Hernan Chaimovich: twice a biochemist

The Professor from USP recalls his journey from Santiago, Chile to São Paulo, saying that no other country integrates cultures like Brazil

Imagem: LEO RAMOSPublished in march 2012

In an article published in 2008 on the early stages of his academic career, Hernan Chaimovich, retired Professor of the Chemistry Department (IQ) at the University of São Paulo (IQ/USP), sayss that he needed to study to be a biochemist twice – as once was not enough. The first time was in July 1962, when he was 22, at the University of Chile, the country where he was born. The son of the owner of a pharmaceutical laboratory, his mother was a housewife who later became a writer. Chaimovich enrolled on a pharmaceutical course with his father hoping that he would take over the family business. However, during his studies he was seduced by the recently created biochemistry course that was led by a professor who instilled in the students the ambition to win the Nobel Prize.

After graduation, he moved to the United States where he studied at the University of California in Santa Barbara and at Harvard. He then returned to Chile with his Brazilian wife. However, there was pressure from his wife’s family to come and work in Brazil.

In 1969, he received job offers in Rio and also in São Paulo. He decided to go for the second option, a grant offered by Alberto Carvalho da Silva, who was then the Scientific Director of FAPESP. The grant was to work in the Physiology Department of the Medical School of the University of São Paulo (USP). In the early 1970’s, Chaimovich became one of the young leaders of the Bioq-FAPESP program, considered to be responsible for the consolidation of biochemistry in the state of São Paulo. He then moved to the University of São Paulo Chemistry Department (IQ), where he founded the postgraduate course. His qualification in biochemistry was not valid in Brazil and Chaimovich was not a member of the normal academic staff of USP – his permanency had to be approved by his peers every three years. In 1979, he resorted to a provision in the statutes that allowed highly knowledgeable researchers to present a thesis without having to do the postgraduate course work and he was awarded, within a few months, the titles of doctor and subsequently of livre-docente [the highest step in professorship]. “In my 40’s I became a biochemist for the second time,” he remarked.

Chaimovich developed several lines of research on kinetics, studying the chemical reactions based on the speed at which the reactions occur. Together with students and co-workers, this contributed to an understanding on how the agglomerations of super molecules affect reaction kinetics in chemistry and biology. He also had an interest in political science and technology – among the positions that he held there, the following stand out: Dean of Research of USP, vice-president of the Brazilian Academy of Science, Director of the International Council for Science, the ICSU, which represents national associations of all countries and the major international science associations. At FAPESP, he manages the Cepids (Centers of Research, Innovation and Dissemination). Married for the second time and the father of three children, the 72 years old Hernan Chaimovich granted the following

How did your upbringing influence your choice for science?
I had an uncle who was a physician and who was doing some research at that time and there was my father who had a pharmacy and then built up a pharmaceutical laboratory. I remember that when I was eight years old I was given my first microscope and I was influenced by a German chemist who worked as a consultant in my father’s lab. He gave me children’s science books in German, a language that I couldn’t read, but the description of the experiments was clear. I then started to carry out chemical and biological experiments while very young, before I was 10 years old. The experiments became practical because I started making explosives.

You destroyed your house’s garage…
It was one of my experiments. During college, I was a relatively mediocre student. One of the subjects I really liked was chemistry. I was lucky to have studied at a state school that was the best in Chile at that time. It was the Instituto Nacional, with good chemistry and physics laboratories. It also had excellent academic staff. The teacher of philosophy was extraordinary. A teacher of Spanish, who later became the Vice-President of the University of Chile, and was a chemist and he let me play in the laboratory.

Your mother was a writer, right?
She became a writer much later, but it is clear that she influenced me. I read all the important Russian writers when I was 17 and this was through her influence. The fact that my mother was born in Russia was important for a series of things that occurred later, but it was not important at that time.

So your father ended up winning, right? You became a scientist and not a writer…
I’m not sure. My father wanted me to work and become the owner of a pharmaceutical laboratory and I ran away from that. What is important is not that someone wins, but the interest of the parents to put things explicitly, saying clearly, “I would like you to do this for such and such reasons.” Or my mother, who instead of doing that, used to say “read this book and after that, read this other one.” She followed my progress. A rich family – and I try to do this with my children – is one in which nobody is ashamed to say “I like that thing and I would like you to see my side,” in one way or another. Without pressure, because then there would be a win and a lose situation.

In school, you disliked some subjects; what about at university?
I got into university easily. Actually, some students from the Instituto Nacional passed the entrance examinations ahead of any students from any other Chilean school because they were very well prepared. I got in to study Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Chile. However, right at the beginning of May, I became ill and missed a month. A social worker from the University came to visit me and said, “You became ill and are going to repeat the year, so do just some subjects and try and recover.” That really annoyed me. I decided that I would not only pass but would study all the subjects. I started to like it and I won a load of prizes during my time at university.

