Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships as a Springboard

‘I would like to remain in contact with the University of Fribourg’

Mayron Pereira Piccolo Ribeiro (34) comes from a small town in south-western Brazil. He completed a Bachelor's degree in theology and psychology before specialising in psychobiology for his Master's degree in behavioural psychology. In 2017, he was awarded a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship for Foreign Scholars and Artists, which has enabled him to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Fribourg. Once he completes his doctoral thesis, he intends to continue his career in the United States. The Swiss scholarship has been a great help to him.

Mayron Pereira Piccolo Ribeiro is one of nearly 400 young foreign researchers awarded a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship each year to pursue their studies at a Swiss university. Photo: zVg

What are you researching?
Mayron Piccolo: I work with people with eating disorders in general as well as with those who have specific eating disorders linked to reward reactions. Rewards control all aspects of our lives, and food plays an important role in this, alongside money or social interactions. It is interesting to note that in people with eating disorders, the reward reaction caused by eating is not determined solely by nutritional status (hungry or not hungry). In people who are obese, for example, delicious food creates a more powerful reward reaction than in people who are not obese, even when they are already full.

Why did you choose this field of research?
I used to be obese myself, which certainly influenced my choice of research topic. Originally, I was particularly interested in one question: Why is the exact same portion of tasty food - for example a piece of lemon cake - considered smaller by people who are obese than by people who are not? I spent a long time trying to find answers to this question and this is how I came to my field of research.

How did your contact with the University of Fribourg come about?
My university in Brazil drew my attention to the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships. This prompted me to look for clinical psychology professors at Swiss universities who were studying reward interactions from a psychobiological perspective. I came across Professor Chantal Martin Sölch, who wrote several publications that I had also read, and contacted her. This is how it all began.

How would you describe your interaction with your thesis supervisor?
Professor Chantal Martin Sölch has provided me with very active support from the beginning. I benefited greatly from her suggestions and critical feedback. Thus, I have managed to publish two papers that are part of my doctoral thesis. The third is currently in the review process.

How do you rate the scholarship programme?
Without the scholarship, I would never have been able to generate the same level of scientific output as I have now managed to do with my PhD thesis. In this respect, I am infinitely grateful for having received this scholarship. I find it particularly important that the scholarship programme is also open to people from developing countries, where science is sometimes less important. The Brazilian government has slashed funding for scientific programmes, which means that I would never have received the same level of financial support at home. Thanks to this scholarship, I was able to prepare my PhD thesis and even further elaborate papers from my Master's studies and make contributions to books and conferences.

How do you like living in Switzerland?
Switzerland is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. However, the people who live here are what makes the country so wonderful. They are incredibly polite, very helpful and you can really trust them. On my first day in Fribourg, I went to a shop to buy a bed. I was told that the bed could be delivered in about two weeks, which was of course too late for me. I needed it immediately, otherwise I would have had to sleep on the floor. The salesman and his boss then spontaneously agreed to help me after closing time. The boss agreed to transport the bed and the salesman, who turned out to be my neighbour, helped me to assemble the bed at home.

So, there have never been any difficult situations?
Of course, I miss my family and friends in Brazil. And my first winter here was a real challenge for me as a Latino. I think after about five visits to the doctor I finally got used to it.

What are your future plans?
I would like to continue publishing relevant work in the coming years and thereby directly help people with eating disorders or eating behaviour disorders. Of course, I also hope to continue working with the University of Fribourg in some form, for example as a guest lecturer. My PhD will be finished soon. I am already working in the laboratory of the McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School in the United States, which is the world's best psychiatric hospital and part of one of the world’s most prestigious higher education institutions. I have just submitted an application for a postdoctoral fellowship there. I am eternally grateful to Switzerland for making this path possible for me with the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship programme.

Thesis supervisor

Prof. Chantal Martin Sölch
Photo: Pierre-Yves Massot

Chantal Martin Sölch is a tenured professor at the Department of Psychology and Vice-Rector of the University of Fribourg.

What criteria did you consider in your decision to accept Mayron Piccolo as a PhD student in your research group?
Prof. Chantal Martin Sölch: The first criterion was of course the high quality of the outline of his PhD thesis. His training in experimental psychology, his clinical experience and the fact that he had already published work all played in his favour. In addition, his topic and interests were perfectly aligned with our group’s research projects. Last but not least, he also brought a certain drive. I conducted an interview with him via Skype to get to know him. I was left with the impression that he was very motivated and had the courage, open-mindedness and imagination necessary for such an adventure. I felt that he would fit in well with our research team.

How has the research group benefited from working with him?
In general, working with foreign students and doctoral candidates in our research group provides us with a different perspective on the world, on research questions and on the impact of research and academic careers. It also helps us to better understand the background of the people with whom we exchange ideas on an international level and at conferences and serves as a catalyst for new ideas. I think that the mutual interactions and change of perspective are very beneficial for both sides.

Are you interested in continuing to organise such ‘tandems’ in the future?
My experience with foreign doctoral candidates has been extremely positive so far. They are often very motivated and talented. Our work with Mayron Piccolo has also been very productive - both on an academic and human level. I am proud that I was able to guide him and hope that he will have a promising scientific career after he obtains his PhD.

Currently, my team includes two new doctoral candidates holding a federal scholarship. They come from Cameroon and India, respectively. In order to share this cultural wealth on a larger scale, we have created an intercultural forum enabling them to interact with our Master's degree students. Before deciding whether to accept any further scholarship holders, I would like to first supervise the current doctoral students until they have completed their PhD theses. Supervising foreign doctoral students is usually a bit more complicated, since they come here alone, do not know our country and system and have many questions, especially at the beginning.

The interviews were conducted by Marco Lügstenmann, SERI, Higher Education Division