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Multicultural environment

Group engaged in optical research at USP in São Carlos attracts students from Latin America and Europe

EDUARDO CESARVanderlei Bagnato: cutting-edge physicsEDUARDO CESAR

An optics research group led by Vanderlei Salvador Bagnato, a professor at the São Carlos Physics Institute (IFSC) from the University of São Paulo (USP) is proving to be very successful in its ability to attract graduate students from abroad. It currently has four students from other Latin countries (three from Colombia and one from Mexico), as well as two from Germany. All of them have joined the research lines at the São Carlos Center for Optics and Photonics Research (Cepof), one of FAPESP’s 11 Centers for Research, Innovation and Dissemination (Cepid), coordinated by Bagnato. According to the professor, the group has undertaken to divulge its graduate program abroad. One example of this is the participation of the São Carlos Physics Institute in the unified post-graduate physics exams, offered in several countries (see table). “This is an evolution in the selection of students. The exam selects the best and there are people waiting to become students here. That’s fantastic”, states Bagnato.

However, he comments that the international work of his group provides credibility when it comes to foreign students’ interest. “I give a lot of talks and we publish a high number of articles in leading journals. As a result, a large number of people seek us out”, he states. “We show foreigners that in Brazil we are engaged in scientific activity equivalent to that of countries regarded as mature. This is important, because they feel they can do the same in their countries when they return and some, who are extremely capable, end up staying in our country”.

Bagnato’s group has been providing relevant scientific and technological contributions to the field of optics. Regarding research in atomic and molecular physics laboratories, the group globally pioneered placing atoms of different kinds in the same trap simultaneously. “This gave rise to several research programs in various countries”, says Bagnato. This line of research is connected to the so-called Bose-Einstein condensate, the name of a cluster of atoms (or molecules) that, when well chilled, start behaving like a single entity. Last May, Bagnato won the 2010 CBFP Physics award for work published in Physical Review Letters that showed, for the first time, the phenomenon of turbulence within a Bose-Einstein condensate and revealed the conditions under which such turbulence can be investigated. In this experiment, the physicists maintained a cloud of 100 thousand to 200 thousand atoms of the chemical element rubidium trapped by magnetic fields in an area tens of times smaller than a pinhead, chilled to a temperature close to absolute zero (-273.15 degrees Celsius). Under these circumstances, the rubidium atoms reach the lowest possible energy level, practically stop moving and start behaving as if they were a single super-atom the size of the entire cloud. Because of its importance, the physicists Natalia Berloof, from Cambridge University in England, and Boris Svistunov, from the University of Massachusetts in the United States, commented on this article in the Viewpoint section of the journal Physics of the American Physical Society. As for applied research, several technological developments were achieved that led to setting up five industries in the field of optics. “Regarding the applications of lasers in medicine and dentistry, our work has also made it possible to implement therapeutic techniques to fight cancer, biostimulation and the use of power lasers to prepare cavities”, says Bagnato.

 A longstanding link
The presence of German students is the result of collaboration between Cepof and the University of Tübingen. The German physicist Philippe Wilhelm Courteille, hired as a professor at IFSC, taught at Tübingen until 2009. His bond with Brazil is an old one: one of his five post-doctoral degrees was conducted at São Carlos, with a FAPESP grant, from 1999 to 2000. Today, Courteille is a student advisor in both countries. One of them, Dominik Vogel, has been in São Carlos since August to complete a thesis that will lead to a master’s degree in Germany, with a grant from Daad, the German interchange agency. His theme is the stabilization of the frequency of a diode laser to operate a trap to create strontium Bose-Einstein condensates. This is not Vogel’s first international experience. In 2006, he spent one year at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. “There was little research there compared to Tübingen and I was worried that the same might be the case in Brazil. However, now, having worked here for one month, I don’t regret the decision. The group is multicultural and the quality of the research seems very high to me. I’m certain that I’ll be able to do my thesis here with the same quality as it would have in Germany”, he states.

Vanderlei Bagnato highlights the determination of the foreign students. “One indication of this determination is that they left their countries and sought other places in order to garner knowledge. They normally tolerate the stress of graduate studies better”, says the professor. The Colombian student Andrés David Rodríguez Salas graduated this year from the Universidad del Atlántico, in Barranquilla, and managed to enroll in the IFSC master’s degree program in physics, with a grant from Capes (the Coordinating Office for the Training of People with Higher Education). It was natural for him to choose USP. “I was looking for an opportunity to complete my academic training and to conduct research into current important themes. USP is Brazil’s and Latin America’s best university and here at IFSC there are excellent professors and laboratories equipped with cutting-edge technology. One can also take part in projects of great global impact”, he states. In Colombia, he highlights, this would be far more difficult. “Studying in my country largely means investing a lot of money in a graduate course but not getting a full education. There, they have no grant programs. What one can get, at best, is aid that helps pay for studies and demands, in exchange, that a certain volume of course work is maintained”, he says.

Freddy Jackson Poveda Cuevas, a Colombian student who is working on his doctorate at IFSC, was encouraged to come to Brazil to study by a professor at the physics course at the Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia, of which he is a graduate. “This professor had done his master’s degree, doctorate and post-doc at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and he told me that Brazil was an excellent country in which to study because it had grants and it would be culturally rich for my education”, he states. “So I decided to apply, but not to USP, because at that time there was no unified exam. I sent my documents to the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Unesp and did my master’s degree there, which I completed in 2009. Now, for my PhD, I sought USP”, he states.

