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Dr. Aline M. Castro inspires Brazilian children to pursue STEM

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By Christiana Briddell, Portfolio Manager, Communications, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

Dr. Aline M. Castro, a chemical engineer, inspires Brazilian children to make sustainable choices and pursue a career in STEM through her self-published books and outreach efforts that have reached thousands.

By Christiana Briddell, Portfolio Manager, Communications, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

When Aline M. Castro’s daughter was four, she began looking for Portuguese children’s books that incorporated sustainability from a scientific point of view. Finding none available where she lived in Rio de Janeiro, she decided to start writing her own stories. As she wrote stories, she would look to her daughter’s expressions to see if she could understand the words she used to explain scientific concepts. Later, she worked with an illustrator to add the important visual aspects of the stories.

Castro found communicating science to children enriching. “For many years, I felt like I was a scientist in a castle. I was doing research in a very large research center. I wanted get closer to society—to be a bridge to let people know about sustainability and how they can contribute to a better planet,” says Castro.

Dr. Aline M. Castro and some of the children's books she has published. Credit: Aline M. CastroDr. Aline M. Castro and some of the children's books she has published. Credit: Aline M. Castro

Castro was fascinated with science as a young child. Encouraged by her mother to never stop studying, she was able to rise up through the public school system and attend a public university to pursue her interests.

Castro persevered and received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Traveling overseas for postdoctoral appointments, she did research at NOVA University Lisbon and the Technical University of Denmark. Today, Castro is a chemical engineer who has worked for the last 17 years with Brazil’s state-owned petroleum company, Petrobras, developing sustainable processes to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases using biotechnology. Major topics she has researched in recent years are using enzymes to improve plastic recycling, particularly poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET), and the use of enzymes to capture and convert carbon dioxide.

In 2023, she received the Brazilian Women in Chemistry Award for leadership in industry—an award co-issued by the American Chemical Society and the Sociedade Brasileira de Química.

Despite her busy research career, Castro has found time to author and self-publish 10 children’s books to date, seven of which incorporate science, chemistry, and the environment into compelling stories for young readers. Her books cover concepts such as the water cycle, plastic recycling, and photosynthesis.

Dr. Castro holds up a home-made puppet while  telling her stories to a classroom.Dr. Castro holds up a home-made puppet while telling her stories to a classroom.

But writing books isn’t where Castro stopped—her outreach has been equally important. She has personally impacted thousands of kids so far, doing outreach programs at public schools, low-income communities, educational non-profits, and children’s hospitals to bring her stories to life and inspire children to become scientists. She makes her own props for these events—little stuffed water molecules and spirulina algae, for example—and collaborates with other scientists who have made model cells and other props for her. She uses all these visuals to fully engage her audience of 5–10-year-olds.

Students really respond to having a scientist in the classroom, explains Castro. Particularly in lower-income schools, she tells her own story of coming from a similar background and becoming a scientist. “Sometimes all that is needed is a strong message of hope,” says Castro. Her example shows the kids that even with limited resources, if they study hard, they can aspire to enter the high-quality public university system in Brazil.

In addition to her own outreach efforts, Castro has worked with school directors and teachers to train them on the principles behind the stories so they can deliver lessons using her books all over Brazil. She estimates that 5,000 students have been reached through this network—many of whom have received one of her books free to keep.

Much of her effort has been self-funded, but Castro has also crowd-funded one of her books and seeks sponsorships to publish additional books, translate books into other languages so that kids in other countries can use them, and have a greater impact. Castro has two new books due to be released soon—one on sustainable cities and the other on climate change.

“In the daily life of a scientist, we do need to interact a lot with other people. There is no breakthrough science alone. We need to discuss, have meetings, visit sites, and visit other labs to have a complete solution to affect society,” says Castro. Scientists communicate a lot with each other—we should also learn to communicate better with society. Castro encourages other scientists to be accessible and listen to people’s perceptions so that we can improve our communication and be more impactful. 

Castro has certainly been a role model for many children in Brazil, but she is also a role model for scientists who have the desire to communicate their science more broadly. It’s an important role—especially for showing the public how science impacts sustainability and how everyone can participate in making the world a cleaner, healthier place.

Dr. Castro engages students in a school.Dr. Castro engages students in a school.