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Márcia Cristina Bernardes Barbosa: More space for women

Physicist specialized in the properties of water fights gender discrimination in science

Léo Ramos Chaves

For physicist Márcia Barbosa, born in Rio de Janeiro and raised in Porto Alegre, fighting against gender prejudice and discrimination in science is nothing new. Her journey began in the 1970s, while an undergraduate physics student at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), when she decided to run for president of the Academic Center. Barbosa gained notoriety in 1999, when, as a professor in the Department of Physics at UFRGS, she joined an IUPAP (International Union of Pure and Applied Physics) working group that focused on the participation of women in this area. And—although she seems far from done—she certainly reached a zenith when she won the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, in 2013.

When receiving the award at the University of Paris IV (Sorbonne), she expressed that science was exciting work, even though there were still fewer women scientists than men. She also compared the moment of scientific discovery to an orgasm: “Imagine how sad it would be to ban 50% of the population from such a wonderful feeling!”

Amid both applause and mutterings, the scientist—who for the past 20 years has studied the physical properties of water—brought attention to the situation of women researchers, whose participation only declines over the course of their scientific career, while that of their male colleagues increases. The competence of women goes unrecognized due to prejudices that should not exist anymore, as she passionately argues in this interview with Pesquisa FAPESP from her laboratory at UFRGS.

Age 59
Theoretical physics
Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS)
Undergraduate degree (1981), master’s degree (1984), and PhD (1988) from UFRGS
Scientific production
136 articles

Your parents wanted you to be a doctor or an engineer, but you decided to be a physicist. Why?
When I was 15 or 16, Professor Eberhardt Frank, school principal at the Colégio Estadual Marechal Rondon (Marechal Rondon State School), in Canoas [Rio Grande do Sul State], where I went to school, asked me to help set up a science lab—perhaps already aware of my affinity for the area. I went to school in the afternoons, and for a year I worked with the chemistry and physics teachers setting up the lab at night. The experience was very valuable. Physics teacher Milton Zaro used to bring me problems to solve. He once suggested we construct an electric oven using bricks and electrical resistance. He then wanted me to create a vacuum photoelectric device [electron emission from materials illuminated by specific electromagnetic wave frequencies], which was very difficult. I found out that physics was a field of experimentation, adventure, and discovery. That’s when I decided I wanted to study physics and be a scientist. I did not see myself in traditional professions, such as doctor or engineer, like my parents wanted. It was difficult at first, but over time they accepted my decision.

What was it like for women studying physics in the 1970s?
Of the 80 undergraduate physics students who started with me in 1978, only eight were girls. When I graduated, I was the only woman—my female classmates had dropped out over the years. The dropout rate was generally high. I also noticed that there were no women in leadership positions in the physics field. So much so that I was the first female president of the Academic Center. When I decided to run, my classmates’ opposition was strong—and extremely sexist. My slogan was something like “ample front,” and they would hang posters with drawings of shirtless women. I saw that something was wrong with that situation, but instead of running away from it, I decided to change it.

What did you do?
I realized that the first step in changing the oppressive condition of women in physics was to become a part of formal university commissions and participate in debates and decisions. I was painfully invisible at first. But when you are invisible, you can also act without people noticing. When I was a student representative at the Department of Physics, I attended a meeting whose purpose was to compile the list of candidates for substitute teachers. At that time, senior researchers would always pick their own students for the job—regardless of their teaching ability. After the meeting, I summoned the PhD students and told them how the list was formulated. They were enraged. At the next meeting, the professors wondered how the list had been leaked. I was so invisible that no one suspected me. So invisibility has its benefits, sometimes.

The 2013 L’Oréal Award ended your invisibility for good, didn’t it?
The impact was huge. I saw it as a chance to turn the award into militancy. I gained a lot of visibility and, whenever I was interviewed, I would talk about the physical phenomena of water, water scarcity, and the issue of gender and women in science. At the award ceremony at Sorbonne University, I had two minutes to speak. I said science was a wonderful thing, but there were few women scientists in Brazil and in the world. I shared that a journalist once asked me what it feels like to make a discovery. I told him it felt like an orgasm: “Imagine how sad it would be to ban 50% of the population from such a wonderful feeling!” The Sorbonne crowd was in an uproar. The host said: “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?” Then the CEO of L’Oréal came up to me and said he would have to ask his employees to have an orgasm a day. The following year, perhaps because of the award, I was asked to join the Brazilian Academy of Science. Because I am not like most traditional members of that institution, many people were upset. I was told one of their comments was that I was chosen because I wear short skirts.

