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Champions of Science

Latin America and Caribbean Storytelling Challenge: Meet Vilásia Guimarães Martins, Ph.D.

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In an effort to help curb the influx of plastics overflowing in landfills and polluting our oceans, Guimarães Martins hopes to develop and commercialize new biodegradable materials. Using food waste such as chicken feathers, beans and starches, the Brazilian professor has developed a food packaging product that’s entirely biodegradable. What’s more, this innovative packaging may even extend the shelf life of foods.

Vilásia Guimarães Martins, Ph.D., has studied Food Science and Engineering and is a professor and researcher at Federal University of Rio Grande, Brazil.

Her goal is to create an innovative biodegradable material for food packaging to reduce pollution. The packaging materials she’s developed in her lab come from food waste, such as fish proteins, soybean, whey, chicken feathers, beans, starches (potato, rice and cassava) and chia, among others. Early results are extremely promising. In addition to conserving food efficiently, her products often can extend shelf life.

Thanks to her noteworthy contributions championing scientific advancements, Guimarães Martins was recognized as one of five winners of the Champions of Science® Storytelling Challenge: Latin America and Caribbean Edition.

Guimarães Martins' Submission
All my research is focused on the development of biodegradable/sustainable packaging to be applied mainly as food packaging. This topic is very important nowadays, we are seeing a global commotion because of the using of synthetic plastics, those polymers are filling our landfills, and not only that, they are also polluting our oceans, soils, and causing the death of many animals, mainly marine animals, which confuse the pieces of plastic that are in the sea with food.

The commercialization of biodegradable materials will positively impact the whole society, because a biodegradable plastic that decomposes in 15 days when in contact with the soil and/or water would be ideal. Degrading so fast they would not accumulate in our oceans and on our streets, which often increases the risk of flooding, because the plastics often block the sewers and this makes it harder to run the water.

All the packaging we produce in my lab are made from food wastes, we work mainly with proteins and polysaccharides. Films with fish proteins, soybean, whey, chicken feathers, collagen, methylcellulose, beans, starches (potato, rice and cassava), chia, among others, have already been elaborated in our laboratory.

Some of these films prove to be extremely promising to be used in the market, we made several applications of these films in food products, and it has been shown that in addition to conserving food efficiently, they often can extend the shelf life. For example, fish proteins have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, so the films developed with these proteins can maintain the quality for longer, which is very good for the industry that manufactures the product, as well as for the consumer who will have more time to consume the product.

Since I joined the University and had the opportunity to enter in a laboratory I was delighted with the research. I studied Food Engineering, and since the 2nd year I did scientific research, when I graduated, I was certain that what I wanted was to follow in the research carrier. Research motivates me every day, I really appreciate each discovery, and I like to be always seeking for more knowledge and learning to solve a challenge.

The people who motivated me to follow in this area were mainly my teachers, because I saw in them the satisfaction and the dedication with the research, always inserting the students and looking for new and interesting things to be developed. Another important motivator, are the researches that are shown on television, I always found and find very interesting when a new product, medication, treatment, among others, is released and the team of the scientist/researcher who developed it is shown, for me they are people who work for the well-being of the population. My idols are not rock singers or movie stars, they are scientists who through their research have transformed our world. I find very important to spread the stories of science, especially nowadays that it seems that all of our students are demotivated and discredited in studies and science in general.

When I have the opportunity to give a lecture, I like to tell a little of my life and encourage those in the audience to think that nothing is impossible, and what we have to do is just to try. Often your colleagues or family discourage you and say, do not even try it, you won´t get it, and I always say, you will only have a YES if you try, because the NO you already have. Today I'm grateful for all the "YES" I received, but I only succeeded because I tried, I explained, I dedicated myself to the science and of course to my dreams.

I did my postdoctoral at one of the world's top universities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, and I am very proud of it, even many people saying that I would not stand a chance. After that, which was in 2014-2015, we already had an approved bi-national project, a Ph.D. student made a sandwich [sic] there, the MIT professor, already came to the Federal University of Rio Grande (Brazil) twice, he is co-advisor of one of my Ph.D.'s student, he brought two of his students to spend some time in my laboratory, and still saying that Americans have a lot to learn with Brazilian people, look how cool this is.

Brazilians, in general, always think that our things are the worst and they are not. We do high quality research and we have a lot of very good scientists in this country, what we need is to show the world what we do and that we are very competent and smart. I think stories like these need to be published to encourage our students, teachers, researchers to have more courage to go after and do the best for us and for our Country.

About the Latin America and Caribbean Storytelling Challenge
Through the Champions of Science® Storytelling Challenge: Latin America and Caribbean Edition, Johnson & Johnson invited innovators working in the region to share their stories to help engage the public, encourage advocacy for scientific innovation and inspire youth in the region to pursue STEM careers that will help change the trajectory of health for humanity.

After receiving nearly 100 submissions between January and March 2019, an independent committee of scientists, policymakers and science journalists reviewed the applications and determined the winners.

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