Youngsters that are all go

Students turn out to be a surprise in international exchanges promoted by FAPESP and by the National Science Foundation

A pilot program of FAPESP and the National Science Foundation (NSF), promoting the exchange of undergraduate chemistry students between São Paulo state and US universities, has been achieving encouraging results. Two calls for proposals released in 2008 made it possible for 13 students with Scientific Initiation grants from the University of São Paulo (USP), the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), the Paulista State University (Unesp) e and the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) to spend 12 weeks each in the United States, in traineeships with research groups. Nine students went to the University of Florida, which coordinates the program in the United States, but there were also two who went to the Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, and to the University of California, in Los Angeles. The third call, which closed last month, increased to 15 the number of universities that can host Brazilians. To offset that, nine American students came to Brazil and spent three months working in the labs at four São Paulo universities.

According to Jose Riveros, a professor at the Chemistry Institute at USP and one of the people who crafted this initiative, the program enables students to acquire some international experience at an early stage of their academic career. “The scientific initiation grant-holders spend 12 weeks totally focused on a research traineeship. This is quite a different approach from that of exchange programs in which the students spend one term abroad but often take a long time become integrated at the institution”, states the professor. Randy Duran, a professor from the Chemistry Department of the University of Florida and coordinator of the partnership agreement in the United States, says he is impressed with the level of the Brazilian grant-holders. “The São Paulo students were on par with the French and American students in our program over the last ten years. FAPESP’s selection clearly identified the best. Several articles already published were co-authored by the Brazilian students from the first group. We’re impressed with how open-minded and flexible they are”, said Duran.

Mayra Cavallaro, aged 21, who is an undergraduate at Unicamp and a FAPESP scientific initiation grant holder, tells us that the three months she spent at the University of Florida in the middle of last year expanded her horizons and provided her with a new perspective on organic chemistry, her research theme. “I was part of a group that developed polymers to propel jets. I concentrated on polymer synthesis while others measured elasticity and physical and chemical properties”, says Mayra, who had been working on another theme, the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, at Unicamp. She had the opportunity to present a poster on her research in Brazil at a Furman University event, in Greenville, North Carolina. As for Juliana dos Santos de Souza, aged 23, who had just graduated from the Institute of Chemistry of UNESP in Araraquara and who has already begun her master’s degree program at the Federal University of the ABC Area, she says that the time spent in the United States consolidated her idea of pursuing an academic career. “Although the level of our training is no worse than what one gets in the United States, there is a difference in scale. If here my research group comprised 5 people, there I worked in a group of 40. And, as team and material availability are good, things happen faster”, compares Juliana, whose line of research in Florida was the development of zinc compounds to sensitize solar cells. “I worked with a PhD. While he synthesized, I assembled and characterized the cells”, she explains.

Another advantage of the exchange program, according to Riveros, is more prosaic: a behavioral change spurred by contact with a different environment or with different people. “American students tend to be more autonomous than the Brazilians. Contact between them generally encourages the latter to become bolder and less dependent on their supervisors”, he explains. Randy Duran was especially surprised to find out how the American students who only knew Spanish but spoke no Portuguese adapted well to the Brazilian environment, such as Joseph Elias, a student from Reed College, in the state of Oregon, who worked with professor Marcelo Ganzarolli de Oliveira, from Unicamp, on research into polymers for use in artificial hearts. “At the end of 12 weeks, he made a presentation in Portuguese that Professor Oliveira thought was outstanding”, states Duran. Another important result, according to the professor from the University of Florida, was the students’ high productivity. “The first group of four students  led to them co-authoring at least  three publications”, he says.

The history of this partnership arrangement dates back to 2000, when John Eyler, a researcher from the Chemistry Department of the University of Florida, warned Professor Riveros, from USP, with whom he was collaborating, about the possibility of NSF sponsoring partnership agreements with institutions from other countries. At the time, the University of Florida sent four students to do a traineeship in São Paulo city, but Riveros was unable to get aid to send Brazilian students over there and the idea was put on a backburner. In 2007, the Florida group, headed by Randy Duran, resumed the issue and was interested in promoting the partnering arrangement with Brazil. NSF maintains similar programs with a number of countries. Riveros contacted FAPESP, which liked the idea, but proposed to expand the program to scientific initiation grant holders from any university in the state. A financial system was set up to make the program feasible. It was determined that the program would have three sources of financing: FAPESP itself, complementing the scientific initiation grant of students up to US$800; the offices of the deans of research at Brazilian institutions; and the technical reserves of the projects of the researchers who would come to act as the students’ supervisors. This is what covers the airfares and health insurance. As for bed and board, it would be paid for by the American institution. Similarly, the Brazilian universities would cover the living expenses of the exchange students from the United States.

According to Duran, the NSF earmarked additional funding for the program. The outcome was that in May 2009, American students will to not only go to USP and Unicamp, but also to Unesp in Araraquara, to the Ludwig Institute and to the USP-Ribeirão Preto campus. In August, the University of Florida professor is expected to visit São Carlos, to assess the potential for extending the program to that city, which has USP and UFSCar campuses. On this occasion, NSF should also promote a workshop at Unicamp with all the scientific initiation students who went to the United States and the Americans who will be here in August.