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Interview

Luiz Bevilacqua: Bridges to interdisciplinarity

The scientist behind COPPE and the educational model used at the Federal University of ABC shares how the development of engineering research has impacted Brazil

Ana Carolina Fernandes

Rio de Janeiro engineer Luiz Bevilacqua, who recently turned 84, has an inside view of the development of science and of Brazil over the last six decades. Bevilacqua obtained his engineering degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 1959 and chose to pursue research when it was in its infancy in Brazil. An expert in bridges and large structures, Bevilacqua spent some time in Germany and the United States and was the man behind the civil and mechanical engineering programs in the early years of the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Graduate Studies and Research in Engineering (COPPE). COPPE is one of the most productive engineering research institutions in the country and is linked to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

He later diversified his research interests to meet the demands COPPE was receiving from large companies, but resigned from the institution in the mid-1970s, when it came under military control. He went to work at Promon, the company that provided the engineering designs for the Angra 1 and Angra 2 power plants. He resumed his career in academia in the 1980s with a strong role in academic administration, which led to the management of the university system and of science and technology under different administrations. He was executive secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology (1992–1993), founder of the interdisciplinary research committee of the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) (1999), and director of the Brazilian Space Agency (2003–2004). More recently, he was chancellor (2006–2008)—and one of the creators of the transdisciplinary and department-less model—of the Federal University of ABC (UFABC). Over its 20 years in existence, UFABC has become an outstanding research institution. In the following interview, Bevilacqua provides an overview of his career.

Age 84
Field of expertise
Civil and mechanical engineering
Education
Bachelor’s degree in engineering (ufrj – 1959), specialization in structures (stuttgart technology university), associate professorship (ufrj – 1966), phd (stanford university – 1971)
Published works
52 articles, 10 book chapters

You graduated in 1959, when there was very little engineering research being developed in the country. How did you become interested in research?
I have always been very interested in exploring knowledge. When I decided to attend the School of Engineering, it was not a research school. It was an excellent vocational school, with very good teachers who were great at what they did, but mathematics was an exception. There were high-level researchers among the professors, but they were more focused on establishing the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics [IMPA]. They were Maurício Matos Peixoto [1921–2019], his wife Marilia Chaves Peixoto [1921–1961], Lindolpho de Carvalho Dias [1930–1984], and Leopoldo Nachbin [1922–1993]. But I wanted to pursue engineering research. Professor Roger Castier, who had studied in Germany, tried to establish a laboratory, but there was no infrastructure or staff available, so he eventually gave up. My structural engineering professors used to give me this piece of advice: “If you want to know what is going on in the world, read magazines, especially German ones.”

This is around the time you went to Germany, right?
I went to Stuttgart. While I was not part of any research projects there, I did learn a lot from the courses I took. At that time, I began writing a paper that I finished five years later, in Rio, and which became my associate professorship thesis. When I returned to Brazil, I began working for a company called Geotécnica. I would work on projects there during the day and develop my thesis in the evenings. We built a road in Paraguay, from Concepción to Asunción. After work, I would work on the thesis. I was also assistant professor for Strength of Materials at the School of Engineering; I would leave work and go straight there. I would give my lectures and then go back to work. The company directors liked that some of their engineers were professors at the university since it brought them more prestige. In 1965, I presented my associate professorship thesis at UFRJ.

Why did you leave Geotécnica for PUC-RJ (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro)?
I was asked to. I spent a year there but soon learned about the establishment of COPPE at UFRJ, so I left PUC for COPPE.

What was your line of research?
The subject I taught was Strength of Materials, which is related to structural engineering. I was there to help establish the Civil Engineering Program, of which I was head. I also brought Fernando Lobo Carneiro [1913–2001] to work at COPPE. He was not a professor but a researcher at the National Institute of Technology [INT]. The School of Engineering had no laboratory research, while INT was a laboratory. They would test beams, as well as static and dynamic structures. Lobo Carneiro ended up establishing several laboratories at COPPE. The Mechanical Engineering Program did not have a coordinator at the time, so then-director Alberto Luiz Coimbra [1923–2018] asked me to take on that role as well.

This was a time when Brazil was growing and undertaking large construction projects. What was the role of COPPE in this?
Most of the demand came from Petrobras. Its discovery of offshore oil reserves was huge, since no one else in the world was exploring for oil. Petrobras either had to explore for oil here, or there would be no oil exploration. It was incredible, since COPPE was contracted to work on structures for oil exploration. By this time, Lobo Carneiro had built an excellent structural testing laboratory. We helped build the Rio-Niterói bridge. COPPE also helped develop numerical methods for calculating structures. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we managed to acquire an IBM-1130 computer, whose RAM was inferior to any mobile phone today, but which occupied an entire large room. It was amazing. We began developing several numerical methods. The Civil Engineering Program led this analysis with computer-based methods, due to the high complexity of structures. From 1968 to 1971, I studied at Stanford University, in the United States, where I developed some very interesting PhD research. At that time, the research developed in Brazil was not mathematically sound enough. I studied so-called variational methods for structural analysis, which was quite useful. It helped determine modeling techniques, science-based calculation development techniques, and strong analytics.

