From selling mum’s pastries for survival to ‘rising star of research’

Growing up in Brazil, Igor Felippe never dreamt he would one day graduate with a PhD in far-off Aotearoa New Zealand.

Igor Felippe in his doctoral garb near Spark arena.
From a background of hardship to FMHS' December 2022 graduation: a proud moment for new doctor Igor Felippe.

Growing up in Brazil, Igor Felippe would never in his ‘best dreams’ have imagined getting a bachelors degree, let alone a PhD from Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland in far-off Aotearoa New Zealand.

Yet, in spite of many financial and health challenges, Igor is receiving his doctorate at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences’ December graduation ceremony, along with more than 700 other medical students.

“I have no words to stress how privileged and honoured I feel,” he writes in the Acknowledgements section of his thesis.

“I remember when I was 13 years old and used to look at the future with no expectations ahead,” Igor writes. “During that time, studying at a University in Brazil was a significant accomplishment; it was not something for everybody.

"On my mother’s side of the family, only one aunt had a bachelor’s degree, and on my father’s side, my relationship with them was somewhat limited.”

Back in FMHS, Igor recalls how the time when he was 13 was one of particularly severe financial hardship for himself and his mother, in his home town of Vitoria.

He had to move to a state primary school, which, although he enjoyed it, wasn’t a good school. His mother would come home from work and bake pastries in the evening for Igor to sell the next day to help pay the bills.

“I would study in the morning from seven to noon, and then, in the afternoon, I would come home, warm up the pastries, put them in a thermal bag and I would walk around my neighbourhood, selling them to stores to help pay our bills.”

Their situation improved when Igor competed in an exam that gained him a scholarship to attend a private high school. While this successful outcome increased his chances of going to a public university, which in Brazil are excellent but hard to gain entry to, he still thought it would be too difficult.

But to his surprise, despite being up against 1,550 students in an entrance exam, he managed to win one of only fifty places at a federal university. Igor went on to get a bachelors and then a masters in Pharmacy.

While he was a masters student, Igor met the director of the Centre for Heart Research Manaaki Manawa, Professor Julian Paton, at a conference and Julian invited him to Auckland. He then gained a scholarship to do a PhD at the University.

However, arriving with minimal English, and only funding from a scholarship while living in halls provided more challenges.

“I had some problems with money. I would try to save on groceries. I could only have lunch and dinner. I could sometimes go to a pub. But, if I went out one week, I didn't have much left over. And then there were health problems.”

Just as the pandemic started, Igor was diagnosed with an upper airways respiratory disease.

It affected his voice and required several surgeries. He had to go through them without any family support.

Meanwhile, back home, his grandmother and uncle died and he was unable to attend their funerals, which was very difficult.

However, Igor continued to achieve academically, winning six prestigious national and international awards in the past two years for his doctoral research in the Department of Physiology.

Manaaki Manawa's Julian describes Igor as a ‘rising star’ in research, who, despite setbacks, handed in his thesis on time.

The future is looking bright for Igor who is now working as a researcher in Manaaki Manawa on a three-year contract, following on from his PhD research.

Best of all, finally he travelled back to Brazil this year and caught up with his mother and family.

Media contact

FMHS and Liggins media adviser Jodi Yeats
: 027 202 6372