What a prejudiced and misogynistic thing to say.
Yes, because my skirt bothers a lot of people. At a meeting to pick the Head of the Department of Physics—for which I meant to run—one of my colleagues mentioned my short skirt. It’s a fruitful topic. And that is why I wear it. I want people to accept me regardless of how I’m dressed. Last March, I was in Cairo, Egypt, dressed just as I am now [in a short skirt], and I was able to get Brazil to host the 2020 World Forum for Women in Science. Not because of [my skirt], of course, but because of my arguments.

My skirt bothers a lot of people. But I want people to accept me regardless of how I’m dressed

When did you start advocating for women in science?
At the 1999 IUPAP General Assembly, which brought together several physics societies, it was discussed why there were no women in physics in general, and in the institution in particular. A working group was set up to discuss the issue and Humberto Brandi—then president of the Brazilian Physics Society—suggested my name. I had not written anything about it, but he referred me to join the group because he knew I was, let’s say, someone who ruffled feathers. The first meeting brought together women from around the world in a hotel in Washington. The presidents of other societies appointed leading women scientists. I was a fish out of water: short-skirted, younger, opinionated.

What was the outcome of the meeting?
We decided to hold an international conference at UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], in Paris, about women in science, and I was chosen to coordinate the event. We brought together 300 representatives from 65 countries—85% of whom were women. It was the first International Conference on Women in Physics, held in 2002. We collected data that showed women disappear from the field as their careers advance. We took this data to IUPAP, demanding that there be more women in the institution. Things began to change—slowly. Today, those who ask IUPAP for money to organize a scientific meeting already know that they will have to answer the following question: how many women are on the event’s organizing committee and among the speakers invited? A gender committee was set up at the institution; a few years later a woman became president of IUPAP for the first time: Swedish physicist Cecilia Jarlskog. I was one of the people who held the vice presidency.

Is the situation similar for women in the humanities and in exact and biological sciences?
There is one common issue. The percentage of women lowers as they advance in their careers. In the biological sciences, the rate of women in undergraduate education is at least 50%, but it decreases in master’s and PhD programs; there are also fewer women professors in universities. In national science academies, the average is 25%. The first major problem is that women rarely reach the top of their careers. Another problem is specific to physics. Undergraduate programs already begin with a low proportion of female students, although male deans and professors refuse to acknowledge this situation. There were colleagues of mine in the Department of Physics at UFRGS who claimed nearly half the students were women, when only 20% of them were. This is also true of other exact sciences. I conducted a study with colleagues and found that, in the energy sector in Brazil, women occupy only 14% of leadership positions—which is low in general, and even lower than the 30% of women engineers who graduate each year. So my concern has always been to make it clear, first and foremost, that we had a problem: the low representation of women. Seeing the achievements and what the situation was like in other countries, it was despairing to hear from many people that we had no such problem in Brazil.

How did you deal with this denial?
Since it was unproductive to argue without concrete data, I went about putting together analyses, since there were none. The first hurdle—which in itself already illustrates the discrimination against women—was that CNPq [Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] did not classify information by gender on its Lattes Platform. To gather this information, I had to examine each curriculum vitae one by one, look at the person’s name, and search the internet when I was unsure if they were a man or a woman. Through this survey, we were able to demonstrate, for example, that women at the lowest level of their research career in physics had, on average, 20 more articles than men. That was ridiculous. It meant that they got older, but did not progress in their careers, so they produced more articles over time. During this first phase, I worked a lot with data.

What are things like today?
The low participation of women in science in Brazil is now recognized. But holding management positions is still difficult for women. In the exact sciences, including computer science, we remain a minority. A PhD student is finishing a paper that shows that the scenario has actually deteriorated. The situation was improving, but the profile of computer science professionals changed a lot. When it started, in the 1980s, it was considered chic, elegant work—almost that of a secretary. As computer science became a profession of status and money, men entered and dominated the field.

Personal archives The scientist receiving the 2013 L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in SciencePersonal archives

But there are advances—albeit slow—no?
Yes. As a result of the work with feminist groups in the humanities fields, maternity leave for master’s, PhD, postdoctoral, and productivity and research grant beneficiaries has been approved by the National Congress and became law. Also as a result of our movement, CNPq—with the help of women scholars—has created an opportunity for high school girls in public schools to do research in exact sciences at university. Through this program, groups were created throughout Brazil in 2013. Another initiative was Elas nas Exatas (Women in Exact Sciences), created in association with Unibanco’s Elas social fund in 2017; it created groups that organize wonderful events. One of them works with underprivileged schools in Rio de Janeiro to make electronic circuits using recycled material. These programs identify high school girls with a talent for science and help them into university. Carolina Brito’s group Meninas na Ciência (Girls in Science), here at UFRGS, takes robotics to schools.

