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 May 7, 2012
Mariana Figueiro
Featured Mentor
Mariana Figueiro

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How can light improve the lives of Alzheimer’s patients, help workers remain alert, and assure that teenagers make it to school on time? Ask the Lighting Research Center’s Mariana Figueiro.

Mariana Figueiro directs the Light and Health Program at the Lighting Research Center and serves as an associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Figueiro focuses her research on how light affects people’s health. She received the James D. Watson Investigator Award from the New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Academic Research in 2007; the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program Award in 2008; and RPI’s James M. Tien ’66 Early Career Award for Faculty in 2010. Figueiro is a former chair and current member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America’s Light and Human Health Committee. She holds a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil and a master’s degree in lighting and a doctorate in multidisciplinary science from RPI.

The Interview
You have an undergraduate degree in architecture. Did you go to college knowing that's what you were going to study?

For me, it was a little different because I am originally from Brazil. That's where I got my undergraduate degree. In Brazil, you have to enter college with a specific degree in mind. When I turned eighteen, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I was deciding between civil engineering, architecture, and business administration. My brother is three years older than I am and was studying engineering. He said, “It will be hard for me to deal with you as an engineer. You should study architecture." So I started architecture. Then I decided to take business as a second degree. So I was taking architecture during the day and business at night. I did that for three years until I decided to continue only in architecture. So I was forced to make a choice. I really didn't know if it was the right one, and it turned out that I sort of changed my career afterwards.

When you graduated, did you go right to work in architecture?

When I was in architecture school, I had a job as a trainee. In Brazil, we go to school in the morning. You may have classes in the evening, but normally the afternoon is free. I worked at a large construction company for half the day. When I graduated, they offered me a job. So I went straight from college to working as a full-time architect in that company. They actually hired architects from outside to design buildings, and I was the in-house architect, making sure the design was done appropriately and had all the necessary approvals. I did that for almost five years.

At some point, you became interested in lighting. Describe how that happened.

We have a joke here at the Lighting Research Center (LRC) that everybody who works here ended up in lighting by accident. They happened to have an opportunity that drove them to a job related to lighting, and they continued along that path. That's one of the reasons I was interested in talking to you. We always say that we wish high school counselors would suggest lighting as a career because so few people think about lighting that way.

In my case, I was married at the time, and my ex-husband came to RPI for an M.B.A. degree. As an architect, I wanted to get a master's degree to complete my education. I never thought of lighting until I got here and saw the LRC, which is part of the School of Architecture. I thought, “Wow, that sounds interesting.” I interviewed here, and they accepted me. I started the course work and fell in love with it. I kept taking courses and liking it more and more. My husband went back to Brazil, and I ended up staying in the United States. I earned my master's of science in lighting through the LRC. Then I earned my Ph.D. in multidisciplinary science while I was working at the LRC.

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