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Between microscopes and telescopes, a 22-year-old woman discovers 25 asteroids - SCIENCE

Between microscopes and telescopes, a 22-year-old woman discovers 25 asteroids – SCIENCE

Verina Bakula Menezes (Photo: Nella Rocha (@ASCOM/SEAPC/MCTI))

Between microscopes and telescopes, 22-year-old medical student Verena Bakula Menezes spends most of her time. On the one hand, if the first instrument helped her on the paths to become a neurosurgeon, then through the telescope she foresaw another possibility: space medicine, a passion that appeared after, in her hobby, she discovered 25 asteroids. One of them, classified as rare by a differentiated orbit that would be able to place it toward Earth.

In her spare time, Verena is an “asteroid hunter”. But the fact is that, since childhood, she has always considered herself a scientist.

“Science has always been present in my life. I don’t even remember when I was interested. I play that I was born a scientist because, for me, doing science means being a scientist, asking questions, questioning the world, and pursuing answers on your own, not just superficial. I’ve always lived this way. “I have always been a very curious kid to discover the world,” said the medical student at the University of São Paulo (USP), who is also a nursing technician.

school game

Verena got her first microscope when she was four years old. “I took it to school as a toy, while my friends took the dolls and toys,” she recalls. The telescope came a little later, at the age of eight. “I still have it in my room today, mainly to look at the moon,” said the student, who has been studying at the University of the South Pacific in Ribeiro Preto for two years, where she is conducting research on Alzheimer’s disease.

The microscope and the telescope represent different things in my life. Microscopy is more geared to my profession because it includes what I want to work on, which is medicine and academia. Telescope is more than just a hobby, because of my curiosity – which also covers the sky and space. I’ve always been curious to know what’s behind what we can see. I love both machines,” summarizes the agency Agencia Brasil.

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I took the Technical Nursing course during high school, at Unicamp between 2015 and 2017. As I began to experience the hospital environment in a more professional way, then actually graduated and at Albert Einstein Hospital (SP), I researched in the field of computational neuroscience for children with autism.

In 2019, he represented Brazil at the United Nations Youth Assembly (UN) and moved to Canada, where he began his studies in Neuroscience. “I’ve always dreamed of studying medicine at USP, which ended up returning to my plans after having to go back to Brazil because, financially speaking, it was pointless to continue in Canada.”

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The problem was that the young woman, who was already a researcher, had to start over to get into the USP. “It’s been a long time since I took the high school course, and I don’t remember the content well anymore. I had to learn everything from scratch. It wasn’t a great stage, after a lot of research, to go back to studying high school subjects. I lived under a lot of pressure “.

And it was the pain of not practicing science that made her advance into another passion: astronomy. “I needed something scientific to motivate me. That is when, in a whatsapp group, I came across this opportunity to learn how to hunt an asteroid.”

Then she did several exercises that enabled her to take up the new hobby. “I really liked it. After training, I started using the software they use to search for asteroids. I received pictures taken with a telescope in Hawaii. Each package of pictures taken by the telescope consists of four pictures taken with a difference of seconds. I took this package of pictures And I threw it into the program that flashed it over and over in order. Because there’s a time difference, you can tell if something is moving in space.”

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When Verena found a moving spot, she performed numerical analysis of the object to see if it fit into the asteroid’s patterns. If the result is positive, I prepared a report and sent it to the international center studying this in Harvard (USA).

This is how I discovered at least 25 new asteroids. In view of this achievement, in December last year, she was invited to receive the Medal of Merit, by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, in Brasilia, during the National Science and Technology Week.

Verina Bakula Menezes receives a medal in the
Verina Bakula Menezes receives the Medal of Merit from MCTI (Photo: Nella Rocha (@ASCOM/SEAPC/MCTI))

rare asteroid

“I ended up receiving more than one medal. When I thought the awards were over, they called me back on the stage for the trophy. It was there where I was told I had discovered an important and rare asteroid, which follows a different orbit around the Sun.”

The asteroids of the solar system are usually located between Mars and Jupiter, where the so-called main belt is located. One of the asteroids discovered by Verena followed a different orbit than the others, which increases the chances that its path will coincide with that of planet Earth.

“Now we have to see where it’s going, in order to predict the possible effects on Earth. I don’t know if this will happen. The possibility is there, but if we look at the dimensions of the universe, we see that the probability is very small,” she says, hoping that her discovery will not be Something horrific similar to the story told in the movie Don’t Search, where a researcher discovers a comet headed toward Earth, ending life on this planet.

“I was shocked by this movie. It’s so good even scientifically. So is the image of society and women in science. Of course, I got to know a lot about the character for also being a woman in science. And in science, women live, in addition to not being heard, in a context in which a man takes Most credited. In the movie, she was described as crazy.”

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In the opinion of the student asteroid hunter, the film goes further, approaching the humanity of the day as a whole. It speaks a lot about the wave of exile we are witnessing in Brazil. D – related to many topics besides a comet or an asteroid. It’s also a metaphor for the global warming issue, which scientists often talk about and nobody listens to. It also shows the weight of economics in decisions,” he argues.


The opportunities presented by the astronomy medical student make her rethink her plans for the future. I am sure that I will fulfill my dream of graduating in medicine. I am in the second year of the course and everything is fine for me to do my neurosurgery residency,” says the asteroid hunter. “Only now I have a flea behind my ear.”

This “flea” was developed by the head of the Brazilian Space Agency, Carlos Moura. “After the award in Brasilia, I visited the agency. There, he told me about space medicine, which I didn’t know until then because it’s not a very popular area here in Brazil as a specialty.”

The topic piqued Verena’s interest. “Then I started researching and saw that there are doctors in space now, doing research in zero gravity to see how certain tissues develop; how certain cells reproduce. Very cool. And there are doctors developing technologies for people to go into space. It’s a very large space that I didn’t know existed. Now , a new area to explore and take into account for my future. But let’s see.”

“For now, I will continue to chase asteroids, and if all goes well, I will also train asteroid hunters so that others do the same and we make a difference. I plan to do this through my Instagram.”