Meet Fernanda Maria Lonardoni, finalist of the EPFL doctorate award 2015

Fernanda Maria Lonardoni pursued most of her studies in Brazil before deciding to undertake a PhD in the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne (EPFL) with the support of the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship. She just received a special distinction from the EPFL’s selection committee for her thesis “Within the limits and opportunities of informal rental housing: Tenants and livelihood in Brazilian favelas”. swissnex Brazil spoke to Fernanda to learn more about her trajectory and how she connects Brazil and Switzerland.


1) Can you briefly describe yourself?

I graduated with a B.A. in Architecture and Urban Planning and a Master in Housing and City from the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. My interest in pursuing an academic career appeared early and I worked as a research assistant for most of my time in College. The PhD was the ultimate goal after graduating from my Masters in 2007, and Switzerland featured as the best alternative to match my professional and personal interests. I didn’t know the winters were so cold and long, though.

As a housing practitioner and policy adviser, I have worked for UN-Habitat, the International Labour Organization and the World Bank Institute (WBI). Currently, I am working with the Housing and Slum Upgrading Branch at UN-Habitat’s offices in Nairobi, managing development projects related to housing policy formulation and implementation. Subjects related to low-income housing, affordable housing and urban livelihoods form the focus of my recent work.

2) Could you tell us more about your research and the reasons why you chose this subject?

As an architect and urban planning student, the socio-economic dimensions of housing and cities always intrigued me. Issues related to inequality, poverty and exclusion, and peoples’ everyday struggles to find a place to live caught my attention more than design and technologies.

I was fortunate to work as a researcher in a Brazilian national research network called INFOSOLO, along with well-known academics across the country, looking into how the poor access land and housing in Brazilian metropolises. The exposure to the fieldwork and the everyday reality of housing production and consumption in favelas only raised more questions in my head, which I took forward to investigate in my PhD.

My PhD thesis explored the opportunities and constraints of informal housing markets for the urban poor. Yes! Although many people think that people living in informal settlements – or favelas as they are popularly called in Brazil – have simply occupied and self-built their houses, there is an active market going on, with people buying, constructing, selling and renting plots of land and houses.  I focused my research on an increasing trend observed in Brazilian favelas: the rental housing. I investigated the lives of tenant households to understand how they chose where to live, how they are chosen by their landlords, where they work, study and how being a tenant was helping or hurting their livelihoods.

The expertise I acquired on low-income housing circuits as well as on socio-economic and developmental issues related to housing and cities have led my professional career and opportunities henceforth. And I feel fortunate!

3) Why Switzerland?

Undertaking the PhD in Switzerland was an asset in terms of resources and access to information. I have harnessed all opportunities available to connect and exchange knowledge with other academics, universities and organizations.

Switzerland’s housing problems are far from anything observed in Brazil, and I was often confronted with the question “why are you studying favelas in Switzerland?” I must say I did not choose Switzerland because of existent expertise or cutting-edge knowledge on my topic. My trajectory, as I said above, was defined by a combination of professional and personal interests. Once at EPFL, I tried to make the most of it, the award is a proof that I did. What really helped me was to work on a subject I was passionate about.

4) What would you like to say to Brazilians who have an interest in studying in Switzerland?

What I would like to say to students coming to Switzerland is the same as to all students pursuing a PhD or a stint abroad. Your world grows up and your opportunities grow up along with it.

While research interests and needs differ, as well as the circumstances that lead students and academics to choose where to conduct their work, there is a lot we Brazilians can gain from the opportunities Switzerland’s universities offer to be connected to the world. There are definitely more resources available to learning new languages, attending congresses, workshops, lectures and study trips which can open doors and define the course and trajectory of one’s future professional life.

I initially thought the logic step after the PhD would be professorship. Today, I found myself in Africa, working for the United Nations and travelling across the globe to help countries to improve access to adequate housing for all. My world continues growing up.


Many thanks to Fernanda Maria Lonardoni for sharing her story!

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