COPPE / UFRJ Bevilacqua teaching the inaugural class of the Chemical Engineering program at COPPE/UFRJ, 2019COPPE / UFRJ

Your PhD thesis at Stanford was on wave propagation in solids, right?
Correct. I fell in love with the dynamics of structures, or how waves propagate in solids. When I returned to Brazil, I was able to develop some research on this alongside two of my students, who continued with this line of research. But I also had to work extensively on variational methods, as Brazil needed them at the time.

How do you view the role of your generation in engineering?
My generation implemented research, trained the next generation, helped with academic management—we had to do it all. It was like spinning plates. Most colleagues from my generation did not follow the same career path as me. They simply went on to be engineers. When I began working with research, it was alongside scientists who were younger than me. They would graduate from engineering school and go straight into graduate school, without being hired by any companies. But [my trajectory] helped me view research through a different lens. I was able to see how it could be applied and its relevance, including in the training of researchers. There was a direct link between our research and the types of projects being built. Petrobras was the bridge between these two worlds. The aerospace industry used to do this; the chemical industry still does. Unfortunately, this collaboration has come to a halt. Many Brazilian companies have been ruined in the last decades and this has left us at a disadvantage. China is building a bridge in Bahia from the mainland to the island of Itaparica. Brazil used to construct incredible bridges; nowadays we import projects. It saddens me.

You left COPPE after the program underwent military intervention. What was that experience like?
Professor Coimbra was arrested in 1973. An individual who used to teach about studies addressing Brazilian problems put together a dossier that claimed he had leftist ideas. Coimbra had his convictions; he leaned left more than right, but he had no political agenda. What we did at COPPE was science. But his departure was tragic for the institute. Professor Sidney Santos, from the School of Engineering, was appointed director. They referred to him as a temporary solution, but he took things rather well. After about a year, a year and a half, I finally had the guts to speak up during a meeting and said it was time we held a board meeting at COPPE and appoint a director. It could even be him, but he had to be appointed by us. He was very indignant but accepted it in the end. We compiled a list of three people and sent it to the chancellor; I was on that list. That was in January. February, March, and April went by without a response, so I called the chancellor and said: “Do you have any questions; would you like to talk about it?” He said, “I don’t know you; I’m not going to appoint you as director of COPPE. I will assign you to a graduate committee in the Office of the Chancellor and see how you do, then I will see about appointing you to COPPE.” I replied, “I haven’t been nominated for that committee, so please appoint someone else.” This whole process wore me out, so I took a six-month paid leave. After that, since the situation had not been resolved to my satisfaction, I asked the new chancellor for an unpaid leave of absence. He said no. So, I made a radical decision: I resigned from public service. Décio Leal de Zagottis had asked me to come work for Promon; I accepted. I spent five happy years working at Promon, where we solved important issues in the design of nuclear-class pressure vessels and piping for the Angra 1 and Angra 2 power plants.

What was your role in these projects?
We had to develop the equipment designs. There were miles and miles of pipes, of varying diameters, that could not have any amount of leakage. We applied certain standard pipe configurations, which helped us accelerate our work on the pipe designs. Once they satisfied the standards, we would move on to the next section. There was a big issue with Angra 1. In one section, we had to relieve the pressure of an amount equivalent to a 600-meter water column and contain it in a small area of just over 1 meter. No piece of equipment would work; they would all burst.  We developed a 6-meter design, adding a plate with a small hole to each piece of pipe; the pressure would decrease as the water passed from one hole to another. It worked. Promon could have patented it. Westinghouse, which came up with the Angra 1 design, seems to have used the same design for similar power plants in other countries.

You returned to academic life through PUC-RJ, and only later did you return to COPPE. What was your role at PUC-RJ?
My work at Promon had pretty much stabilized at this point. Décio had already left. The PUC mechanical engineering department was very insistent. They wanted my help, including the knowledge I had acquired when working on Angra 1 and 2. I said yes. A few months after I was hired, the Office of the Chancellor at PUC asked me to become vice chancellor. I couldn’t say no. I did my best to make PUC a more integrated university. We undertook an academic review of the university. Around the same time, I was elected president of the Brazilian Association of Mechanical Sciences [ABCM]. We did not have a technical journal in the field of mechanics in Brazil, so I established one alongside 10 associates: the Revista Brasileira de Ciências Mecânicas [Journal of the Brazilian Society of Mechanical Sciences] [RBCM]. It is still being published to this day. Its impact factor is quite good for an engineering journal: 1.7. It is currently published by Springer, but ABCM still has editorial control.

