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Building a network

A symposium in Cambridge brings together Brazilian researchers and students from the New England region to strengthen cooperation

LARISSA RIBEIRO MaUS-based Brazilian researchers met on October 5 in an auditorium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to exchange information about their projects and discuss ways to build partnerships and strengthen cooperation with Brazilian institutions and companies. The First Symposium of the Brazilian Scientific Community in New England brought together an audience of 350 in a 12-hour marathon of activities divided into four thematic panels and a few lectures. “I was impressed with the quality of the work presented and by the fact that many doctoral students and undergraduates attended,” says physicist Marcelo Knobel, professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and Deputy Coordinator for Research Collaboration at FAPESP. Knobel presented research opportunities in the state of São Paulo to symposium participants. FAPESP has financing mechanisms to attract researchers from abroad, such as postdoctoral research grants and the São Paulo Excellence Chairs, which helps world-class researchers from abroad to come in and establish research centers at universities in the state of São Paulo.

The official language of the symposium was Portuguese, which caused embarrassment as well as joy to some participants who had been based in the United States for a long time. The symposium in Cambridge was the result of an initiative created three years ago by journalist Cristina Caldas in partnership with Leo Iwai, Marcelo Mori and José Raimundo Correa, who at the time were doing post-doctoral work at Harvard University. The name is PUBBoston, which stands for Brazilian Researchers and Academics in Boston. This group of about 80 people meets once a month to discuss issues of common interest and accelerate connections in research, innovation and education. A committee that keeps the network active organizes this. “I have lived in Boston for four years, and in my work as a science journalist I have met many Brazilian researchers who are doing extremely interesting work. From this sprang the idea to form the group, which coincided with the desire of scientists to learn about each other’s work,” says Caldas, who is also currently working at the Brazilian Consulate in Boston as the liaison for Brazilian students in the Science Without Borders program. The idea of ​​holding the symposium came up in a conversation with Marcelo Gleiser, professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, on the need to create a sense of community of Brazilian researchers and students in the region (other nationalities such as the Indians and the Chinese do this). Partners such as MIT Brasil, Banco Santander, the Brazilian Agency for Industrial Development (ABDI), Covidien, FAPESP and the consulate joined the initiative, which was expanded to the New England region in the northeastern United States, where institutions of higher learning such as MIT and Harvard in Boston, as well as Yale, Dartmouth and Brown are located. Links between the participants had been few and far between, says Caldas, and many of them met at the event.

According to astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser, known for writing popular science books, the symposium was important to show who the Brazilian researchers are in the United States. “With the symposium, everyone became visible. I am in constant contact with Brazil, but I think I am an exception. Most people focus on their work and do not prioritize establishing relationships,” he says. Gleiser believes that this behavior has to do with a certain complacency of Brazilian researchers in terms of bringing their work closer to society.” To apply for a project or a grant in the United States and Europe, the researcher is required to devote a few hours to speaking at museums or schools. The realization came that, to train the scientists of the future, we need to motivate young people to pursue a scientific career.” The lecture by Brazilian businessman José Almeida, president of a multinational corporation headquartered in the United States that manufactures healthcare products (Covidien), is a sign that it is possible to strengthen relations between academia and industry, says Gleiser. “He expressed interest in enlisting interns and hiring Brazilian researchers.”

Bernardo Lemos of Rio de Janeiro, professor of environmental epigenetics at the Harvard School of Public Health, says that interaction among Brazilian researchers has progressed, largely thanks to PUBBoston. “I think the isolation has passed, and today there are ways to stay in touch despite the distance. But we are talking about very busy people. The symposium was important because it drew the interest of many students.

There was a group of Brazilian students who learned of the symposium and came by car from New York. Motivation is important. I enjoyed it and met many people,” says Lemos. The researcher did his undergraduate work and earned his master’s degree in ecology and genetics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Ten years ago he went to Harvard for his doctorate and stayed there, but he has maintained his cooperation with Brazilian institutions such as the National Cancer Institute in Rio de Janeiro.

One of the contacts that Lemos made was with Flávia Teles, a researcher at the Forsyth Institute in Cambridge and instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in Boston. Teles invited several symposium participants, including Lemos, to give lectures at Forsyth. “I was impressed with the quality of the presentations and the fact that the speakers were very well prepared. I had no idea that the network of Brazilians working in research and teaching in the United States was so diverse. I met researchers in areas such as epigenetics, immunology, and mathematical and statistical approaches to deal with huge volumes of information, known as Big Data. I believe that we can collaborate on current projects and plan future partnerships,” says Teles, who graduated in dentistry from UFRJ and earned a master’s degree in periodontics from Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). She moved to the United States in 2003 with her husband, researcher Ricardo Teles, who was hired by Forsyth. She earned a doctorate at Harvard and went to work with a group that is at the forefront of knowledge about gum disease. Today Teles heads a laboratory that studies microbes in the oral cavity, with emphasis on finding new bacteria that may play an important role in diseases such as periodontitis, periimplantitis and oral cancer. Teles continues to collaborate with research groups in dentistry from Belo Horizonte, Guarulhos and Curitiba, through which she brings doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows into her laboratory.

