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Preparing for the leap

Laboratory wants to attract foreigners to do research on the synchrotron light.

Israeli Ada Yonath and Frenchman, Albert Fert, winners respectively of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 2007 Prize in Physics, will be in Campinas at the beginning of 2011, along with 18 other speakers from 6 countries, taking part in a course aimed at disclosing new applications for synchrotron radiation and attracting Brazilian and foreign post-doctoral students to work in this area in Brazilian universities and companies. The event will be held at one of the São Paulo Schools of Advanced Science, a FAPESP support modality that seeks, through its short courses, to increase the international exposure of research areas in São Paulo that are already globally competitive (read more). The course, entitled New Developments in the Field of Synchrotron Radiation, will have 40 students, half of them coming from countries like the USA, Japan and Argentina. “The main target is researchers who are close to completing their PhD, because they already have a good background and are about to look for a place to do their post-doctoral studies,” says the organizer of the school, French physicist, Yves Petroff, scientific director of the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS), which will host the event between January 17 and 25.

Petroff, who was director-general of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, from 1993 to 2001, and worked in similar laboratories in the United States, believes that Brazil has good conditions for attracting overseas students. “São Paulo, for example, offers very competitive post-doctoral fellowships through FAPESP. If you compare the situation here with the United States and Europe, it’s very favorable, because the fellowship is substantial and tax-free,” says Petroff, referring to the R $5,028.90 per month post-doctoral grant from the Foundation. It was this, incidentally, that prompted him to make the proposal of the advanced school, which was approved in the first public announcement of the program. In his assessment, these conditions are still little publicized outside Brazil. The school program will include visits to USP, Unicamp and São Carlos, so the guest researchers can become familiar with the research environment in Brazil. “Science is competition. Every researcher wants to work in a good laboratory, but there are few foreigners who know Brazil.”

Petroff has the experience to compare research environments in various countries. In Brazil, he emphasizes the availability of young people committed to research. “I’d been to Brazil a few times for seminars and what always caught my attention was the low average age of researchers. This is a very strong point. In the United States and Europe it doesn’t work like that. Young people are not going to work with research. They go into banks or other activities,” he says. He also praises the capacity of the researchers who built the synchrotron light source in the 1990’s very cheaply: US $36 million. “This is something unprecedented in the world. There are very talented people doing research in Brazil,” he says, although he cannot resign himself to the bureaucratic obstacles to importing equipment and supplies for research.

The central objective of the school is to prepare Brazilian science to make a leap in the use of synchrotron light. This radiation is generated by electrons produced in an accelerator, and circulate in a large ring at almost the speed of light. When they pass magnets, they are deflected by the magnetic field and photons are emitted, resulting in the synchrotron light. Researchers at the LNLS, at 14 workstations or beam lines scattered at points around the ring, take advantage of the electromagnetic waves to study the atomic structure of materials, such as polymers, rocks, metals, as well as proteins, molecules for drugs and cosmetics, and even three-dimensional images of fossils or cells. The LNLS houses the only synchrotron light source in Latin America and in 2015, should receive a larger and more powerful, third generation version – the current one is second generation – which will provide images of the structure of ever smaller targets, with much higher resolution (see Pesquisa FAPESP 172). With the new source, called Sirius, the country will remain competitive with countries like Spain, South Korea and Taiwan, which are also building third-generation sources. “The new frontiers of science demand more sophisticated equipment,” says physicist, Antonio José Roque da Silva, director of the LNLS and a professor at the Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP).

