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In the universe of physics

Belita Koiller receives the Woman's Science Award for her work on the behavior of electrons

Belita Koiller, a professor and researcher at the Physics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), was one of the five people chosen to receive the L’Oréal-Unesco Award for Women in Science for 2005, in Paris. “It was a surprise”,says Belita, who knew that her name had been suggested by colleagues in the scientific community, but not nominated officially. “This is recognition of the maturing of Brazilian physics, because it’s not enough just having lots of women doing physics, what is needed is that the infrastructure of the work is mature and developed”, she highlighted. Rewarded for her “theoretical studies of electrons in disordered media”, the researcher explained that this phrase summarizes several studies carried out over the years, including recent applications in quantum computing and in nanoscience. The other four scientists nominated for the award this year were: Zohra Ben Lakhdar-Akrout from  Tunisia in Africa, Fumiko Yonezawa from Japan, Dominique Langevin from France and Myriam Sarachik from the United States.

Family incentive
Born in Rio de Janeiro, with a father who was a lawyer and mother a dentist, Belita was the youngest of a family of four sisters, and was always given incentive to have a profession. During a certain phase in her life she thought about becoming a high school teacher, but after lots of hesitation, decided to follow a career as a physicist, which would allow her to reconcile the desire to teach with that of doing research. After completing her course at the Catholic Pontifical University (PUC) of Rio de Janeiro, she lived for a period in the United States where she obtained her doctorate degree from Berkeley in 1976. One of the memories that Belita has of that time is that she was the only woman in the physics class at the American university.

And there was no female professor in the physics department. This was a time in which the American feminist movement was in full flight. Drawing a parallel between the situation of women in the American and Brazilian universities of that period, she says that when she graduated from PUC she divided the class with various other female graduates but only one female professor. Thirty years later, the participation of women in the field of physics is still very restricted in the United States, says the researcher. “The problem is more serious there than here in Brazil.” She cited a survey that listed the employment positions in the top fifty American universities, published by The Washington Post newspaper. “In the area of physics, women professors or researchers only make up 6.6% of the total workforce”, she says. “But in chemistry and astronomy, this level jumps to 12% and 12.6%, respectively.”

After completing her doctorate degree she returned to work at PUC in Rio de Janeiro, where she remained until she moved to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro -UFRJ, in 1994. Her professional trajectory led her to material physics, an area that deals with products that have impact on our daily lives, such as, for example, computer chips. “I work more with the behavior of electrons in different materials”, says Belita. “I study the properties of semi-conductor materials that would be more appropriate for the manufacture of a quantum computer.”

She emphasized that her research is still speculative, because, although mathematically it has already been demonstrated that it is possible to develop equipment of this type, up until now no prototype has yet been manufactured. The current state of research is to investigate the different physical systems to implement a quantum computer. Belita says that it is necessary to have lots of perseverance and not to become dispirited and to confront the daily challenges of research. “Sometimes we go down the wrong road that leads us to small loses and we need to begin all over again”, she stated. “But one needs to maintain an attitude of optimism.”

One for the continent
The researcher is the third Brazilian to receive the award given out by the French cosmetics company L’Oréal and the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (Unesco), since they jointly began awarding prizes in 1988. The two other ladies were the geneticist Mayana Zatz, from the University of Sao Paulo, the prizewinner in 2001, and the biologist Lucia Mendonça Previato, also from UFRJ, who won last year. The award, to the value of US$ 100,000, is bestowed every year to five women scientists, one per continent. In this edition, the seventh, the task of selecting the winners fell to a jury made up of an interdisciplinary group composed of fourteen scientists, chaired by the Frenchman Pierre-Gilles de Gênes, the Physics Nobel Prize winner of 1991.

Another Brazilian, the medical doctor from the State of Para, Michelle de Oliveira, was one of the fifteen chosen to receive the Young Woman Scientist Award, also conceded by the L’Oréal-Unesco, to the value of US$ 20,000.00. In this category only women up to the age of thirty five who have taken their doctorate and/or post-doctorate degrees can be eligible. Michelle did her post graduation at the Federal University of Sao Paulo (Unifesp). “In clinical research my interest is more focused on the diagnosis and treatment of tumors that attack the liver”, says Michelle. “The award stimulates scientific potential by sponsoring professional growth in renowned localities abroad.”  Michelle has chosen the University Hospital of Zurich, in Switzerland, to investigate the growth and the treatment of hepatic tumors.