Solid training
Astrophysicist Merav Opher, who obtained his doctorate at USP in 1998 with a grant from FAPESP, is currently teaching at Boston University and hopes that his participation in the symposium will attract new students. “I was approached by one of them. I really like working with Brazilian students. They are different from Americans, whose training is heavily influenced by technology. Brazilians have an excellent education; they are analytical and enthusiastic about their work,” says Opher, who co-advised a “sandwich” doctorate for two Brazilians in the United States, one from USP and the other from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The idea of setting up networks of researchers based abroad is not new and has been used by many countries with varying degrees of success in recent decades (see box). Nations like India and China, with their aggressive strategies of sending researchers to developed countries, and others such as Argentina, which lost throngs of researchers for political and economic reasons, are examples: They take advantage of talent abroad as interlocutors and preferred targets for collaboration and they try to repatriate those who wish to return. Brazil has never suffered a major brain drain, but it is estimated that 16,000 highly qualified Brazilians live abroad. “Brazil does not consider this intellectual capital abroad as national intellectual capital. In China, they pay attention to scientists living abroad in terms of China’s science policy,” says Cristina Caldas. “Brazil could benefit from the contribution of its talents abroad. They could bring in students or work with mentors. There are no Brazilian universities that rank among the top 50 internationally, but there are Brazilians who work at the top 50,” says Caldas. Leo Burd, from the Center for Mobile Learning at MIT, says he had never seen such a connection between Brazilian researchers in the 13 years he has lived in the United States. “Researchers who left Brazil wanted to grow and learn about the best opportunities for achieving this goal outside the country. Brazil will win if they establish networks and create channels to work together,” says Burd, who has a degree in computing from the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA), a master’s degree in software design for education from Unicamp and a PhD from the MIT Media Lab.

Physicist Eduardo Couto da Silva, who decided two years ago to return to Brazil for personal reasons after a career that spanned nearly two decades in institutions such as the European Centre for Nuclear Research and Stanford University, gave a talk about his experience. He was faced with a strange situation: US institutions tried to prevent him from leaving, while few Brazilian institutions were interested in him.” At the time I was shocked, but now I understand. Graduate education in Brazil has been in existence for just half a century, and the degree of maturity of our science and technology system has yet to be comparable with that of the key countries; the internationalization process of Brazilian science is ongoing. Development agencies are trying to accelerate this process, but we are not at the same level of maturity.” Couto da Silva notes that Brazil does not have a program to attract world-class researchers and keep them in the country with financing guaranteed for a long period of time. But he emphasizes that researchers do not need to return to contribute to science in Brazil. He works at the Center for Management and Strategic Studies in Brasília and worked on the institutional agreement that the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) is currently negotiating with MIT.

At the symposium, representatives from the Brazilian Agency for Industrial Development (ABDI) provided impetus for the goal of building bridges between researchers abroad and Brazilian companies and for creating opportunities in areas that require knowledge and technology. “ABDI was important for adding the institutional aspect to the initiatives, which does not mean that they have to rely on the government,” says Couto da Silva. In conjunction with the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade, ABDI presented the Brazil Diaspora Network, an initiative now being set up that aims to connect Brazilians living abroad with companies and programs that foster innovation. “The goal is to create a platform for generating businesses and projects in technological areas and to establish a channel of communication to connect groups of expatriates and national opportunities that otherwise would not be connected,” says Eduardo Rezende, an ABDI project specialist who was at MIT. “We want to identify opportunities and circulate information. Companies that are interested in internationalization can open up opportunities for overseas talent, just as there are researchers and entrepreneurs who are able to collaborate as mentors for projects,” Rezende says.

Initially, the network is focusing on professionals and Brazilian companies in the areas of information technology and health. In addition to attending the symposium in Cambridge, the group from ABDI organized two other activities in the United States, an innovation learning laboratory at MIT on the fourth day and a workshop at Georgetown University in Washington with Brazilian researchers in fields such as biotechnology and new drugs. “We are building a dialogue with these Brazilian researchers who are interested in bringing the research and innovation from the universities to Brazilian businesses,” says Rezende.