One of Bagnato’s foreign students has a FAPESP grant. Since 2006, the professor has been the adviser for the doctoral studies of the Mexican physicist Jorge Amin Seman Harutinian, in a project called “Experiments with quantum magnetism in a sample of Bose-condensed cold atoms”. Bagnato’s article in Physical Review Letters on the turbulence phenomenon was co-authored by Harutinian, who graduated from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Unam), the best one in that country, but who chose to do his PhD in Brazil after discussing the matter with professor Victor Romero, from the Unam Physics Institute, who works in collaboration with Bagnato. “Brazil is a Latin-American country with similar problems to those in Mexico.  However, in the last few years, the state and federal Brazilian governments have been implementing policies that favor the country’s scientific and technological development. At the same time, Brazilian scientists are making a huge effort to produce more and better. Therefore, for me, it became clear that in Brazil I would be able not only to learn physics, but also to engage in quality experimental science in a country similar to my own”, he states. The student stresses the importance of the grant he receives from FAPESP, which amounts to R$2,541.30 a month. “I consider FAPESP one of the best research financing institutions that exists. The grant is more than enough to live decently, especially in a small city like São Carlos. The opportunity to have such a generous technical reserve was incredible, for me”, he states.

Good minds
For Vanderlei Bagnato, the support of promotional agencies has been fundamental for his group’s internationalization strategy. “The grants, the project funding, the infrastructure created, the possibility of acquiring modern equipment in order to keep up with the pace of global science, all of this is only possible with the support of agencies. In São Paulo, FAPESP has enabled us to be slightly bolder, engaging in basic science, which requires investment and time”. According to him, it is precisely these features that attract foreigners. “Students want to do their graduate courses in the United States or Germany because they know that in these countries they will find people who are doing significant things for science and that the technical conditions for working are available. This essential condition is something that FAPESP has made possible in São Paulo state, where the so-called frontier physics is a reality. This physics feeds the spirit of the young people that want to enter a scientific career”, he states. Bagnato stresses that the value of the grants offered in Brazil is fairly attractive. “Today, FAPESP grants are among the best in the world. This ingredient we already have. Now we must be bold in scientific terms and in regard to our themes, to attract good minds from all over the world”, he states.

IFSC is planning to expand its contingent of foreign students and researchers further. In April of 2011, Vanderlei Bagnato will be coordinating the Advanced School of Modern Quantum Challenges: Cold Atoms and Molecules, financed by FAPESP, a type of support designed to expand the international exposure of the research fields in São Paulo that are already competitive on a global basis. Besides discussing an emerging theme, what is sought, according to Bagnato, is to attract good students from abroad and from other states to São Paulo. As in all Advanced Schools, half of the invited students will come from abroad and the program’s hope is that some of them will apply for post-doctoral grants in Brazil. As part of the event’s activities, those who attend it will become acquainted with the laboratories of São Paulo universities such as USP and Unicamp. “Science has neither nationality nor territory. If we want to do science, we have to resort to everyone. This is how great nations created their scientific talent, by resorting to the best minds in the world rather than merely to those that were in their vicinity”, says the professor. “We become winners in several ways: we get the best minds working for the country, we add our culture to the daily lives of these people, and we make our technological position available for everyone. When these students return to their countries, they will take Brazil with them and leave behind a little of their talent, of their youth. All of this enriches us as a serious nation when it comes to science”, he states.

Foreign graduate students
Physics creates a single exam and gets students from abroad 

The proportion of foreign candidates in the physics graduate programs in several São Paulo universities is already close to 10 percent, thanks to the advent of a unified selection exam offered simultaneously in Brazil, in other Latin-American countries and even in Europe and Asia. Since 2008, a common exam is provided by USP (Physics Institutes of São Paulo and of São Carlos), Unicamp, Unesp (Theoretical Physics Institute) and the Federal Universities of São Carlos (UFSCar) and of the ABC Region (UFABC), which share the task of developing and applying the exam. Other institutions, such as the Aeronautics Technological Institute (ITA) and the federal universities of Paraíba (UFPB) and of Paraná (UFPA) also use the exam to recruit students. “The exam is expanding and the ideal thing is for it to be adopted nationwide”, says George Kleiman, coordinator of the graduate program of the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute at Unicamp.

The idea was to create a tool to identify the best students, because a selection only through CVs does not always guarantee quality. “When most of the applicants were our own alumni, the transcript was sufficient, but today more than half of them come from other places in the country and abroad”, says Carmen Prado, coordinator of the graduate program of the Physics Institute at USP. Another objective was to make things easier for the candidates, as previously they had to take exams at several institutions. The system also turned out to be efficient in terms of encouraging the internationalization of the programs, given that the test, in English or in Portuguese, is offered in several locations around Brazil and in countries such as Peru, Uruguay, Cuba, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico. “At first, we had 10 candidates from abroad, out of the 200 who registered for the exam.  Now, we’re getting about 100, out of the 550 that register for the test”, says Tito Bonagamba, coordinator of graduate studies at USP’s Physics Institute in São Carlos.

Foreign candidates can register normally via the internet, competing on an equal footing with Brazilian students. As several professors in the graduate programs are working in collaboration with institutions in Europe, the United States and Asia, a proposal arose that they encourage the participation of students from the universities with which they maintain contact. As a result, the exams have been offered already in the United States, Germany, Russia and Pakistan. To date, non Latin-American students must have a Brazilian advisor’s agreement to register, although this is not required at Unicamp, where there is the possibility of students who perform well in the test to come to Brazil and find an advisor here. “Each institution has the autonomy to use the grades of the exam the way it sees fit, in conjunction with other criteria”, says Kleiman, from Unicamp. Carmen Prado, from USP, says that the exam organizers are still unsure whether it would be convenient to hold a worldwide selection process. “We lack the structure to expand the selection and we want to conserve grants for good Brazilian students”, she says, referring to the possibility, for instance, of a large number of students from India or China being interested in coming to Brazil.