Did your choice of research come about while you were still an undergraduate?
The decision was made when I met Osvaldo Cori, one of my heroes. It was him who created the career of biochemistry at the University of Chile. Shortly before this, I was uncertain whether to go into medicine or leave university. First because it was easy to be the best student and second because it wasn’t fun. That was until Osvaldo decided to found the discipline of biochemistry. The idea was to educate scientists in chemical-biology in Chile. When I saw this and started to talk to people about it, I realized that it was an adventure, something alive. I then decided to stay and go for biochemistry.

Did Cori know about the biochemistry carried out abroad?
He had had very good education in the United States. He was a physician, he won a Rockefeller grant for the University of Tulane and afterwards worked with two Nobel Prize laureates. His scientific work was not very important but he was a professor with extraordinary knowledge and understanding. He believed that he was doing the most important thing in the world. He also thought that everyone should work hard to win a Nobel Prize. It is stimulating to live side by side with people that believe in science, that we should be at the frontier and planning to win the Nobel Prize is another way of saying that you should not walk backwards. We have to use the same language as the Nobel Prize winners and in fact, Osvaldo invited several laureates to give seminars and have lunch with us. They were people to whom we had to ask questions – and to ask aggressively, otherwise it was not worthwhile.

Why did you leave Chile soon after qualifying?
A very good Australian scientist called Morrison was in Osvaldo Cori’s laboratory when I was in my fifth year. I had already worked with enzymes and enzymology, and spent a lot of time in the lab. I was not sure at that time in which of two areas to work. One was enzymology linked to Osvaldo and the other was biophysics linked to Mario Luxoro, who an outstanding biophysicist, who today must be about 90. The two of them had very different ways of thinking and were my professors.

Why did you choose enzymology?
Because Cori employed me when I was in the fourth year, which established a relationship. Shortly after this, Morrison arrived and I started to carryout kinetic studies (measurement of the velocity of reactions) of enzyme-catalyzed reactions with him. I became very interested in the subject and saw clearly that kinetics on its own was not as much fun as the study of the mechanism of the reaction together with the kinetics. As it was impossible to study these mechanisms in Chile, I decided to go to the United States soon after graduating.

Why didn’t you go straight into a Ph.D?
For a very simple reason: the school of Osvaldo Cori was prejudiced, and did not value doctorates, unlike the school of Mario Luxoro. Osvaldo was not an academic; he was a physician In the United States, he had worked and published papers with Fritz Lipmann, for example, the 1953 Nobel Prize laureate for Medicine. He thought that getting a doctorate was unnecessary. When I went to the University of California at Santa Bárbara, I spent a year and a half working with Clifford Bunton, who was one of the world’s most famous icons in organic physical chemistry. However, after this period I thought that I had learnt all I could from him. Naturally, I was wrong, but it doesn’t matter, I was in my early 20s at that time. I wanted to join a better group and I ended up at Harvard University. But I could have worked on my doctorate in Santa Barbara without any problem. At that time, I felt like a post-doc because I had a Rockefeller Foundation grant, which carried a lot of prestige.

At that time, were you married?
Yes, to a Brazilian. Later I was married again, to another Brazilian. I came here, we were married, and then I went to the United States. I have more relatives in Brazil than in Chile, because my grandfather on my father’s side emigrated from Russia to Chile at the end of the nineteenth century. Like many other immigrants, he started working and when he started making money he brought his family over. The first two brothers that arrived in Santiago experienced an earthquake and decided to leave. They moved to Rio like the other brothers. I started coming here when I was 18 and I met my first wife during Carnival.

What was your experience at Harvard like?
Extremely exciting. I made many more friends there than in California. At the same time, the Chemistry department was known for the higher than average suicide rate and also for one Nobel Prize winner per floor. It was a very competitive group and I wasn’t used to that level of competition. I had a very complicated problem for which I was almost unable to find a solution. The first six months were very difficult. Everything improved when I gave my first seminar to the department. I chose a theme that was very complex and I had to control the time as there were three Nobel Prize laureates sitting in front of me. During the first 15 seconds I thought I was going to faint. After that, I gained confidence. From then on, I was accepted as an equal by the post-docs that had to work Saturday and Sunday to keep up – the other option was to be thrown out of the system. I left there having written a good paper that is cited to this day.

Did you intend to return to Chile?
I had two offers. One was to do a doctorate and then work at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States. The other was to do a doctorate in England. However, at that time, I could see clearly that I wanted to return to Latin America.