ALESSANDRO SHINODA / FOLHAPRESSYves Petroff: scientific objectives of the Sirius sourceALESSANDRO SHINODA / FOLHAPRESS

According to Yves Petroff, who was hired in November 2009 with the task of outlining the scientific objectives of the Sirius source project, multiplying the community of researchers and professionals ready to work with the new applications of synchrotron radiation is essential for the country if it wants to be competitive in this field of knowledge. “Science is increasingly multidisciplinary. That’s why the students of the advanced school will attend sessions on various possibilities in order to find out about all existing techniques,” says the French physicist. The session topics include applications in structural biology, three-dimensional images obtained by X-rays, catalysis, magnetism, nanoscience and the environment. “The number of users of synchrotron light sources in the US grew by 40 percent from 6000 to 8400 between 2000 and 2008, while in France the increase was 36 percent between 2003 and 2009,” he says. According to the scientist between 30 percent and 40 percent of the available light sources are used in the field of structural biology. “The reason is easy to understand. The use of radiation is fundamental in studies of biological structures or to uncover the function of proteins. All pharmaceutical companies use beam lines for this purpose. In Brazil, the drug companies still do little research, and there’s room for improvement,” he states. Likewise, says Petroff, automakers use synchrotron light in research on engines and catalysis, paleontologists have been managing to unravel the structure of fossils by means of radiation, while the cosmetics industry has recourse to light to guarantee that the structure of the nanoparticles used in their products does no harm to health. “We work with increasingly complex structures,” says Petroff.

The LNLS is a multiple user facility. Each year, an army of two thousand researchers from hundreds of institutions uses the light sources in approximately 400 studies resulting in approximately 250 articles published in indexed scientific journals. Nineteen percent of the users are foreigners, mainly from Latin America. After Brazil, Argentina is the country that most uses beam lines. Of the 87 studies conducted by foreign researchers in 2009, 64 were from Argentina. Then come the Cubans (6), Americans (4), Germans (3), Colombians, Chileans, Mexicans and Norwegians (2 each), Portuguese and Indian (1). Since its inauguration the LNLS has hired 11 foreign researchers and of the 19 fellowship holders in 2010, 3 are foreign. Only one is still in the laboratory – Iranian post-doctoral student, Fariman Fathi Hafhejani; the LNLS has an agreement with Middle East countries that is linked to the project to build a synchrotron source in Jordan. There is also fruitful cooperation with Canada, where the LNLS is participating in the construction of a beam line. Between 1995 and 2009, FAPESP gave help and fellowships worth US $60 million to researchers at the LNLS. “Given the quality of the projects, FAPESP has strongly supported research at the LNLS and we are pleased to see the good results and the degree of international projection the laboratory is getting,” says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director.

With the advent of the new source, the intention is to encourage international collaboration even further. “As the NLS is a reference point for many countries, there is a situation that is ripe for globalization,” says José Roque. “The experience of living and working alongside users from various places creates a mature research environment.” Hiring Yves Petroff was a step in that direction. In July the LNLS hosted the first edition outside Europe of the Hercules (Higher European Research Course for Users of Large Experimental Systems) training course for PhDs and post-doctoral researchers in the field of synchrotron radiation. Of the 63 participants, 23 were from Latin America.

Back again
The repatriation of good Brazilian researchers is also happening. Physicist Fabiano Yokaichiya, 36, has just been admitted to the laboratory after six years away from Brazil, during which time he undertook post-doctoral studies in three countries. In France, he was at the Louis Néel Laboratory, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS, in the French acronym). In the United States, he was at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Over the last three years, he has been working in Berlin, in Germany, at the Helmholtz Centre for Materials and Energy. “When I left Brazil, my goal was to make a career abroad, but research in this country is going through a favorable phase and I thought it was a good opportunity,” he says. Physicist Narcizo Marques de Souza Neto, 32, is another example. He was hired by the LNLS in July after spending three years at the Argonne National Laboratory, in the United States, doing post-doctoral work in magnetism under high pressure. “They had offered me a permanent position there, but I chose to come back when I received the proposal from the LNLS,” says Narcizo. “The infrastructure in the United States was very good and I could predict exactly how my career would go, but at the LNLS, with construction of the new source, the challenge is more motivating,” says Narcizo, who now uses his network of contacts in the United States to establish collaboration agreements. With his aim of developing research into materials under high pressure, Narcizo motivated an American PhD student to come and do his post-doctoral studies at the LNLS.