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New latex technology in the hands of a São Paulo native

Chemist Juliane Pereira dos Santos talks about industrial scientific production

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

I have always been someone who likes to ask why. I was an attentive student at school, but what interested me most were the gaps—the parts I did not understand. I often went to my teachers with questions. This helped me to learn and memorize the content of educational disciplines. I was a student in the public school system and during my education, I realized that by seeking new knowledge, I was positively impacting and motivating my teachers.

My questions only intensified in 1990 when, aged 17, I began studying chemistry at UNESP [São Paulo State University]. I was really interested in physical chemistry, so for my undergraduate research project I chose to focus on electrochemical processes. I was investigating complex problems and was fortunate to have an advisor who offered me several research options. At first it was difficult to choose, but with the help of Professor Assis Vicente Benedetti, I designed a project on the effects of solvation on the redox properties of iron, looking at how different solvent compositions affect the mobility and transfer of electrons between ions and electrodes in iron using cyclic voltammetry.

In the final year of my degree, I took a summer course at the University of São Paulo [USP], where I got to know researchers and studies in various fields, especially electrochemistry and monolayers. My initial idea was to unite these two branches in a scientific project. So for my master’s degree and part of my PhD, which I did at USP, I developed modified electrodes using a technique that involves depositing monolayers of insoluble surfactants in water and substances with electrochemical activity.

I studied part of my PhD at the University of Windsor in Canada. My aim was to go back there on a postdoctoral fellowship after defending my thesis in 2001. But without the necessary financial support, I ended up staying here. Shortly after, I passed the selection process for a postdoctoral fellowship at Rhodia. I started working alongside other researchers at the company’s newly created physical chemistry laboratory, where I studied synthetic latex, a product that is still my object of research today and that helped me win the 2022 Latin American Women in Chemistry Award in the Industry Leader category.

Years later, I was hired as a senior researcher by Petroflex, a company that had a lot of know-how in latex coagulation and sales to the rubber market. I worked there from 2005 to 2008, during which time I was responsible for developing a material used in gloves, foams, adhesives, and shoe soles. After I left, I started working with polymers for oil pipes. In 2010, I returned to latex when I was hired by Oxiteno. Now I have been with the company for 12 years as a researcher in the coatings segment. I work in research and development, where I am known as “latex girl.” I create solvents for latex films and surfactants for latex emulsion polymerization. The company has registered several patents based on my work and I have developed various products for the decorative paint market.

For at least 20 years I have been identifying limitations and bottlenecks that need to be overcome in the use of synthetic latex. For this reason, I try to contribute to the technological improvement of latex for use in water-based paints, the durability of which is restricted by technical limitations compared to solvent-based paints. The aim is to create substances that are more environmentally friendly. This way, by seeking to develop products with renewable raw materials, we are aligned with the environmental demands of the twenty-first century.

Oxiteno has partnerships with public and private agencies in Brazil and abroad, which add value to our formulations.

When reflecting on the frustrations of scientific production, I like to remind myself that we are working hard together towards shared goals. We conduct experiments in labs, we test many variables, but failure is far more common than success. One single accomplishment can therefore have enormous value. From research in the lab to the launch of a product, there are many minds and hands involved. The award I recently received would not have been possible without my colleagues, especially the other women at the institution, who are absolutely committed to their duties.

The sheer dedication of my colleagues is especially clear when it comes to patents, which serve both to protect and to disseminate scientific discoveries. If a certain technique is protected by a patent, anyone wanting to use it has to ask for permission and pay royalties for a stipulated period. For researchers working on innovations, the responsibility is immense due to the high financial and human investment. Before getting my first job in the industry, I took entrance exams for positions in higher education. At that time, there was already a discrepancy between the number of spaces and the number of candidates. During my postdoctoral fellowship at Rhodia, I started to see the beauty surrounding applied science. Now, I am happy disseminating knowledge in the secondary sector. Despite being outside academia, I still research, teach, mentor, and of course learn, including with clients.

Scientific studies in industry aim to meet the technological needs of the market. In general, academia refrains from making such a commitment. However, both are involved in scientific production and communication. It should be emphasized that industry is not completely separated from academia. When necessary, we hire specialists who act as consultants. To make an analogy with the structure at universities, research advisors and supervisors in industry are our managers and clients. It is them who impose the format of the projects and make course corrections during the study. We now have technological tools for project management, but I still use a traditional notebook for taking a wide variety of notes. My routine is very similar to that of an academic researcher: weekly meetings, producing reports and scientific articles, drafting patents, and a lot of reading, as well as participating in scientific conferences.

Unfortunately, few Brazilian companies have their own research centers. There are scientists available in the labor market, but hiring rates are still slow. As a Black woman, I am always sensitive to the opportunities that surround me in the professional environment. From elementary school to academia, my talent has always been recognized. I have always been welcomed and intellectually stimulated. In the industry, I have worked with people who are totally dedicated and committed to dialogue, which is decisive for collective growth.