Why did you end up in Brazil?
For two reasons. First, my wife wanted to live here and second, Brazil offers something different for a foreigner. I think that at that time, Brazilians didn’t know the meaning of brain drain. Brazilians didn’t emigrate unless they were expelled from the country. Many left here at the time of the dictatorship but it seemed to me that nobody wanted to leave. It is different with the Chileans, Argentineans, etc. Here we have brain gain . It is very difficult for a scientist or anyone from any other profession that marries a Brazilian – and vice-versa – to leave Brazil. The husband or wife always brings the other to Brazil.

How do you explain this?
I have no explanation, only a theory. I see Brazil as the only country in the world where the mixture of cultures is real. I’ll give you two examples that I think are marvelous. You don’t understand a master of ceremonies looking like a Japanese unless you understand that the Brazilian ability to integrate a culture is something that only happens here. This doesn’t happen in other countries – and I say that having travelled and knowing the world. The probability of a non-Argentine, a non-Chilean, or a non-Colombian reaching the sort of positions that I held in the most important public university in the country is almost zero. Here it is normal. The culture has really developed by such integration. The Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, Nobel Prize laureate for Literature in 1945, lived in Santa Barbara in California. The Chilean immigration in that region was also common in the nineteenth century. If you visit that Chilean colony there today you will find people drinking wine and eating empanadas [ a type of pasty] and the fifth generation speaks more Spanish than English. Where is there anything similar in Brazil? This is what I mean when I talk about integration. Here the integration creates values and is not imposed. I think that Brazil has a special attraction because the cultural integration is real and gives the feeling that the immigrant is contributing to the culture.

Why did you choose to stay in São Paulo?
One of the job offers that I received came from Leopoldo de Meis of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, because he was going to Germany and he needed someone to take charge of the laboratory. I liked Leopoldo a lot and the idea was good. But it wasn’t very clear if I could have an independent line of research. Besides, it was only a verbal invitation and there was no contract to sign. Certainly there would be one someday but the São Paulo proposal was different. Alberto Carvalho da Silva was interested in establishing a section of enzymology in the Physiology Department of the USP School of Medicine. He requested a visiting research grant for me at the end of 1968. I was in Chile when I telephoned and discovered that Alberto, then the Scientific Director of FAPESP, had been suspended by the military government. I was uncertain about moving to Brazil, however, then César Timo-Iaria signed the request for the grant. I arrived in September 1969. The climate was that of a funeral, with a general feeling of depression at the university. However, the people, César Timo-Iaria, Gerard Malnic, Francisco Lacaz, Mauricio Rocha e Silva and others from the Physiology department received me with incredible kindness and respect. Feelings were very mixed at that time: respect for me as an individual, the grief for the revocation of rights and the space they gave me. Physical and intellectual space. I had just arrived and had a technician to work with me. That was something unthinkable and difficult to get, elsewhere. I started to get students quickly. However, one year later it was clear that I didn’t have a good enough dialogue to keep me alive scientifically. I decided to move to IQ (Chemistry Institute, USP).

What was it like, to discover that you were not a biochemist here in Brazil?
I tried to validate my qualifications and it was impossible, but this didn’t matter because the salary was not linked to the job title. You see, I arrived at IQ in the 70’s and I was soon made responsible for the postgraduate section. I taught the first discipline, enzymology – the only one that there was, that semester. I contacted Francisco Lara and started to write the Bioq-FAPESP [Program for the Development of Biochemistry] together with a committee in which Carl Peter von Dietrich and Antonio Cechelli de Mattos Paiva participated. Lara had the idea and we wrote it. Peter made a large contribution to the details and some of the ideas were mine. It’s Brazil where you integrate. One year had passed since my arrival, without a doctorate, with no contract with USP, but I was already writing a project with other researchers, which, I believe, caused biochemistry to be structured in this country starting in São Paulo. . This is very strange when you look at it from the viewpoint of another country and in another cultural context. Because of this, I didn’t care about not having a doctorate. I put together a marvelous team and everything was going well intellectually. Some of my publications with the greatest impact are from this time, 1977 to 1982. The group of young people from the same generation was important and it included Dietrich, Walter Colli, [José Carlos de Costa] Maia, who died young, Rogério Meneghini, Hugo Armelin, Walter Terra… All were blessed by Bioq-FAPESP. The projects were audited by a commission that included a least one Nobel Prize winner. It was an important stamp.

