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Interest in diversity

Group from Unesp in Rio Claro is a reference for foreign biologists

laboratory headed by zoologist Célio Fernando Baptista Haddad, a professor at the Biosciences Institute of Rio Claro at Paulista State University (Unesp), has become a reference for researchers of several nationalities interested in participating in research studies on Brazilian biodiversity. Recently, the laboratory hosted students and researchers from the United States, Germany, Argentina and Portugal, to name a few. “My network of international collaborators began to grow after my sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1997”, says Haddad, who is a member of the coordination team of the Biota-FAPESP Program. “Brazil, as a widely diverse country, is a major platform for research. My group has become a spokesperson for various foreign researchers. I don’t have to look for foreign researchers, because most of them come looking for me”, he states.

Haddad’s academic career has qualified him to establish partnerships. His research studies are mainly focused on the Anura, an animal order that includes frogs and toads. The taxonomy and behavior of the Anura  have been the focus of extensive academic production by Haddad, which encompasses more than 100 papers published in indexed journals and 1,675 associated citations. His scientific collection, the third largest such collection in Brazil, comprises approximately 30 thousand examples and 700 species of amphibians. He has described more than 30 species of frogs and toads, more than the number of frogs and toads that are found in Canada. The Mata Atlantica, Rain Forest, is the habitat for an abundance of Anura of different sizes, colors and voices. This diversity involves dozens of reproductive strategies, life cycles, chemical compositions and states of conservation. To study this vast diversity, Haddad works with students and collaborators who together seek to uncover the natural riches in Brazilian forests. The researcher and his team have produced a CD with sample recordings of 70 species of frogs and toads from the Mata Atlantica, Rain Forest. In 2006, Haddad participated in an international project that changed the classification of amphibians: the Amphibian tree of life, published in 2006 in the bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. “Another group, supported by the US’s NSF had been hired to do this work, but we published the results of our work first, with the support of NASA”, says Haddad.

Until a short while ago, Célio Haddad was hosting two researchers from abroad at his laboratory. The two foreigners – Julian Faivovich, from Argentina, and João Alexandrino, from Portugal – had received grants from FAPESP’s Young Researchers at Emerging Centers Program. Both researchers stayed in Rio Claro for approximately four years. They are still linked, as student advisors, to Unesp’s post-graduate program, but are currently working at other institutions. Alexandrino passed a selection test and was hired as a professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), Diadema campus, while Faivovich went back to Argentina to work as a researcher at the Museu Argentino de Ciências Naturais Bernardino Rivadavia, museum of natural sciences. “The Young Researchers Program is very important, because it has expanded our possibilities in terms of attracting talent from abroad”, says Haddad. Launched in 1995, the program seeks to encourage the independence and maturity of PhDs, at that phase of their career in which they have to deal with such obstacles as the lack of employment and the lack of funding availability to conduct robust research projects. Under this program, a recent PhD graduate with a high-level curriculum and proven ability to organize a new research group at an emerging center may receive a significant stipend for his or her project. If the researcher is not employed by the institution where he is doing his research studies, he also qualifies for a scholarship grant of up to four years, as well as an annual stipend to finance trips to participate in events and exchange programs at research centers abroad.

From 2001 to 2004, João Alexandrino had participated in a post-doctorate program at the University of California, Berkeley. “In California, my advisors suggested that I come to Brazil, where I could develop some original research work, and look for Célio Haddad”, says Alexandrino, whose specialty is phylogeography, the geographic study of genetic diversity, which allows researchers to deduce the history of populations in time and space. “At that time, very few papers had been published on research work using molecular tools on studies involving the diversification of biodiversity”, he states. Haddad liked the curriculum of the Portuguese biologist and saw the interest of the researcher as an opportunity to reinforce his group in this field of knowledge. Alexandrino went to Rio Claro to study the phylogeographical patterns of six species of Anura , native to the Mata Atlantica, Rain Forest. During his first year, he had a grant from the European Union; in 2005, he got a grant from FAPESP. “I was surprised by the Young Researchers at Emerging Centers Program. One of the reasons I left the United States was precisely the fact that it was impossible for me to head a research project. In Brazil, I was offered the opportunity to do so. I was able to organize a small research group that contributed towards the training of students in master’s and doctorate programs”, he says. In Alexandrino’s opinion, the international scope of Brazilian research is similar to that he had witnessed in Portugal, when Portugal joined the European Union. “Célio is totally open to international collaboration, which helps the group become a reference”, he states.

