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A man of ideas

Sérgio Mascarenhas worked in a wide range of fields and helped to found important research institutes and startups in Brazil

Miguel Boyayan Mascarenhas during an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP in 2007Miguel Boyayan

Nonconformism, an effervescent imagination, and a devotion to experimental research and intellectual activity were the defining marks in the career of physicist Sérgio Mascarenhas Oliveira, 93, who died on May 31 from cardiopulmonary arrest. His colleagues described him as a pragmatic researcher, though often haphazard in putting his ideas into practice. “He had no patience for planning, and preferred to just start on a project immediately. If it failed, he would abandon it to start another,” says pharmaceutical engineer Gustavo Frigieri, a former student under Mascarenhas. “A few days before he was hospitalized, he called me to discuss an idea and said we had to implemented immediately as his time was running out. So I answered: ‘Professor, that’s what you’ve been saying for the last 15 years.’ This time he was right.”

Frigieri witnessed firsthand what his former professor was capable of when spurred by curiosity or by necessity. In the early 2000s, Mascarenhas began experiencing difficulty walking and memory loss. Doctors thought it could be Parkinson’s disease, but he was eventually diagnosed with normal-pressure hydrocephalus, a brain disorder in which excess cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the brain’s ventricles. This required him to undergo surgery to insert a valve and drain the excess fluid. But these devices tend to clog up and need replacement from time to time. To determine whether they are working properly, surgeons drill a small hole in the patient’s skull to measure their intracranial pressure. “Mascarenhas thought it inconceivable that we still needed to drill a hole in a person’s head to measure intracranial pressure,” Frigieri recalls.

So he decided to look for alternative methods. With his own brain as test subject, he began working with colleagues to create a device for non-invasively monitoring intracranial pressure in neurocritical patients. This led to the development of a sensor attached to the head by a strap that can transmit real-time intracranial pressure data to a bedside monitor. Frigieri was actively involved in developing the device. The sensor they created has since received numerous awards and attracted interest from physicians around the world. In 2014, he and Mascarenhas founded brain4care to manufacture the device. “He had an entrepreneurial side to him that was uncommon among Brazilian scientists,” says Frigieri. “He was always talking about developing his ideas into products. To him, research only made sense if the outcomes benefited the public.”

The brain sensor is just one of several of Mascarenhas’s projects. His career was as prolific as it was diverse. Some of his research contributions include the concept of bioelectrets (biomaterials capable of storing electrical charge on their surface) and the discovery of new methods of archaeological dating. He helped to develop the field of condensed-matter physics in Brazil in the 1950s, and to create the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) in the early 1970s. “Many of Mascarenhas’s students went on to become important names on the Brazilian science scene,” says Hamilton Varela, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of São Paulo’s (USP) São Carlos Institute of Chemistry. “He took a keen interest in the work of his colleagues. He always made me feel I was part of something bigger when I discussed my work with him.”

Mascarenhas was born in Rio de Janeiro in May 1928. He earned a degree in chemistry from the University of Brazil (now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) in 1951 and in physics from the same institution in 1952. As a student under physicist Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro (1906–1960), he published his first works on the thermo-dielectric effect, one of his professor’s discoveries. “It was Mascarenhas who first called it the Costa Ribeiro effect, as it is known today,” wrote Sérgio Rezende, a professor of physics at the Federal University of Pernambuco, on the website of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science

Between 1959 and 1980, Mascarenhas took postdoctoral internships in the US and the UK. He also served as a visiting professor at institutions in Mexico, the UK, Japan, and Italy. Mascarenhas was offered but declined tenure at many of these institutions, preferring to return to Brazil to work in condensed-matter physics, then a neglected field in the country. He moved to São Carlos with his first wife, physicist and chemist Yvonne Mascarenhas, to work at USP’s School of Engineering. “I realized I wouldn’t be able to bring my ideas—my dreams—to life in Rio, where everything revolved around cosmic rays and elementary particles…,” he said in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP in 2007.

In São Carlos, he created a graduate program in chemistry and solid-state physics at the USP School of Engineering, the precursor of the university’s present-day institutes of Physics and Chemistry. He made São Carlos a hub for researchers in this new field. The scientific culture that began to flourish in the city caught the attention of industrialist and politician Ernesto Pereira Lopes (1905–1993). He had plans to create a federal university in the region by merging several existing schools together. But Mascarenhas instead wanted to found a new university from scratch, opening the doors to fields that were then poorly explored in Brazil. Lopes agreed and invited him to serve as dean of the new institution, UFSCar, where in 1972 Mascarenhas created the first materials engineering course in Latin America.

Later, in 1984, he founded the National Center for Research and Development of Agricultural Instrumentation (EMBRAPA Instrumentação), an institution dedicated to applying physics and engineering research in agriculture. In 1986 he spearheaded the founding of the São Carlos campus of the USP Institute for Advanced Studies. His scientific curiosity led him into medical research at the USP School of Medicine in Ribeirão Preto, at Harvard Medical School, and in collaborations with medical groups in Italy. Among other innovations, he developed new techniques for healing bone fractures with electrical currents, and for using valves in heart transplants. “Mascarenhas was a prominent basic-research scientist who had a knack for combining his knowledge with technology and practical entrepreneurship to develop solutions in medicine that improved peoples’ lives,” says FAPESP President Marco Antonio Zago.

In 2019 the researcher was presented with a Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro Award by the Brazilian Physics Society—the last of many awards and accolades he received throughout his career. Mascarenhas leaves his current wife, Telma Coimbra, and four children, two from his first marriage to Yvonne and two from his second.