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Growth amid adversity

Research projects facilitate scientific exchanges between Brazilians and foreigners living in countries affected by conflicts

Manuela Eichner

Building a career in academia is never a simple task, but having to do so in the midst of political turmoil is even more of a challenge. This was the case for the scientists who watched the Berlin Wall come down in 1989, for example, and so it has been for researchers living in conflict zones, such as Ukraine, Syria, and Haiti. In these situations, when research conditions become precarious or disappear altogether, opportunities can be found across borders. Three decades ago, FAPESP created the Foreign Specialists program with one simple objective: to bring experienced scientists, especially from the former Soviet Union, to take part in scientific research at institutions located in the state of São Paulo. Some 40 scientists came from countries such as Germany, Bulgaria, and Russia—the latter of which contributed most to the program, with 14 researchers.

“One of the biggest waves of migration from Russia was immediately after the end of the Soviet Union, but unlike on other occasions, most of those leaving the country at that time were scientists and professors,” says Svetlana Ruseishvili, a Russian sociologist who has lived in Brazil since the early 2010s, has a PhD from the University of São Paulo (USP), and is a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). “The entire state structure that supported society was dismantled, which had a huge impact on the sciences, research funding, and academia in general.” Brazil also received some visiting researchers, she says, mainly from the exact sciences, such as mathematics, physics, and engineering.

The year-long Foreign Specialists program started in 1992, allowing Brazilian and Russian scientists to exchange experiences and develop knowledge in fields such as mathematics, nuclear physics, magnetic resonance, stratospheric balloons, and cosmic radiation. “It was an important exchange between two different academic systems that enriched us professionally and diversified our knowledge,” recalls astronomer José Antônio de Freitas Pacheco, former director of the National Observatory and the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics, and Atmospheric Sciences (IAG-USP), where he was in charge of installing a muon detector (elementary particles similar to electrons) in one of the observatories at the former headquarters in the São Paulo State Park.

The Brazilian was the only theorist at IAG and identified the need for another scientist who specialized in high-energy astrophysics. “I had known Russian scientist Vladimir Burdyuzha of the renowned Astro Space Center [ASC] in Moscow for some time, and we invited him to join the team,” he says. “Working with Professor Burdyuzha impacted my scientific trajectory because I discovered that my Russian colleagues were much better prepared mathematically than I was. This encouraged me to make an effort to fill in my gaps.” After participating in the Foreign Specialists program, Pacheco moved to France to direct the Côte d’Azur Observatory in Nice, where he still works to this day.

With similar experience to Pacheco—both were approximately 50 years old in 1992—Burdyuzha has fond memories of his time in Brazil. “I spent a wonderful year at USP at the invitation of my friend Pacheco. There were lots of scientific exchanges, papers written together, and some important life lessons. Brazil is a beautiful country that allowed me to see another possible world,” summarized Burdyuzha, via email.

While Pacheco and Burdyuzha established a partnership as a duo, physicist Inácio Malmonge Martin was responsible for a team of five Russians at the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics (IFGW) of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). The Russians divided their time between the IFGW and the Center for Teaching and Research in Agriculture (CEPAGRI), which at the time was already working with meteorology. “In that period, we made a stratospheric balloon. We started with a visit to a company that manufactured polyethylene film. They were so excited about the project that they gave us everything we needed almost for free,” says Martin.

With the help of undergraduate students, the Brazilian and his Russian team built a machine to seal the films together and assemble the balloon. “Our objective was to measure cosmic radiation at high altitudes. It was the Russians who had experience of such measurements. I had already released stratospheric balloons when I worked at the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research [INPE], but I had never produced any here in Brazil.”

The balloon was filled with hydrogen gas and launched from UNICAMP, before floating at an altitude of 40 kilometers (km) to the town of Ibitinga some 250 km away. It was carrying 100 kilograms of equipment used to measure radiation. The project involved important aspects related to the balloon’s development, construction, and launch, as well as the measurement of cosmic radiation. “We learned a lot from this exchange of experience and we even made a new discovery: that sugarcane leaves generate ozone, but not at a level that is harmful to human health. Leonid Lazutin, from the Russian Academy of Science [RAS], was important in this discovery,” recalls Martin, who now works at the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA). In addition to Lazutin, the Russian team led by Martin also included Yuri Stozhkov, Vladimir Zhavkov Alexandrovich, Galina Pugatcheva, and Anatoly Gusev, all from the RAS.

“The initiative was really positive, we got a lot done,” says Martin, who still keeps in touch with Pugatcheva and Gusev. Everyone who took part in the program agrees that the benefits of the scientific exchange were mutual. “The coming and going of scientists is always positive. As long as it goes both ways, everyone wins,” says Pacheco.

One of the advantages for Brazil is greater international reach. “Brazil is still a very monolingual country. Among undergraduates especially, but even at graduate levels, it is difficult to find students who are proficient in other languages. The more people from other cultures we have studying degrees and in academia in general, the better Brazil’s international position will be,” says Ruseishvili, from UFSCar. “It provides an opportunity, for example, to establish new academic partnerships with colleagues from institutions in other countries.”

Acting as a bridge between cultures and academic networks, Ruseishvili is one of the authors of a public call issued for refugees to enroll on undergraduate courses at UFSCar. The initiative began in 2009 and this year expanded its scope. In addition to anyone recognized by the National Committee for Refugees, people with refugee status or foreign residents with a humanitarian visa may also now apply. One place is offered on each of the institution’s 65 courses.

“Through this affirmative action, we aim to improve assimilation into Brazilian society and provide more chances for people to develop their talents and consequently contribute to the country that has welcomed them,” explains Ruseishvili. “The presence of university students from other cultures and with other experiences has been extremely enriching. It also brings diversity to the pedagogical process, which needs to be rethought when you have a student from a different cultural background.”

Another similar initiative that focuses on graduate studies is the call for research proposals recently issued by FAPESP in the form of visiting researcher grants and postdoctoral fellowships. The goal is to encourage scientists from countries in conflict to spend time at research institutions in the state of São Paulo.

“The Researchers at Risk Initiative was motivated by the invasion of Ukraine, which impacted a strong academic community with ties here in Brazil,” says Cristóvão de Albuquerque, head of research collaboration at FAPESP. “It is an attempt to support the community in the face of a national tragedy, having seen their territory invaded and cities and infrastructure destroyed.”