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Interdisciplinary scientist

A pioneer in materials research in Brazil, José Arana Varela dies at 72

Varela_Varela PBLÉO RAMOSOne of the most important Brazilian researchers in the field of materials science, physicist José Arana Varela died of cancer on May 17, 2016 in São Paulo. He had held the post of chairman of the FAPESP Executive Board since 2012. Varela was also a member of the FAPESP Board of Trustees from 2004 to 2010 and its vice-president from 2007 to 2010. A full professor at the Araraquara Chemistry Institute at São Paulo State University (Unesp), he served as president of the Brazilian Society for Materials Research (SBPMat), was the founder and first director of the Unesp Innovation Agency, and was assistant director of the Center for Research and Development of Functional Materials (CDMF), one of the FAPESP Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC). “Professor Varela was a scientist with very high standards and his position as chairman of the Executive Board was not only merited, but also helped maintain the Foundation’s high scientific levels,” said FAPESP President José Goldemberg.

Born in Martinópolis, in upstate São Paulo, Varela obtained an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1968, followed by a master’s degree, also in physics, from the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) in 1975. During the last year of his master’s degree he met an American researcher, Osgood James Whittemore Jr. (1919-2010), from the University of Washington, in Seattle, who specialized in ceramics. At that time he was a visiting professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). “Whittemore became interested in my master’s research, related to the physiochemical thermal decomposition of talc, a raw material used in ceramics, and made several contributions to it,” said Varela in a 2014 interview, when he received the Bridge Building Award from the American Ceramic Society. This contact led to an invitation to pursue his PhD in Seattle, from 1977 to 1981, on sintering models, the oldest method of manufacturing ceramics. He continued to collaborate with Whittemore for more than a decade. “Together with Whittemore, Professor Varela was responsible for sustaining research in ceramic materials and developing this field in Brazil, for semiconductor applications,” said Elson Longo, director of the Center for Research and Development of Functional Materials, with whom Varela worked for five decades.

In 1988, José Arana Varela was one of the founders of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Electrochemistry and Ceramics (LIEC), together with two colleagues who were at UFSCar at the time, Elson Longo and Luiz Otávio Bulhões. The laboratory, with facilities in Araraquara and São Carlos, specialized in developing new materials (see article). One example was the development of ferroelectric films — made of very thin layers of semiconductor material — with a large capacity for storing information (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 52) in the late 1990s. Another more recent development was the discovery of a material with bactericidal properties arising from the synthesis of silver oxide and tungsten. In an article published in Scientific Reports in 2013, Varela and Long’s group reported the exponential growth of metallic silver filaments on the nanometric scale in different regions on the surface of silver tungstate crystals.

The author of more than 500 articles in international journals, Varela was a pioneer in nanoscience application development. “He began solving traditional problems in materials science using nanotechnology before other researchers. He did modeling at the nanoscopic level, searching for materials with new properties,” says physicist Osvaldo Novais de Oliveira Júnior, professor at UFSCar and current president of the Brazilian Society for Materials Research. Oliveira Júnior highlights three of Varela’s personal traits that shaped his scientific contributions. “Firstly, he was a scientist with refined training. Secondly, he supported bringing together researchers from different fields of knowledge to promote materials science, which is interdisciplinary by nature. He himself was an example of this: his undergraduate degree was in physics, he worked as a chemist for many years, and was familiar with engineering. The third was his natural leadership ability. He attracted researchers from LIEC and from the Functional Materiais RIDC.” He also stressed Varela’s long-lasting collaboration with Elson Longo. “Such long and fruitful partnerships between high-level researchers are not common in academia and require friendship, trust and loyalty,” he affirms.

At Unesp, José Arana Varela was coordinator of the graduate program at the Chemistry Institute in the 1990s, and during this period he promoted reform that unified the different existing specializations. “Professor Varela played a fundamental role in consolidating the graduate program, which is now one of the most respected in Brazil,” says Eduardo Maffud Cilli the assistant director of the Institute. In 2006, the president of Unesp, Marcos Macari, split the Office of the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research into two offices and invited Varela to head the Research arm. He was responsible for creating incentive programs to encourage university researchers to publish articles in highly regarded journals — programs that are still in place today. “For each paper published, the researcher received a sum of money and could use it on anything for his group: to send a student abroad, take a trip, or buy something for the laboratory,” said Varela in an interview given in February, 2016. At that time, he helped establish the technological innovation center to help researchers obtain patents and enter into technology transfer agreements with companies. It was the embryo of the Unesp Innovation Agency, founded in 2010 and initially headed by Varela.

Despite administrative duties at Unesp and FAPESP, he continued to advise graduate students and supervise postdoctoral researchers. One of his last students was Thiago Sequinel, 32, now a professor at the Federal University of Grande Dourados, in Mato Grosso do Sul, who defended his PhD dissertation in 2013 on the photoluminescent behavior of thin films. “I met Professor Varela at a ceramics conference. He was a much-admired researcher, with whom everyone wanted their photo taken,” recalls Sequinel. Sequinel’s master’s thesis advisor, Sergio Mazurek Tebcherani, professor of the State University of Ponta Grossa, had been one of Varela’s students, and served as a link between the veteran researcher and the young doctoral student. “Professor Varela led me along research paths that I had never imagined to be possible. He spent the workweek in São Paulo, but on Friday returned to Araraquara and occasionally saw me in the laboratory on Saturday or Sunday,” recalls Sequinel.