How do you think Brazil compares to the United States and Europe?
We have other ways to solve issues. In the United States, researchers go through many institutions during their education, which accentuates family concerns. They have no maternity leave, and daycare services are very expensive. At a conference I recently attended in the United States, a physicist colleague of mine shared that she wanted to have a child, but couldn’t because there is no daycare where she lives—in a government research lab in the middle of the desert. Her parents live across the country. One of my fellow L’Oréal Award winners, American Deborah Jin, brought her retired parents to live near her so they could help with her children. In some European countries, such as Portugal and Spain, where women have more support from family, the situation is a little better. In Germany, in addition to the lack of daycare services, they still hold the view that women should take care of their children until they turn 2. In Arab countries, there are many women attending university—but the issue is their career. They cannot move up the ladder.

Do you think you would have progressed faster in your career if you were a man?
Of course, but I would also have progressed more slowly if I hadn’t been so outspoken! Gender and personality count for little; the only criterion to be considered should be competence. But the fact that I am outspoken, argumentative, and have more time than other women, due to not having children or a family, gave me a small advantage—which I decided to use so that the next generation of women researchers don’t need to be outspoken or a man to evolve in their careers. My dream, as a scientist, is to make science better, fairer, and more diverse, with new and complementary ideas.

What is your view on psychological or sexual harassment at universities and research institutions?
They aren’t discussed very much, because they have only just begun to be measured. A study by the Avon Institute showed that 50% of girls interviewed at the Federal University of São Carlos [UFSCar] claimed they had suffered sexual or psychological harassment. There must be a hierarchical difference or use of force for an act of agression to be considered harassment. But it can also happen when, for example, a professor or technician is the only person who knows how to use certain equipment and they use this fact to force a situation of intimacy with a student who needs the data from that equipment.

You yourself were the target of sexual harassment in the 1990s. What was that like?
It was horrible. This person, a foreign professor, had already retired. I was very young and I’ve always been very communicative. During an event, I paid him some attention, and he mistook it for interest on my part. He said he had to leave something in his hotel room and grabbed me. I resisted—and paid for it for years, because naturally this person hated me for the rest of his life. In another event, he said to a circle of colleagues: “Márcia is perfect, she has no sins.” That was a message. And I said, “No, I just choose my sins very well.” He was a relevant person in my field, and of course this had a scientific cost. When I tell this story, there’s always someone who thinks, “Serves her right for going near his room.” For many people, women are always to blame. I don’t accept that. I’m not to blame. Many women have given up on science because of bastards like those. And we know who they are. We see them on a daily basis but can do nothing about it, because the law is not on our side.

What should be done?
We must have rules of conduct on how to treat people within the institution, with clear punishments. No professor can torment a student. Mental disorders among graduate students can be aggravated, not only due to the pressure of the coursework, but also because of the way they are treated at the university. Other countries have codes of ethics and conduct. Professors know they shouldn’t meet with a student behind closed doors, touch her, or invite her to coffee. The rules are extreme, but necessary. We need a “me too” movement [an international movement against sexual aggression and harassment in the artistic world] in science. Even without legislation, this year we had three cases where professors were dismissed for harassment, at the Federal University of Goiás [UFG] and at Fluminense Federal University [UFF]—which only occurred because there was strong documentation, such as recordings, and those in charge were firm. Here at UFRGS, we collect sexist and discriminatory quotes from professors and students to illustrate how unacceptable they are. We set up an email to receive complaints and a questionnaire to measure the extent of sexual and psychological harassment.

What should one do when they’ve been harassed by a professor at university?
File a complaint at a police station and seek the university ombudsman’s office, which should open a disciplinary administrative proceeding to find out what happened. It is important that the harassed person gather evidence, such as emails or recordings, and look for at least one other person who has been harassed—otherwise it will be the professor’s word against theirs. The cases that reach the sector responsible for this type of complaint are still few, and the process can take years. For this to start moving faster, we need political will and legislation. Meanwhile, women defend themselves in other ways, like sharing amongst themselves the names of harassing professors and staff, and avoiding potentially risky conversations and meetings.

