Transforming young lives in Brazil with science education and innovation

Author:Catherine Jewell
Position:Communications Division, WIPO

Professor Joana d’Arc Félix de Sousa’s journey as an inventor sprang from her childhood experiences of the tannery near her home. The daughter of a tanner and a housemaid, Harvard-trained Professor Félix de Sousa has gained national acclaim in Brazil as an advocate of science education and for her work in enabling young people from marginalized communities to realize their potential to invent,... (see full summary)


Professor Félix de Sousa, the holder of multiple patents that are all related in some way to the leather-footwear sector, discusses her current research and shares her views on the importance of science education and the role that intellectual property (IP) rights can play in strengthening Brazil’s innovation landscape and long-term economic performance.

What drew you to chemistry?

I fell in love with chemistry at a very young age. My father worked in a tannery in the city of Franca in the state of São Paolo, Brazil. My family and I lived in a house near the tannery, so every day I watched the workers mix dyes and process leather hides. For me, the white coat worn by the tannery chemist was the most beautiful sight. The tannery was a big part of my world and my childhood ambition was to become a chemist, wear a white coat, and work in a tannery.

What are you working on at the moment?

We’re working on several research projects. One is looking at ways to create artificial skin with different levels of pigmentation. Another is exploring the use of artificial bone tissue for remodeling, reconstitution, and bone transplantation. A third project is developing artificial gingiva to correct aesthetic defects. And we’re also developing antimicrobial fabrics to make clothing for patients and medical staff to minimize hospital infections.

Tell us about some of your other inventions.

Over the years, I’ve undertaken many different research projects and have become something of a serial inventor. My research has led to the creation of artificial human-like skin, bone cement made from the by-products of the leather-and-fishing industries, antimicrobial footwear, and flame retardant clothing for firefighters. I have also developed organic and organo-mineral fertilizers from solid waste from the leather-footwear sector and green, eco-efficient cement that reduces energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions (see box).

What inspired you to do this work?

My research has been inspired by the need to find ways to manage the large amount of waste generated every day by the leather-footwear sector in Franca and the challenges people working in that sector have to face. My work on artificial skin, for example, came about after I witnessed a serious accident at a local tannery where a worker suffered burns on 95 percent of his body. My other inventions have been similarly inspired by the need to find effective solutions to overcome hardships experienced by my students and their families.

My work on developing organic fertilizers sprang from a childhood desire to minimize the environmental impact of the leather-footwear industry and improve the local environment for children living in and around the tannery. These fertilizers are an alternative use of the solid waste produced by the sector and give farmers a low-cost source of nitrogen to fertilize their land. The goal of reconciling environmental protection measures with social justice and economic...

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