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The ABC of science

With no academic departments or schools, the new UFABC is betting on multidisciplinarity

On February 11, 2008, one thousand new undergraduates will start their first term at the newly-created UFABC (the Federal University of the ABC region), in Santo André, a town in the heart of the São Paulo state ABC region, some 20 km away from the São Paulo city center. In May, another group of 500 students will join the institution, which allocates half of its annual quota of 1,500 for students from the public school system (of the 750 places earmarked for the quota system, 204 are for blacks and mulattoes and 3 are for Brazilian Indians). Like their classmates that passed the university’s first ever entrance exams in August of 2006, the new UFABC freshmen will all be enrolled in the same course: science and technology. This is no information error. The university’s entrance exam offers places for just one course: a bachelor’s degree in science and technology. Once this basic three-year cycle has been completed, students can choose one of the specific courses that the university offers: a regular bachelor’s degree or a teaching degree in physics, chemistry or biology, a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences, or a degree in one of its eight types of engineering. Students may even qualify for a double degree, provided they take the required subjects.

These are not the only unusual features of UFABC, whose permanent campus is being built on Estado Avenue, on a 77 thousand sq. m piece of land that was formerly the site of the Santo André Municipal Bureau of Public Works and Services. The institution has no schools or academic departments, but has three centers instead: a Natural and Human Sciences center; a Mathematics, Computing and Cognition center; and an Engineering, Modeling and Applied Social Sciences center. “We want to encourage interdisciplinary work,” says UFABC president Luiz Bevilácqua. “We’re testing a new university project.” The selection process for the institution’s professors is demanding: so far, only PhDs have been allowed to apply for admission. The university only offers positions for full-time professors exclusively dedicated to this job. Another requirement is that the applicants submit a work project with a clear scientific research line. “Our professors join us with a clear commitment to also engage in research,” says the UFABC dean of Research, Hélio Waldman.

30 year old PhDs
The outcome of this staff admission policy is reflected in the profile of the 113 faculty members hired by UFABC so far (an exam for selecting visiting professors was under way at the end of last year). Most of the professors are young, aged 30 to 40, and did their doctorates (or their post-doctoral studies) at São Paulo state universities, especially the University of São Paulo (USP) and Campinas State University (Unicamp); in other words, they are qualified staff previously connected to research groups from other universities and who have now achieved a permanent position at an institution of higher education. “Many of our professors are providing guidance for post-graduate students for the first time,” comments Waldman.

This is the case of Gustavo Martini Dalpian, a 31-year old physicist from the state of Rio Grande do Sul, who graduated from the Federal University of Santa Maria, did his doctorate at USP and two post-doctorates in the United States, and is now the director of the Natural and Human Sciences Center. Besides his debut as a professor, Dalpian is also experiencing, for the first time, the function of coordinating the UFABC master’s degree and PhD courses in one field: nanosciences. “Like my colleagues, I graduated from a university that provided courses in defined disciplines and now, at UFABC, I find myself in an institution that favors multidisciplinary,” says the physicist. “At first, you find it a bit strange, but after a while you end up enjoying the closer contact with chemists, biologists and even philosophers.”

Cross-disciplinarity is also clear in UFABC’s postgraduate area. Of the six master’s degree and PhD programs that the Coordinating Office for the Development of Personnel with Higher Education (Capes) has authorized for the new university so far, three involve disciplines from several fields of knowledge and explore areas of rising importance in the research world: energy; nano-sciences and advanced materials; and information engineering. The other three (science, technology and chemistry; physics; and mathematics) focus on more traditional academic areas. Roughly one hundred post-graduate students are already attending the university. Though the UFABC research groups are still in their infancy, some of the professors have already taken part in cutting-edge projects, such as 33-year old physicist Marcelo Augusto Leigui de Oliveira, one of the Brazilian researchers who studied cosmic rays through the observations held at the Pierro Auger Observatory in Argentina.

Roadblocks and discharging
Previously affiliated with Coppe (the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Engineering Research and Postgraduate Studies), Bevilácqua, from Rio de Janeiro, was one of the people who formulated the blueprint for the government university currently under implementation in the ABC region; he told us that in the nineties he attempted to institute this multidisciplinary vision of knowledge, with fewer administrative and bureaucratic levels, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (URFJ). “But the presidents kept passing through UFRJ and the project made no progress,” he recalls. Over time, he realized that it might be more viable to nurture this notion in a new institution of higher education, which would be free of bonds with the past. The creation of UFABC provided the opportunity for making this project come true.

Although this university is a response to a demand over many decades from a region with 2.5 million inhabitants and seven towns, the establishment of UFABC has proven to be harder than imagined. Some 90 students of its very first incoming class had to be discharged due to poor academic performance or lack of interest in the course. The political and academic sphere also faced its roadblocks. Certain local leaderships, with media support, rebelled against the university’s academic proposal. They thought that the institution was too federal rather than belonging to the ABC region. Even the source of the professors, who came largely from other regions, was questioned by the critics of UFABC, who were unable, however, to explain where they might get PhDs as qualified as those hired. As a result of such pressures, the institution’s first president, Hermano Tavares, left his position in December 2006, having spent little more than one year at the head of this new university. Bevilácqua, then the vice-president, promptly took over.

Once the Santo André campus, currently under construction, is completed and the university is able to operate at full steam (probably around 2009), UFABC will have a 600-professor faculty and 10 thousand students. At present, the university’s profile is strongly linked to engineering and technology courses, but the biological areas are likely to expand as a result of upcoming exams for hiring professors. UFABC may even get a second campus in another city in the region, perhaps in São Bernardo. The humanities, however, are not UFABC’s strong point. Nevertheless, the university has not entirely discarded the possibility of entering this field of knowledge. “If we’re going to invest in this area, it will have to be through an equally innovative project,” says Waldman. “But we don’t have such a project yet. Anybody who does can send it to me.”