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A university without departments

UFABC celebrates its 10th anniversary, with 15,000 students and a consistent research history

UFABC campus in Santo André: 26 undergraduate courses and 24 graduate study programs

Leo Ramos UFABC campus in Santo André: 26 undergraduate courses and 24 graduate study programsLeo Ramos

An experience unique among Brazilian public universities is completing a decade of existence with solid scientific and academic indicators. On September 11, 2006, the Federal University of the ABC (UFABC) began accepting students at a temporary campus in the city of Santo André, 19 km from the capital of São Paulo State, receiving its first 500 undergraduates. All of them were enrolled in the same program of studies, leading to a bachelor’s degree in science and technology, and attended classes given by 80 professors who were associated, not with separate schools and departments, but with three interdisciplinary centers: Natural and Human Sciences; Mathematics, Computation, and Cognition; and Engineering, Modelling, and Applied Social Sciences.

Now, 10 years later, UFABC serves 15,000 students who frequent two campuses covering an area of more than 110,000 square meters (m2) in the cities of Santo André and São Bernardo do Campo, and offers 26 different undergraduate courses of study. The gateway consists of two interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree programs, in science and technology and in sciences and humanities. However, after three years of generalist training, already enough to ensure a college degree, students can choose from among 24 courses of study, such as biological sciences, physics, mathematics, chemistry, international relations, public policy, neuroscience, and several fields of engineering. The institution’s 24 graduate school programs, 13 of them leading to a PhD, have already generated more than a thousand theses and dissertations.

All 660 professors at UFABC hold doctoral degrees, a situation unusual at recently-established federal universities. Most of them are young—the average age is under 40. An effort was made to attract researchers from abroad to join the faculty of the institution—now 12% of its professors are foreigners. Students at the UFABC who aspire to a teaching career take competitive exams in English, a language that can also be useful in graduate and post-graduate courses, principally engineering.

The current chancellor, physicist Klaus Werner Capelle, was born in Germany but settled in Brazil in 1997. “We have taken steps to encourage research at the university. Even researchers as well qualified and highly motivated as most of the teaching staff of UFABC need some incentive,” says Capelle, who before taking command of the university in 2014 spent four years as dean of research. He was referring to internal funding opportunity announcements to support research projects undertaken by newly-minted PhDs, the creation of multi-user laboratories, and incentives in the field of undergraduate research that even included study grants to freshmen, under a program dubbed “Research Begins on Day One” (PDPD).

032_UFABC02_247_altaScientific production is still modest when compared with that of Brazil’s more established research universities. In 2015, according to figures from the Lattes Platform, the 660 members of the UFABC faculty published 683 articles in journals, an achievement far below that of the University of Campinas (Unicamp), for example, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary and whose 2,400 faculty members published slightly more than 4,000 articles in 2015, also according to the Lattes platform. But UFABC has gained distinction in some international indicators of quality. One example was the 2015 edition of the Scimago international ranking, which listed 179 Brazilian institutions that had published 100 or more scientific articles indexed in the Scopus database between 2009 and 2013. In that universe, UFABC ranks as Brazil’s best on issues such as high-quality publications, which measures the proportion of articles by an institution that appeared in the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Another ranking, by Leiden University in Holland, listed the universities that had published the most scientific articles from 2003 to 2012 and ranked UFABC first in Brazil in terms of international collaboration. Meanwhile, the ranking by Times Higher Education listed UFABC as the 18th best university in Latin America.

Research activity has taken root at UFABC not only because groups of investigators have been trained, but also because interdisciplinary centers have been created, sparked by a demand from researchers who had been selected in competitions for funding announced at the university. Today there are five such centers in the areas of: biochemistry and biotechnology; cognition and complex systems; science, technology, and society; democracy, development, and sustainability; and virtual universes, entertainment, and mobility. “The idea behind the centers is to force researchers from different fields to interact with each other,” explains biomedical scientist Marcela Sorelli Carneiro Ramos, a professor at the National and Human Sciences Center and now dean of research. The experience gained by one of those centers—Cognition and Complex Systems—inspired the addition of an undergraduate course in that field as well as one in the graduate school. The center, established in 2008, brings together biologists, physicists, pharmacologists, and specialists in mathematical and computational modelling to focus on research into brain functions (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 232).