How did your return to COPPE come about?
I returned as a guest lecturer since I had left public service. I had to go through all public competitions once again, both for associate professor and full professor positions, to resume my career at UFRJ. Soon after I arrived, I was asked to join the Development Board. At that time, Petrobras was still working heavily with COPPE, and they needed a remotely operated vehicle to do inspections at great depths, unreachable for human divers. We started an interdisciplinary project, including mechanical, civil, electrical, and systems engineers. The group began developing engines, sensor technologies, mechanical hands, mechanical arms, propulsion mechanisms. This was done in cooperation with an extremely competent Brazilian company, Consub, which had designed a remotely operated vehicle and also had a contract with Petrobras. But something happened, which has unfortunately become commonplace in Brazil. Swedish engineers had developed a remotely operated vehicle [ROV]. When Petrobras heard of this, it shut down the project and bought it from them. If the project had continued, we could have had a company specialized in ROVs, and COPPE would have developed this area much further. The group that had originally come together to develop ROVs went on to work with manipulators and autonomous vehicles. In 2014, they developed a device to help dismantle dangerous equipment and explosives because FIFA required Brazil to have this technology available for the 2014 World Cup. It was developed alongside a company headquartered in the Northeast, funded by FINEP [Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects]. But then a foreign company came along, bought the Brazilian company, and shut it down in Brazil. This is profoundly upsetting to me.

The discovery of offshore oil was huge. Petrobras had to explore for oil locally, or there would be no oil exploration

You became director of COPPE in 1991, nearly 20 years later, right?
The director of COPPE at the time, Professor Nelson Maculan, was appointed chancellor. I was deputy director, so I took over his position, but I did not stay long. In 1992, when Mr. Fernando Collor was President of Brazil, the Minister of Science and Technology was a great humanities professor, Hélio Jaguaribe. Some of his friends from PUC-RJ said to me: “You should become executive secretary. [Jaguaribe] is a great political scientist, but he needs someone who understands technology.” We got along very well; he was a fantastic individual. I began working for the Ministry in April 1992. Brazil was preparing for Rio-92, the great environmental conference. At the same time, the US government had proposed the establishment of the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research [IAI] and wanted our Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote a meeting in Rio. It was impossible to do both at once. Uruguay took over and scheduled the first meeting in Montevideo. I was asked to join this meeting, during which a committee was formed; I was part of this committee from 1992 to 2002. There, I learned about disciplinary convergence since environmental issues can only be solved with input from various fields of knowledge and Earth observation techniques.

Did you draw upon this experience when implementing the interdisciplinary area at CAPES?
Professor Abílio Baeta Neves, when he was head of CAPES, had received three or four proposals that did not fit into any preexisting program and asked me to assess them. I established a committee to analyze those projects and proposed a new interdisciplinary area. The first field to stand out was environmental science. When I joined the IAI, it became very clear that certain emerging issues in the preservation of our world, our society, and life on Earth required solutions that are not achievable by just one area of knowledge. You cannot approach the biological aspect of the Amazon, for example, without studying climate since it directly affects all environmental issues. There are also indigenous people that live in the Amazon. How can we apply scientific rigor to their knowledge, which is ancient but very intuitive? This convergence is extremely important. I went on to work in another field, that of population dynamics, due to the spread of malaria.

What was your experience like as director of the Brazilian Space Agency?
Brazil was part of the International Space Station project and had committed to invest US$60 million. We did not have that kind of money. During my very first week there, one of the NASA directors called to congratulate me and ask how much we were going to invest in the station project. I said, “US$2 million.” His response was: “I’m glad someone is finally telling me the truth; I keep hearing US$60 million and later only get U$500,000.” He proposed that, instead of giving them money, we could manufacture and supply to them certain parts and pieces of equipment for the station in Brazil. This was positive, as it stimulated our industry.

Under your management, there was the satellite launcher explosion at the Alcântara base in 2004, which killed 21 people. How did you handle this tragedy?
It was a huge shock. The Brazilian Space Agency does not have technical-scientific staff, but it does have a managing role. It delegates. The Aeronautics Center for Technology [CTA] was responsible for the execution of these launchers. They worked very hard. After the accident, I proposed we transfer the execution of the project to a specialized company. I spoke with the CTA staff and proposed the following: “You should continue doing the scientific and technological development of propellants and various types of fuel but, since the execution of a large-scale project is an industrial activity, we should pass this to a company that has experience in this area.” This was under discussion, but there were internal issues at the agency and issues with the minister at the time, and so I left. I don’t know if the Brazilian Air Force would have said yes, but I still believe it’s the best solution. Although now that the Alcântara Base no longer exists, it is even more of a challenge.

