From Brazil to Harvard
Woman and immigrant, adjectives that can define a person but also redefine ideas.
What comes to your mind upon reading these words? Perhaps it’s something negative based on bad ideas and experiences that you associate with these words. But hopefully, it’s something positive based on women, immigrants, that made you decide that these adjectives should be celebrated. Some people take pride on being “defined” as a woman, and an immigrant. Women like Hannah Ananda, an Brazilian immigrant that moved to the United States in 2013 and has been making a positive difference wherever she goes by influencing and inspiring people around her.
I met Hannah for the first time about a year ago, in October of 2016, when we both went on a field trip to watch the Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela at Carnegie Hall in NYC. I didn’t know anyone in the group but Hannah and I had a good friend in common, so I decided to introduce myself. Throughout the night I noticed that Hannah is one of those people that naturally carries herself as a leader, not in a pretentious and arrogant way, but she is someone that you would like to have around – to follow, and not in a stalker creepy way. I admire her, and she inspires me. As women, I believe we should cheer and celebrate each other’s victory. So let me introduce you to Hannah Ananda, and hopefully, by the end of this article, you too will be inspired by her story.
Hannah moved to the United States to study medicine. Born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, she saw that the limited resources and medical research that she had access to back home would also limit her potential in the medical field. The opportunity to study in the U.S. came from an athletic scholarship, as Hannah got offered to play the libero position at Hofstra University’s volleyball team. Today, four years later, she is a researcher at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
When Hannah was I kid she already knew what career she wanted to pursue – when people asked about her future, Hannah would answer them by saying that she was going to be a doctor and scientist. But she found her passion after volunteering and working as a medical scribe at hospitals and nursing homes, during that time she found her drive to pursue a medical career. “I want to be able to relieve my patient’s suffering through treatments and therapy developed by research. But I also want to support my patients emotionally by treating not only their physical health but also their mental health” explains Hannah.
The process of being a medical student in the United States is a long one. Students must go through four years of pre-med before being accepted to a medical school. To Hannah, the long process was crucial to reaffirm her desire of pursuing the medical career. “In the United States, I was able to reinforce my passion for medicine, since I spent my four years of pre-med volunteering at hospitals and observing doctors.” but the process to pursue her calling was never easy. “When I started school in the United States, there were a lot of things that made it a tough process. Of course, I missed home. In Brazil, people are culturally very warm and welcoming, and having to take care and figure out everything by myself made me miss the Brazilian warmness that I was used to. I also had school advisors telling me to go back to Brazil — saying that international students rarely get into medical school in the United States. And during this adjusting period, I also had to cope with students that mocked my accent as I was trying to learn English. One time I had a group presentation in one of my classes and my colleagues didn’t want me to present because they said that people wouldn’t understand me. Instead of being upset by it, I prepared myself and delivered the presentation to my group first to prove that I could do it.”
Hannah moved to the United States seeking a better education since the opportunities that she had in Belo Horizonte were limited. But she wants to positively influence not only the United States where she is getting her education from, but also Brazil, and her community in Belo Horizonte. So other young students may have access to research and opportunities that she didn’t have when younger. During the summer of 2017, Hannah headed back to Brazil and along with doctors that graduated from the Harvard Medical School and professors from UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais) they created the “Clube de Ciência Brasil” (Brazil’s science club). Their goal is to take advanced science and mentorship to Brazilian students. During the summer edition of the program, Hannah taught a course on Genome editing in human stem cells.
Her passion though was in research, and after a year in the United States, she decided to look for research programs for which she could apply for. “When I was a sophomore at Hofstra I decided to apply to research programs. I applied to over 50 research programs across the country, and after being rejected many times I started to think about giving up, but still, I waited a little longer and finally got an answer from a program, and it was from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. It was my number one choice, and although I really didn’t know if I was going to be accepted, I still applied and persevered. The United States has allowed me to cultivate my passion for research and medicine while increasing, even more, my motivation to work in what I do today.”
Hannah had to prove herself not only academically but also earn the respect of people who undermined her for being a woman and an immigrant. “While I was playing for Hofstra’s volleyball team, I got severely injured, and I had to get admitted to the hospital. At that time I still didn’t know many people, my family was in Brazil, I was alone, nobody visited me at the hospital. Instead, my family and friends were telling me to go back to Brazil. My coach and teammates didn’t really understand why I was still there. I felt like I wasn’t being heard. And that’s when I found this ambition inside of me to really fight for my dreams. I recovered, went back to practice, my English got better as I spent nights at the library studying. People doubted me, but I didn’t doubt myself – I had to prove myself, and that made me stronger.” Hannah has also been greatly influenced by women that made a difference and excelled in a work environment that many times were hostile towards women. “The role of women in science has been vital since the times of Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, Laura Bassi… All of these women made incredible discoveries in science and had to fight against discrimination and male chauvinism,” adds Hannah. But when asked who is the female figure that inspires her most, Hannah says it is her sister Sarah Ananda who she is very proud of. Her sister pioneered the creation of the first team of palliative care at private hospitals in Belo Horizonte, her hometown. Hannah explains that her sister’s passion for her patients and the way she cares for them inspires her. Sarah was also one of Hannah’s biggest supporters on her move to the United States as she thought Hannah would have better opportunities abroad.
During her first year at Hofstra, while Hannah was attending a Provost Scholars Event (an event that celebrates students who finish the semester with a 4.0 GPA) another student approached her, his name is Paul Franco.
They were taking a biology class together, and Paul asked her if she wanted to be part of his study group, little did she know that he was not only interested in biology, but he also wanted to get to know her. A few months later, they started dating. While Hannah was at Harvard during the Summer of 2015, Paul went to visit her. She introduced him to some of her professors and friends, and her enthusiasm for research led him to take an interest in the same area. In January of 2017, Paul asked Hannah to marry him, and she said yes! He also applied to the Harvard research program and got accepted – today they work side by side at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute laboratory.
In May of 2017 Hannah graduated with honors from Hofstra University, and although it hasn’t been an easy trajectory, her dedication and perseverance have awarded her with incredible opportunities. She currently works alongside Dr. Jack Strominger, a biochemistry professor at Harvard and winner of the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1995. The lab in her project focuses on immune tolerance during pregnancy. Her project’s goal is to understand how during pregnancy, the mother’s immune system doesn’t reject the fetus. The findings of the research are therapeutically vital as it can provide insight into how immune tolerance naturally occurs so it can be used to avoid any other types of inflammation such as miscarriages, organ’s transportation rejection, and other immune diseases.
To Hannah, what motivates her the most about her research is the potential to one day make a difference in patient’s lives. For the future, she plans to continue to work with research but also attend medical school while contributing to projects in which she can redirect the knowledge she has obtained in the area to students who didn’t have the same opportunities as she did. “My ultimate goal is to bring innovative medical treatment from my research to help my patients. To apply my research findings from bench to bedside,” Hannah concludes.
Hannah has been setting an example for the people around her; she believes that empowered women are women that are strong, confident and that believe in themselves. “An empowered woman believe in her dreams and fight for her dreams, in spite of any setbacks or anyone telling her to stop and give up, saying that she is not good enough. My advice for all women out there who want to make a difference in any way and are passionate about something is to go for it, give your best, fight for your dreams and ignore those people saying that you can’t get there. Because we are responsible for our future, we have freedom, and we have the power to achieve anything we set our minds to. Believe in yourself; you can go anywhere you want, and achieve anything you fight for.”
Woman and immigrant – adjectives that tell stories. Worn as a badge of honor to some and that should be seen as an inspiration to all.