We need rules of conduct, with clear punishments, on how to treat people within the university

As a researcher, why did you decide to study water?
In 1990, upon returning from getting a PhD with Michael Fisher at the University of Maryland, in the USA, and becoming a professor at the Department of Physics at UFRGS, I had to decide what path I was going to follow. I came from studying solid state matter—no water at all—and went on to study surfactant mixtures, as I had been doing in Maryland. I started working with polymers, DNA—all in aqueous solution—and I realized that these systems had interesting and poorly asked questions. Water was still seen as a supporting element, although it was beginning to show that it could play other roles. At that time, no one in the department was looking at liquids, so I created a complex fluids research group, focusing on liquids.

Who was part of this group?
It was myself, Professor Paulo Netz, and two PhD students. I thought we could make polyelectrolytes [substances that have electric charges when dissolved in a liquid]. I wrote some articles in this field, but then I decided I should change the focus of my research. There were some coincidences at the time. In early 1996, at a conference in Mexico, I met Eugene Stanley—one of the world’s leading water researchers, from Boston University, in the United States. I fell in love with this field. Another coincidence was the arrival of Paulo Netz, who had finished a PhD in polymers in Germany, and was still unsure about what to research. I suggested that we start studying water and he accepted.

What did you both want to know?
When we compressed electrical charge systems, such as polymers, DNA, and proteins, weird things appeared. The methodology, which assumed that water was a uniform medium, did not work. Water behaved differently depending on the density of the other materials. I decided to study water for a few months, so I could understand everything, and then put water back into the charged systems. Those months turned into 15 years, because I made some very interesting discoveries. Water has more than 70 possible behaviors, unlike any other material—not anomalous behaviors all the time, but only under certain pressure and temperature conditions.

What is the origin of these behaviors?
It is the fact that water forms a dipole: the oxygen atom and the two hydrogen atoms form a covalent, V-shaped chemical bond, with a peculiar distribution of electrons at the V-vertex. This allows water molecules to remain attracted, constituting up to four hydrogen bonds due to the V-shape. The bonds between atoms of most other simple molecules are linear. My research work consists of making minimal computational models from very small ingredients, to understand the origin of the anomaly. The most common anomaly, which serves to guide the computational model, is that of density. Reduced temperatures cause a decrease in volume in almost all materials, but water is the opposite: at temperatures below 4 °C, it begins to expand. When it reaches the ice state, it expands even further. Ice floats in water thanks to the density anomaly: it becomes more voluminous and less dense.

What interested you the most about studying water anomalies?
Initially, it was the phenomenon of mobility. There were experiments showing that, with increasing pressure, water in very cold regions—so-called supercooled water—moved faster as the molecules became closer, which is counterintuitive. After all, the more cars in traffic, the slower it gets. But water doesn’t work like that. We found that the mobility coefficient increased with the density of the system. Another question was: how many neighbors could each supercooled water molecule make? Under normal temperature conditions, water makes four hydrogen bonds, so you’d think it would have four neighboring molecules; but at low temperatures, that number increases. I also wanted to see if, when moving, the bonds would break. They actually don’t. The four bonds remain, even with the movement of water. However, in the region that had maximum mobility, there were six neighboring molecules—not four, as expected. The bond strength between atoms is also lower. As the water swirls, this bond weakens. It was the discovery of the mechanism of this anomaly in water diffusion that won me the L’Oréal award. But lately, every time I look at a new problem about water properties, I see dozens of research groups around the world asking the same question, and with far greater computational power than mine.

My dream, as a scientist, is to make science better, fairer, and more diverse, with new ideas

How do you face this limitation?
Instead of working with programs that require high processing power, I began to develop minimal models. Similarly, instead of working with oxygen and hydrogen, I simulate the complexity of water using spheres that effectively represent a molecular tetramer and have the potential to model water with less computational power than complex models. Researchers from other groups might say that this is a simplistic model that does not represent the reality of water. To counter this criticism, we have developed models that satisfactorily represent the anomaly in water density and diffusion. With the minimal model, we’ve seen that water, when confined in carbon nanotubes, flows a thousand times faster than it should. The hydrodynamic equations used to explain water flow do not apply to what happens in nanotubes. But I was able to reproduce this phenomenon and explain the result in my minimal model, which also served to reveal the mechanism behind the water flow anomaly.

Are there applications of these studies?
I want to use these water properties to develop more efficient seawater desalination processes. Today, the physical processes of filtration and distillation fit any liquid. We are running theoretical simulations using water, salt, carbon nanotubes, graphene sheets, and molybdenum disulfide membranes. No one has yet discovered a material that works well, because salt sticks to the filtering elements and impairs their performance. That is just one of the possible applications of the better understanding of water properties.