Julian Faivovich is a specialist in phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary relatedness among known species, He used to work at the American Museum of Natural History. “I met Julian when he was an undergraduate student in Argentina and I was impressed by his dedication to his research work. Later on, I heard about the unique research work he was doing in the United States, as part of his doctorate studies. He concluded his doctorate studies in 2005. He was considering going back to Argentina, but I knew that he was interested in working in Brazil. I contacted him and invited him to work for me. I said: come to Brazil because you will get the funding”, says Haddad, who advised Julian to put in a request for funding to the Young Researchers at Emerging Centers Program.

Eduardo CesarCélio Haddad: collaborationsEduardo Cesar

Faivovich’s PhD at Columbia University focused on the phylogenetics of frogs of the Hylidae family, and of the Scinax genus, found from Mexico to Argentina. “I accepted the invitation, because I already knew Célio. We had worked together when I was preparing my thesis. In addition, Brazil was a combination of two unique circumstances: it is the country with the broadest diversity of the family that I work on the most – the Hylidae – and it has the highest number of researchers that are experts on the taxonomy and biology of the Hylidae”, he explains. He praises the Young Researchers program. “It is one of the best programs I have ever seen and I think it’s extremely valuable that FAPESP funds this initiative”, he says. The participation of the Argentine researcher helped Haddad’s group make their research on phylogenetics more robust. “Even though Célio  was already very interested in phylogenetics, this line of research was not as developed as the other lines. Now, several students have shown interest in phylogenetics, and Célio and I are advisors to two students from Columbia”, he adds.

The network of collaborations has created unusual situations. At present, the laboratory headed by Célio Haddad is hosting two doctorate students; one of them comes from Germany’s Braunschweig Technical University, while the other one comes from Portugal’s University of Porto. Both of them spend time every year in Rio Claro doing fieldwork.

The two doctorate students are Brazilians who had gone abroad in search for further studies. They came back to Brazil, thanks to the ties that their European advisors maintain with the group from Rio Claro. 28-year old Marcelo Coelho Gehara has a master’s degree in the phylogeography of sea lions from the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul. In 2009, he got a grant from a German Catholic foundation to enter the doctorate program at Braunschweig, with biologist Miguel Vences as his advisor. “Miguel and Célio know each other and, as I wanted to do research work on amphibians, getting acquainted with Célio was a natural consequence”, says Gehara. He intends to continue doing research work in Europe after he concludes his doctorate program. In Rio Claro, he works in the same environment as Tuliana Oliveira Brunes, a biologist with a degree from the Catholic University of Goiás. In 2006, she transferred to the University of Porto, where she concluded her master’s program in 2009. Her master’s thesis was on the diversification of Anura. Her advisors were João Alexandrino, in Brazil, and Fernando Sequeira, in Portugal. At present, Tuliana is enrolled in a doctorate program, with a grant from a foundation linked to the University of Porto. “As I wanted to study endemic amphibians in the Mata Atlantica, Rain Forest, part of my research work is being conducted in Brazil”, says Tuliana, who plans to come back to Brazil after she concludes her doctorate studies. Fernando Sequeira, who works at the University of Porto, is enrolled in a post-doctorate program under the supervision of Haddad.

Haddad  is also in productive collaboration with two researchers from the United States. Kelly Zamudio, a researcher from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University often spends time in Brazil – her next trip is scheduled in mid-2011. A car used by Haddad’s team to do field work was provided by Cornell University under the partnership. In collaboration with Haddad, Kelly led a project funded by the US’s National Science Foundation (NSF), in which she compares three Anura  species with different ecological specializations: one species only lives in bromeliaceae; another species is found anywhere in the Mata Atlantica, Rain Forest, and a third species depends on humid areas to reproduce. The researcher is also working on a major research project with Brazilian biologist Ana Carolina Carnaval, who has a doctorate degree in evolutionary biology from the University of Chicago and is currently working as a researcher at the City University in New York. “We are studying amphibians that live in the lowlands and in the highlands to try and understand how evolution occurred under these conditions. This project involves students and colleagues from other universities in Brazil and in the United States and has already resulted in an article published in Science”, says Haddad. The study, published in February 2009, uses data collected by Haddad and explains the broad biodiversity found in the south of the State of Bahia by means of the age of the forests. The Mata Atlantica, Rain Forest, vegetation has been there for 21 thousand years, and flourished there even during the last ice age.