the same team.

It was also amazing because although Zimbabwe was losing in the second half of the first game, most people ended up rooting for them, since Brazilians like supporting underdogs. When the game ended and the teams made their rounds to thank the spectators, you could see just how moved the Zimbabwe team was by all the support they had received. I’m not very emotionally invested in either Zimbabwe or Canada, but at the end of that first game, I was practically in tears from the pure emotion that was filling the stadium. After that experience, it was not hard to understand why Brazilians love this sport so much.

Another thing Brazilians take very seriously is their food, which is truly delicious. I even miss the basic rice and beans dining hall food — my friends at the lab thought I was ridiculous for enjoying it so much. I also tried moqueca (a bright orange dish made with fish and spices), catupiry (a type of cheese spread), and brigadeiros (chocolate condensed milk goodness). I had pizza with ketchup, cheese bread, honey bread, and so many other foods that make my mouth water just thinking about them.

I didn’t even have to leave my living space in order to learn more about the country. In Brazil, there are no such things as university dorms, so I ended up living in the house of a very nice woman who rented out rooms to students. I found that there really is no better way to learn about Brazil than to share a house with 19 other girls. We had several discussions that ended up going late into the morning hours about differences in Brazilian and American culture, had karaoke sessions with Brazilian music, held many YouTube-watching sessions where I learned about all the cool, popular Brazilian YouTubers, and even had a Brazilian meme “lesson.”

An aspect of Brazilian culture that I really admire is how the people are much more mindful of the waste they generate. Everything is done so that waste is reduced as much as possible. Labware, which is usually made of disposable plastic in the United States, is made of glass, washed, and reused numerous times in Brazil. Everyone recycles everything they can, people carpool as much as possible, and labs share equipment much more readily. This way of life made me become much more aware of all the waste I generate at MIT, and made me decide to be more mindful of my waste generation and strive to decrease it in the future.

My MISTI-Brazil internship gave me the opportunity to explore a new culture, learn a lot about a topic I’ve found I’m very passionate about, and make great friends. This experience was incomparable, and I cannot imagine a better way to have spent my summer.

MISTI — MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives — is MIT’s pioneering international education program. Each year nearly 1,000 MIT undergrads and graduate students are matched with hands-on international projects through MISTI. To learn more about internship, teaching and research opportunities across the globe, check out