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Northeastern Illinois University is a long way from Brazil. When Victoria Puccini de Castro visited Chicago in 2015, she knew the school could help her achieve her dreams of studying abroad and earning her college degree. She may not have imagined that her choice would land her a full scholarship to an Ivy League university doctoral program.
“I am extremely grateful to NEIU for many different reasons,” Puccini de Castro said. “I came here and I only had my uncle in this country. So, I had to find my own family at NEIU and I think I did that.”
Now, four years later, not only has she earned her Bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in Chemistry as a member of the University Honors Program, but she’s also been accepted with full funding to Yale for a Ph.D. in the combined Biological and Biomedical Sciences program with a concentration in Molecular Cell Biology, Genetics, and Development.
“At every turn, when I needed help, all I had to do was ask someone at NEIU and they would find a way to help me,” Puccini de Castro said. “I had a great experience.”
Puccini de Castro admitted that her degree path was not always easy. She was a year away from completing her degree in veterinary science in Brazil when she decided to enroll at Northeastern. Since her credits were so specific to her career track, very few of her credits transferred. She struggled to finance her education since, as an international student, her funding options were limited.
“Unfortunately, my family faced some unforeseen circumstances and weren’t able to support financially as we’d hoped,” Puccini de Castro said. “I had to find other ways to stay in school and afford it.”
Puccini de Castro received merit scholarships from the College of Arts and Sciences and University Honors Program. She was also able to work on campus at Northeastern’s Learning Success Center and as a research assistant for various professors for almost her entire time in school. That’s on top of being a full-time student.
“Over the years, I have witnessed Victoria grow into a strong, confident woman,” said Learning Success Center (LSC) Learning and Reading Specialist and English Language Program Instructor Christine Swanson. “Her work at the front desk of the Learning Success Center was superb. Students and tutors alike trusted her to always meet their needs. In the LSC, we relied on her expertise. She is a supreme example of what can be achieved at NEIU. She is a humble helper and a role model.”
One of the research professors Puccini de Castro worked with was Michael Stern, dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Research.
“I have had the pleasure and honor of getting to mentor and work with Victoria for the majority of her time at Northeastern as an undergraduate Biology student,” said Stern, who was a faculty member at Yale for 16 years. “She put in a lot of hard work over the last three and a half years, and accomplished a lot, driving the understanding of the science we do to a completely new level. Wrestling secrets from Mother Nature is hard, and this complex project had its struggles. Northeastern students have the kind of grit that is necessary to do that, and Victoria combined that type of raw perseverance with a lot of hard work and intelligence. Combine all of that with the delightful person she is and helpful lab team member, a faculty mentor just could not ask for more.”
Puccini de Castro noted that it was her faculty mentors, namely Stern, Swanson, Cindy Voisine, Pamela Geddes and Shubhangee Mungre who continually encouraged her and offered her support whenever she needed it.
“From my first Biology class, Dr. Mungre approached me and invited me to work on her research project,” Puccini de Castro said. “So, from the first moment, there was always someone supporting me and encouraging me to reach and do great things.”
Aside from working at Northeastern, Puccini de Castro had the opportunity to present her research at conferences across the country. Through Northeastern, she traveled to Los Angeles to present at the International C. elegans Conference at UCLA. She also attended the SACNAS - National Diversity in STEM conferences in 2018 and 2019, which took place in San Antonio, Texas, and Honolulu, Hawaii, respectively. She also said that Stern and Voisine gave her valuable advice when applying for graduate school.
“I had to apply for a lot of programs because my mentors told me that being an international student would affect my funding resources,” Puccini de Castro said. “So, I had to apply to programs that were well established and known for taking international students. That way, I could be sure that if I did get in, they would have the funding I needed to attend the program.”
She applied to 12 Ph.D. programs. Out of the 12, she was accepted to five with full funding: Yale University, Northwestern University, University of Utah, University of Illinois at Chicago and New York University. Yale is offering her full tuition, fees and a stipend for the six years it is expected she will need to complete her degree.
“NEIU might be a small school, but I feel like the preparation that our professors are giving us in the Biology and Chemistry departments is really good,” Puccini de Castro said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten into so many graduate programs.”
Voisine was not surprised by Puccini de Castro’s success. Voisine and Stern collaborate closely, and co-mentor many students together. She believes Puccini de Castro is a standout student.
“We have been fortunate to have Victoria as part of our research group for the last 3.5 years,” Voisine said. “Victoria's sharp mind and talent have made her an outstanding student investigator. During her research career at NEIU, she completed an Honors Thesis and shared this work at local, regional, national and international meetings, winning awards for her oral presentations and travel awards to attend. Victoria's accomplishments and potential were recognized by many, including members of the admissions committee for the Ph.D. program in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Yale University. Victoria is a rock star. I am very proud of the work she has done and wish her success in the next chapter of her academic journey at Yale University.”
Puccini de Castro hopes, upon completing her Ph.D., to pursue a career in academia and become a professor. While Puccini de Castro’s planned family celebration of her accomplishment was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her Northeastern journey inspired her younger sister, Helena, to follow in her footsteps. Helena joined Victoria at Northeastern in 2019 and is now a double major in Biology and Chemistry.
“I am beyond proud and also inspired,” Helena said of Victoria. “She took a big step deciding to come to the U.S., and all her hard work since then was worth it. Me and my family are more than happy with her achievement, and she deserves it so much! I am also so grateful that she has helped me chase my dreams as well.”
Victoria is thrilled to have her sister at Northeastern and thinks other international students will find the same positive experience they’ve had if they choose to attend the University.
“It was our dream to study abroad,” Victoria said. “I was able to do it first, and once I got settled we were able to work to bring her here. If there’s any international students debating if they should come to NEIU or not, they definitely should. NEIU might be a small school, and it might seem scary to be so far from your country at first, but they’ll always find resources and people to help.”
Top photo: Victoria Puccini de Castro
Victoria and Helena Puccini de Castro