Both research and student training activities afford opportunities to interact with the regional private sector. Four of the 41 patent applications filed by UFABC researchers are the fruit of collaborations with private companies, in this case Braskem, Cristália, and STC Silicones. The university also worked with the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) to found the Industrial Academic Doctorate (DAI), an initiative devoted to promoting interaction with the productive sector under which students can work on their research projects at the facilities of companies who have joined the effort, such as elevator manufacturer Thyssenkrupp, automakers General Motors and Mercedes-Benz, or Suzano Paper and Cellulose. At present, 26 students are working at 14 companies. “Our region is one of the most industrialized in Brazil, so we are sought out by companies to help them solve technological problems, says physicist Fábio Furlan Ferreira, coordinator of the Crystallography and Structural Characterization of Materials Laboratory at UFABC. Furlan was a recipient of assistance under FAPESP’s Young Investigators in Emerging Institutions program from 2010 to 2014, when the laboratory was set up.

Electronic scanning microscope at the Multi-user Experiment Center at UFABC

Leo Ramos Electronic scanning microscope at the Multi-user Experiment Center at UFABCLeo Ramos

The incentive to pursue an interdisciplinary approach has enabled UFABC to expand its research activities in ways that differ from what happens at many other Brazilian universities. In order to encourage research activity during the institution’s early years, a complex of laboratories equipped to serve multiple users was built in Santo André and São Bernardo, featuring more than 50 medium-size and large equipment items suited for conducting experiments in physics, chemistry, biology and various fields of engineering, such as scanning microscopes and devices for nuclear magnetic resonance, X-Ray diffraction, Raman spectroscopy, and others. “The objective is to offer a set of techniques that will enable our teaching staff to do research that is internationally competitive,” says physicist Herculano Martinho, coordinator of the multi-user experiment centers at UFABC. “The culture of sharing equipment, which does not have a long tradition in Brazil, has been part of the value system at UFABC since the beginning and has enabled us to make the best use of funds to purchase high-performance equipment,” says Martinho. That equipment may eventually be available for use by companies who have reached agreements with UFABC and by researchers from other universities.

A new building with 6,000 m2 of area dedicated solely to research will be delivered within the next several months. The culture of sharing is also present in the smaller laboratories. “I share a laboratory with two other colleagues, and we have bought equipment for all of us to use,” says Dean Marcela Sorelli, who was also a beneficiary of a grant under FAPESP’s Young Investigators in Emerging Institutions. “We could to this because we use similar techniques and methodologies, although my research is in cardiovascular physiology and my two colleagues are working on bovine reproduction and obesity.”

The interdisciplinary model adopted by UFABC was inspired by a document published in 2004 by the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) that discussed suggestions for a reform of higher education in Brazil. That document criticized the propensity for departments to circle the wagons, assuming permanent control of certain subject matters. The report suggested that a more agile and flexible structure could respond better to the interdisciplinary trends in cutting-edge science. The treatise was considered when Brazil’s federal government decided to establish a university in São Paulo’s so-called ABC region (the cities of Santo André, São Bernardo and São Caetano) contiguous to the state capital city that was the birthplace of the country’s automobile industry and is home to 2.5 million people.

Advanced X-Ray diffraction system used by university researchers

Leo Ramos Advanced X-Ray diffraction system used by university researchersLeo Ramos

The creation of UFABC was backed in its early years by a continuous flow of federal funds through the Ministry of Education as well as from development and funding agencies like the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP). The university is now suffering from budget restrictions that raise questions about its ability to keep growing at the same pace as in its first decade. “The university spent its infancy within an ideal environment but its adolescence is influenced by the financial crisis, which hit before the project had fully taken shape,” says Chancellor Klaus Capelle. Several programs have lost funding—the current number of PDPD grants in undergraduate research is 120, compared with 400 about four years ago. It is likely that this will delay planned expansions of the campuses—for example, the plan to erect new buildings on the Santo André campus on the other side of the Tamanduateí River, and to connect the two areas [tracts] with a walkway over the river and the adjacent circumferential highway.

Other challenges loom. In its very first year of operation, 2007, the Graduate Program in Nanoscience and Advanced Materials received a grade of 5 on the scale of 3 to 7 adopted by the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes). This performance was enthusiastically celebrated, since nascent programs usually start with lower grades. But the grade fell to 4 in the most recent assessment. “Capes assessors believed that authorship of our scientific publications is overly concentrated among faculty members and that we should involve students to a greater extent,” says Fábio Furlan Ferreira, former coordinator of the program. “Several actions have been taken since announcement of the evaluation, such as the execution of a strategic plan, mainly intended to achieve a more vigorous mobilization of the student community in writing for the high-quality publications that are a trademark of our program.” The young system of graduate education at UFABC is showing signs that it is consolidating: the grade received by the master’s and doctoral program in physics, for example, rose from 4 to 5.”