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Science clubs

One hundred teenagers from Rio de Janeiro participated in an immersive science experience, studying advanced topics under the guidance of young researchers

For Farid Saliba, a 19-year-old student from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the best part of her summer holidays was not spent on a cruise with her family or at a beach house with friends. Instead of travel selfies, Saliba’s social media was filled with photos of herself wearing a white lab-coat and handling test tubes: “We extracted DNA from a strawberry!” she wrote enthusiastically. In a week of discovery, Saliba attended lectures by evolutionary experts and was fascinated by talks from researchers studying the behavior of living beings in extreme environments. “This could help us find answers to life beyond our planet,” she said.

Selected for the third edition of Science Clubs Brazil, a free event that gives 100 young students each year the chance to closely experience scientific research, Saliba had the opportunity to talk to researchers trained at institutions across Brazil and the USA. The 2019 event was held from July 15 to 19 at the School of Pharmacy of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and offered places to young people aged 16–21 from public and private high schools or in the first two years of higher education. This year, more than 500 people applied online via the website

Of the five topics available this year, Saliba, who was born in Belo Horizonte, chose genomics, an area with which she is familiar. She did a junior scientific research project in genetics and physiology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) during her first year at military high school in the Minas Gerais state capital. Last year, she graduated high school as an exchange student in Italy on a scientific scholarship, before returning to Brazil to prepare for her university entrance exams. “I want to be a doctor and work in research,” she says.

Saliba wants to follow in the footsteps of Luiz Eduardo Del Bem, professor of evolutionary genomics at UFMG and one of the instructors at Science Clubs. It was Del Bem, who has a PhD in genetics and molecular biology from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and did a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, USA, who taught the student how to manually extract DNA from a strawberry. “It’s hard to describe the experience of being part of a science club. It’s something I will always remember,” says Saliba. Del Bem emphasizes that the teacher-student relationships they develop last well beyond the week of the course. “We suggest courses and careers, and even write letters of recommendation for scholarships or places at foreign universities,” he says.

Volunteer teachers
All the Science Clubs teachers are volunteers. Del Bem devoted a week of his holidays to fostering a love of science among young people. “It’s a way of giving back and sharing with society the benefits we’ve been given by science. It’s brilliant to see these young people going out and propagating knowledge,” he says. Sharing a lab with 20 young people, the researcher and his students analyzed the inheritance of the mitochondrial genome. “They were all able to demonstrate proof of the theory of evolution,” he says. “When science makes sense, its progress has no limits.”

Sixteen-year-old Camily Evangelista de Almeida, a second-year student at a public high school in Rio de Janeiro, assisted Professor Del Bem in an ongoing research project during her time at Science Clubs. “He let us analyze DNA samples from aquatic and terrestrial plants and we actually contributed to his work,” she says proudly. As part of the immersion program, she also attended lectures on a variety of topics, highlighting astrobiology as one of her favorite fields.

The activities related to astrobiology were led by biologist Amanda Bendia, who is currently doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP), and by astronomer Luan Ghezzi, a professor and researcher at UFRJ’s Valongo Observatory. Bendia specializes in how microorganisms behave in extreme environments in the Antarctic, and says her work focuses on understanding the limits of life and on life outside Earth. “At the end of the course, the students came up with many creative and pertinent questions, such as the proposed existence of non-carbon-based life forms and possible elements for a new biological law based on the convergent evolution of birds and bats,” she says.

The 100 students were divided into groups of 20, devoting most of their time to the topic they chose during the selection process, some of which were repeated from previous years, such as “astrobiology – the search for life in the Universe;” “fighting epidemics;” and “discovering new drugs using a virtual environment.” The “history detectives: the lessons of paleontology” topic, which was one of the most applied for, was new this year.

Paleontologist Aline Ghilardi, who did a PhD in geosciences at UFRJ and cofounded the Bone Collectors channel on YouTube, led the paleontology activities for the week. Accustomed to dealing with teenagers and young adults, Ghilardi promoted what she called the telling of a great story about the beginnings of life on our planet. “Fossils are like the book of Earth,” she said, while showing the students a real dinosaur fossil. Over the course of the week, she led a workshop at which the students replicated a velociraptor skull and a tyrannosaurus tooth.

As well as Brazil, Science Clubs events are held in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Spain

Many of those participating in Science Clubs face a long journey to do so. One of the youngest students at the event, 16-year-old Arthur Borges Cantanzaro, who studies at a state public school in Cotia, São Paulo State, took a bus alone for the first time and stayed at a nearby hostel in Rio for the entire week. Farid Saliba, from Belo Horizonte, was only able to get to the city thanks to financial help from her teachers and classmates. “But the main thing is, all the effort was worth it,” says Cantanzaro, who has a keen interest in the human brain and an extensive résumé for his age: he runs a neuroscience blog, completed a junior science course on motor rehabilitation, has attended neuroanatomy lectures, and is currently taking neuromodulation classes at USP’s Institute of Psychiatry and doing an internship at USP’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences. “I love learning about the brain, so I don’t see it as a job or a chore,” he says. Cantanzaro says that the Science Clubs experience taught him a lot, helped him form new friendships, and provided incredible moments of “scientific leisure” after class: “After a hard day’s work, the class would get together in the evening to look at the planets through the telescope,” he says.

Science Clubs began in 2014, founded by Mexican PhD students at two of America’s largest universities: Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The idea was simple: to encourage scientists from developing countries who studied at top universities to help foster a love of science among young people, especially in places where it remains low on the national agenda. Three years later, the program arrived in Brazil thanks to a team led by veterinarian, public health professor, and researcher David Soeiro, in partnership with stem cell expert Bruna Paulsen, biologist Rafael Polidoro, and business administrator Marcos Bento. Soeiro, Paulsen, and Polidoro were students at Harvard at the time. Bento was studying at Babson College, a business school in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Today, Soeiro works with neglected zoonotic tropical diseases at UFMG and continues to run Science Clubs in Brazil. Paulsen went one step further and helped spread the project around the world, sharing her experience with clubs in other countries. “The latest knowledge can be accessible and fun at the same time. Everyone benefits from scientific discoveries,” says the biomedical graduate. In five years of activities worldwide, Science Clubs has reached over 5,000 students at events in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, and the USA. The current target is to host events in five more countries and reach 40,000 students by 2020.

In Brazil, the initiative is important because few young people actively seek information about science. According to a survey conducted this year by the National Institute of Science and Technology’s Public Science and Technology Communications division, only a small number are able to even name a national research institution.

According to Soeiro, who is involved in the student selection process, the 100 participants are chosen very carefully. “We have a wealth of talented and curious teenagers with an interest in science and a willingness to learn,” he says. The online application test consists of five open-ended questions designed to measure the knowledge and enthusiasm of aspiring young scientists. On the last day of the club, family members are invited to presentations of the scientific projects developed over the week. Students exchange photos and phone numbers, and follow each other on social media to maintain a mutual support network in science.