During his technical studies, Vinícius Guilherme Müller from the state of Rio Grande do Sul (RS) was searching for a topic for his final project in his electronics course and decided to resurrect a question he had been asking since he was seven and learning how to play the piano: “How can you get a deaf person to feel music?” He decided to work on a type of device capable of giving the hearing-impaired a sensation similar to hearing music or playing an instrument.
Müller, who at the time was a student at the Liberato Salzano Vieira da Cunha Foundation Technical School in Novo Hamburgo (RS), decided to make a device capable of interpreting an instrument’s musical notes and turn them into vibrations transmitted to the skin of humans. The device can be connected to musical instruments or a computer and gives the deaf the ability to “hear” as well as produce music. In 2011, the project was one of the highlights of the Brazil Science and Engineering Fair (Febrace) and the project was nominated to take part in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) that has been held in the United States since 1950.
In Los Angeles, Müller’s third place finish in the electrical engineering category started him thinking about research in a different light. “I came in contact with young people from all four corners of the world who have a passion for research and create awesome things in every field of knowledge,” Müller says. Today Müller is an electrical engineering student at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and in early 2013 he moved to France, where he is taking part in a joint degree program at École Centrale Paris.
LÉO RAMOSIn the last decade, the involvement of public school students in undergraduate research reached a new level, as observed primarily by the presence of projects that were showcased at science fairs in Brazil and abroad. One barometer of this trend is ISEF, one of the world’s leading science fairs, which brings together more than 1,500 students from 70 countries. Last year, of the 10 Brazilian students who won awards at the fair, five were from public schools. “This shows that the gap between the work submitted by students in the public school system and the private school system is narrowing,” says Roseli de Deus Lopes, professor at the USP Polytechnic School and coordinator of Febrace. According to de Deus Lopes, public school teachers have realized that even with limited resources, it is possible to kindle the research and observation capabilities of the students.
One example of this change in perception was the second edition of the São Paulo Science and Engineering Show (MOP), held in January 2013, which drew more students and advisors from public schools of the state of São Paulo to the research science fair circuit (in the past this group participated little if at all in these programs). “This is changing and is proof that many of the students who distinguished themselves at Febrace came from public schools and achieved recognition abroad,” de Deus Lopes says.
LÉO RAMOSThe example of biology student Nayrob Pereira, 18 years old, also reflects this trend. Last year she received an award from the Patent and Trademark Office Society, a U.S. intellectual property organization founded in 1917. She won another award from ISEF for research on an antibacterial substance found in scorpion venom. Pereira’s interest in the subject was sparked while she was in high school after a visit to the Butantan Institute for an activity that was part of National Science and Technology Week in 2011, when she was a student at the Alberto Torres State School. She had panic attacks whenever she saw spiders and scorpions.
After the school selected her to compete for a junior research grant from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) offered by the Butantan Institute, she sought out Pedro Ismael da Silva Junior, a researcher at the Butantan Institute’s Center for Research on Toxins, Immune Response and Cell Signaling, who had met with the group of students. “I decided to go ahead with the project at the institute as a way of dealing with my own fear,” says Perieira, who chose the Tytius serrulatus scorpion and its venom as the subject of her study. After laboratory procedures, she identified two fractions with antimicrobial activity.
After she submitted her work to the fair in the United States in 2013, Pereira decided to pursue the project, now as an undergraduate research grant recipient; she is now earning a bachelor’s degree in biology at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of São Paulo. Her goal is to identify new neurotoxins with antimicrobial potential that are found in scorpion venom. “Soon I hope to publish an article on this research and then spend some time abroad,” Pereira says.
The 100-year-old Butantan Institute has a history of awakening a fascination for science in young people. For USP biology student Ivan Lavander Cândido Ferreira, 23, his interest in spiders came about at home, where he has raised animals in his bedroom since childhood. “But, even though I studied at a private high school, no one paid much attention to my ideas, and that’s why I turned to Butantan for support,” Ferreira explains. In 2009 he discovered the presence of antibiotics in spider eggs. With Pedro Ismael from Butantan as his advisor as well, Ferreira identified four compounds that have antibiotic activity and fight several bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus, which causes many types of infections. As a result, Ferreira took part in Febrace, earned fourth place in the American Society for Microbiology competition, second place in the ISEF Microbiology category in 2009, and won an award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The international fair provided the impetus that led Ferreira to broaden his horizons. In 2010, just after passing the USP entrance exam, he won an internship at the Weizmann Institute of Sciences in Israel. “The format of some of the fairs and competitions that I participated in while in high school aims to trigger the participating student’s curiosity and creativity, so that the students will be protagonists and not just bystanders in solving contemporary problems through innovation. This was the incentive for me to take up basic research,” Ferreira says.
In the opinion of Roseli de Deus Lopes, the more than 70 state, municipal and community science fairs that are affiliated with Febrace are succeeding in including more students and teachers from the public system. Some of this success, she says, can be attributed to the internship programs at the high school level; these programs have been a boon to exchanges between high schools in the public system and universities. At the principal universities in the state of São Paulo, the number of projects and students selected has soared. In 2013, Unicamp opened up 300 opportunities for teenagers from high schools in Campinas and the region, or 66% more than in 2010. Last year USP offered 512 positions in its high school research internship program (Pré-IC), 97 more than in 2012 (see Pesquisa FAPESP No. 207). Another factor that de Deus Lopes mentioned is Febrace’s own commitment to increasing the number of participating schools. In the first edition of the fair in 2003, 62 schools participated; in 2008, the number had risen to 164 and then to 212 in 2014. “When a region’s performance is not good, we want to find out why. This year, we will visit the state of Acre, which had no projects selected in the last edition of the fair,” de Deus Lopes says.
Some of the 331 projects on display this year at Febrace show that the chance of success at national and international fairs is within reach. One of the projects, by high school students at the Clóvis Borges Miguel State School in the state of Espírito Santo, presented a robot guide dog that moves using voice commands. “Roughly two million people in Brazil are visually-impaired. We are looking into equipment that can help them,” says Gabriel Nascimento de Oliveira, one of the project’s developers.
In addition to serving as a guide dog, the robot is able to identify obstacles and alert the master. The project was conducted in partnership with the Braille Institute at a cost of R$1,500. The prototype on display at the fair is in the testing phase and the idea is that will likely be marketed.
Another project that was in the spotlight was the Ecoderme shower, developed by student Stephani Marins Resende from the Henrique Lage Technical School in Rio de Janeiro. This device, connected to an electrical shower, controls the temperature and the duration of the shower. A red light turns on to alert the user when the shower lasts longer than five minutes or when the temperature rises above 37ºC. “Ideally, a shower should not last more than 10 minutes and should not be very hot,” Marins Resende says. She points out that a 15-minute shower uses an average of 130 liters of water. She explains that the device can be used to educate people, and that is why it does not cut off the flow of water. In addition to preventing waste, another feature is that it stops hot water from scalding the skin.
The work of Francisco Daniel Adriano and Francisco Mairton Lima, students at the Júlio França State School of Vocational Education in the State of Ceará, drew the attention of the Febrace judges due its high level, comparable to the level of a university project. They determined that the croatá, a fruit of the pineapple family that is found in the Northeast, contains a high amount of a substance known as bromelain. “Bromelain is an enzyme with antibacterial and antifungal properties, Lima says. Now the students are planning to work on mass spectrometry and test for toxicity to ascertain whether bromelain can work as an alternative in developing drugs.