How was UFABC conceived?
In 1998, there was an event in Angra dos Reis to discuss a university project in modern times, and there was talk of the need to enhance interdisciplinary dialogue. Later, we made an attempt at UFRJ, alongside professors, such as Leopoldo de Meis [1938–2014], Antônio Paes de Carvalho, and Moysés Nussenzveig, to establish a bachelor’s program in two stages. We presented the idea to the chancellor, but the university council was not willing to discuss it, so I gave up. Nelson Maculan was chancellor at the time; he liked the idea. In 2014, when Maculan was the Secretary of Higher Education at the Ministry of Education [MEC], he called and told me the project for a federal university at ABC was underway and it was time to implement those ideas. I agreed. We formed a committee to design a university with no departments, three centers, and a cognition center, because it seemed to me that cognitive processes would become more and more influential in these scientific fields.

Our companies lack the boldness and willingness to play a central role in technological development

How was student education structured?
Three years of a bachelor’s degree program, plus one or two years of professional training, depending on the area. The leading courses would no longer be physics 1, 2, 3, and 4, but rather matter and energy, information and communication processes, humanities, mathematics, and computational modeling. Those were the main lines of study, without departments. We began hiring a considerable number of excellent teachers. In fact, UFABC originated from both USP [University of São Paulo] and UNICAMP [University of Campinas], since 70% of its professors come from these two institutions. I would warn all candidates: “You will find a different kind of university here.” They all agreed at first; some resented it later. The most significant reactions came from engineers, who are more reactionary, but they later accepted it. A Clarivate Analytics assessment pointed to UFABC as the top university in the country in terms of publications and scientific impact. An assessment by the scientific journal Nature ranked UFABC fifth. I had no issue with that; the first four are USP, UNICAMP, UFRN, and UFRJ, which are fantastic. UFABC’s contribution to science is undeniable because it can be proven.

But were there any difficulties in implementation?
Preparatory course teachers would tell the students: “Don’t go to that university; it won’t work out.” So, they never applied to UFABC. The press called it “UniLula” [a reference to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva], and said it was a farce. Then we gave a refresher course for high school teachers, and they were amazed by UFABC. That changed how they described it to their students. And when the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo began implementing their model for evaluating universities in terms of internationalization, who always placed first? UFABC. They all admitted they were wrong about it. But that did not fix the whole problem. The students who apply to the university are not top-performing students in secondary school, but some of them are very good. The response from the companies that hire them is: “They are good at what they do, and whenever they encounter problems they cannot solve, they know where to look for the answer.” That is the upside of being intellectually independent.

How do you think engineers should be educated?
I have recently participated in a new curriculum project that will be presented by the Brazilian National Academy of Engineering. The idea is as follows: a strong foundation involving the fundamental subjects for the profession and be up to date with several fields of knowledge, and then specific training. This is what they do at Harvard University: fundamental areas, three complementary areas, and one more, which is mathematics. Many consider this kind of education to be inadequate for generalists. I don’t see it that way. We must think about our education both as citizens and as professionals. We also propose that certain application courses be taught not by full professors, but by industry professionals. One cannot teach a course on bridges by studying it in a book; one must be experienced at designing and building bridges. Another point is to do away with the Regional Council of Engineering and Architecture [CREA] as we know it today. Currently, the CREA interferes in the courses offered. These decisions should be left to the university alone. But to become an accredited engineer, one must pass a CREA exam, which is a good thing. The university should be free to act as it sees fit when it comes to the education of citizens and engineers and allow the professional associations to monitor professional credentials.

Business owners are also interested in the training of engineers.
True, but the business sector lacks boldness. Our companies lack the willingness to play a central role in technological development. The volume of patents published in Brazil today is absolutely ludicrous.

ACI / UFABC Bevilacqua (right) with the chancellor of UFABC at the time, Helio Waldman, at a university ceremony in 2013ACI / UFABC

How are you connected with COPPE nowadays? Do you play an advisory role?
I have some scruples, since so many young teachers are in need of students. I try to help those who are currently mentoring students. I also collaborate with China, since a Chinese former student of mine, Maosheng Jiang, finished his PhD in 2017 and returned to China.  We just had two papers accepted for publication this year, plus two more contributions coming out this semester.

What are your current interests?
I have been dedicating myself to research, which I have always loved, but which has not always been a priority for me. I have been working on two topics with interesting applications. One is multiple-flow diffusion, which can be used to model the movements of populations, epidemics, and the flow of capital. It also allows you to evaluate how your salary turns into expenses and whether you are at a profit or loss. The other subject concerns the geometry of curves, which can represent, for example, trees, blood vessels, or biological membranes. The academic life—and its curiosity—never ends. It never gets old.

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