When did you finally do the doctorate?
It was in 1979. My salary had been reduced by inflation, I had separated, and was having to travel to Rio to see my children. At that time, I had to decide whether to stay in Brazil or leave. To join a private company or to try and do something at university. To Chile, during the military dictatorship, I would not return. My friends were all dead or exiled. I almost went to a pharmaceutical company to manage a research division. The United States and Europe were real possibilities. The other option was to try to change my functional situation at the university and to get a doctorate fast. I discovered that in the USP statutes there was a paragraph that allowed renowned researchers to defend a thesis without studying ancillary disciplines. It made no sense to study other disciplines after being responsible for managing the IQ’s postgraduate department and to have been responsible for qualifying doctors and masters. I presented myself against the wishes of many people. I had to be approved by two thirds of the congregation and perhaps some people saw me as a threat, but this was conjecture. I was approved by one vote. I also managed to obtain my livre-docência degree that same year. So in 1979 I did a doctorate in April and a livre-docência in December. As luck would have it, some of my important papers were published during this period – the livre-docência regulations say that there has to be scientific production in the interval between the two titles. Following this, I tried to run for the contest for the position of head senior professor in 1980 but was unable to get the necessary two thirds of the votes. In the following years, I became part of the university’s academic staff. Finally, I had a post and then became a true biochemist from the Brazilian point of view. Many other things happened after this. My research group was small, with few people but they were very good.

How small?
At the peak, eight to ten people. I had some very good people working with me, such as Renato Arruda Mortara, a professor at Unifesp, Mário Politi, Iolanda Cuccovia, now my wife, Ana Carmona, all from USP and various others. In 1984, the special edition of Current Contents was published; today it is the Web of Science, and it had the most important Latin American papers in that year. Two out of the 10 were mine.

What were the subjects?
The same thing as I do today. One was part of Iolanda´s master’s degree dissertation, a kinetic analysis of a chemical reaction in micelles, and the other was the first description of vesicles prepared using negatively charged synthetic amphiphilics. In 1984, I became senior professor.

Besides scientific research, you also were involved with scientific politics.
I was involved with politics when I was in school. My first official political activity in Brazil was in 1983 when I was elected to the board of governors of Adusp [the Association of USP Professors]. In 1985, I held the post of department manager. Afterwards, in 1990, I partly formulated and coordinated USP’s Molecule Science course, which was a fantastic advance for the University. The idea was Roberto Leal Lobo’s, when he was the university president, and of Erney Plessmann de Camargo, the dean of research. The person who in fact structured and coordinated the course was me. This course is a success and is one of my essential contributions.

What about afterwards?
In 1995, I was elected President of the Brazilian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SBBq). I continued on the university council as the president of the academic subjects commission. When Jacques Marcovitch was elected university president 1997, he asked me to become the dean of research. I accepted immediately, although it was a surprise for me because that year I had refused to campaign for the candidates for the position of president. When I was a candidate for president in 2001, I lost. In 1997, I was elected to the board of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences of which I am now the vice-president. During this time, I started to play a more official role in international science politics. I was elected to the board of the International Council for Science, the ICSU, which is a group of all the national representatives of all the countries in the world and the biggest international scientific bodies. In 2008, I ran for president of ICSU, but lost. In 2004, I participated in the creation of another international organ, the Inter-American Network of Academies of Sciences (Ianas), which is the only international network of scientific academies that is running to this day.

What is your evaluation of the science you carried out?
What allowed me to do all that I did was the science that I produced. My first publication – for a change, on kinetics – was in 1965. For the first time, it was shown that any enzyme had a very specific behavior. This paper was published almost 50 years ago and continues being cited. Another important discovery, in my opinion, is one we made in 1978, concerning a vesicle [a model-structure of a cell membrane] made of synthetic lipid. This paper also had an extremely high number of citations. Afterwards, in 1979, we published a series of articles on pure kinetics. The first was written in an instructional manner, and introduced new concepts. It was written in such as way that anyone with a little knowledge of chemistry can understand. So it is used a lot. In 1982, we described a reaction that is in a way, a path to understanding the origin of life. In a micelle system, [a micelle is a globular structure formed by an agglomeration of molecules], measuring the reaction velocity, we discovered a totally synthetic system, which was a vesicle that accelerated the speed of the reaction a million times. This is important because life cannot be created if everything happens very slowly.

And was all of this work the result of collaboration?
All of it. In 1995, while chatting to Aníbal Vercesi (Unicamp) in a restaurant, a hypothesis came up that was tested in my laboratory and this resulted in a discovery: we described the enzyme activity of a protein that was named uncoupling protein. Basically, this protein acts like the clutch on a car. When one steps on the clutch, the vehicle doesn’t move and generates a lot of heat. This protein does the same thing with living animals. There was a belief that it was only found in the brown fatty tissue of mammals, but we also discovered it in a plant.

To close, what is your vision of Brazilian science compared with that of the other Latin American countries?
This comparison is not fair because we are a long way ahead of the other countries in terms of structure. For example, there is no other Latin American country that has a body like FAPESP. I am not referring to organizations similar to CNPq, Capes or Finep. We have all of those and in addition we have FAPESP.  Other counties lack this. However, if we make a comparison with the rest of the world, the situation changes, because the relative impact of Brazilian publications does not reach the average impact of science magazines published in the developed world. It is lower. This says that the quality of what we do is still not satisfactory. That is not to say that there are no scientists, but with only a few scientists you cannot build a country.