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The branches and roots of science’s family tree

Projects set out to trace the academic genealogy of Brazilian researchers

In 2017, around 4.5 million students, professors, and researchers whose resumes are registered on Brazil’s Lattes Platform will be able to discover what academic family tree they belong to by doing an Internet search. A pilot version of a web system that traces the ties between advisors and their students over the past 75 years is being designed by researchers at the Federal University of the ABC (UFABC) and the University of São Paulo (USP), with support from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). In addition to Lattes, the system will be fed by two other sources: the database of theses and dissertations maintained by the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes), which holds over 600,000 records, and the membership list of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC). “We are cross-referencing researcher data to supplement information and avoid duplicate records,” explains Jesús Pascual Mena-Chalco, professor at the UFABC Center for Mathematics, Computation, and Cognition and project coordinator.

Academic genealogy traces the links between generations of researchers. An advisor is considered the “parent” of the master’s and doctoral students who she helped train; these offspring can then go on to produce academic “grandchildren,” and so on. The approach took off with the inauguration of international platforms on the Internet, like the Mathematics Genealogy Project and the Neurotree Project, which enable the mapping of academic ancestors in mathematics and neuroscience. The Brazilian project aims to be broader and encompass Brazilian researchers in all fields of knowledge nationwide. According to Mena-Chalco, this will be possible thanks to the Lattes Platform, which has become an information source for researchers looking for data on science in Brazil as part of studies on related phenomena and trends (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 233). “Brazil is the only country with a platform that records the activities of its entire scientific community,” he says.

Users can contribute by supplying missing data. “The idea is to constantly update the system. The older a connection, the less likely we are to find references to it on the Lattes Platform. And some researchers forget to include their advisors’ names,” explains Mena-Chalco. In addition to fueling studies on the history and sociology of science, academic genealogy has potential applications in the field of evaluation, where it can measure a scientist’s influence on subsequent generations. In a scientific paper published in 2015, Mena-Chalco and collaborators proposed a new metric, called the genealogical h-index, which assesses a scientist’s success in training descendants. A researcher with a genealogical h-index of 5 has at least five academic “children” (advisees), each of whom has advised at least five other researchers. “The proposed index would evaluate a researcher’s academic fertility,” he says.

Mena-Chalco’s team has conducted sporadic projects to test their proposal. In collaboration with two biologists, Maria Carolina Elias, a researcher at the Butantan Institute, and Lucile Floeter Winter, professor at USP, he published a paper in the journal Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz in early 2016 that identified the historical roots of protozoology in Brazil, a field that studies protozoa, some of which cause diseases like leishmaniasis, malaria, and Chagas disease. The field’s family tree was organized through analysis of Lattes resumes and the Capes database; information was drawn from a set of 248 scientists who made pertinent contributions to the training of protozoology researchers by serving as advisor for at least 10 doctoral candidates each. The final tree features 1,997 researchers, 20 of whom were outstanding pioneers (see illustration). The originator of the lineage was Carlos Chagas (1879-1934), a physician who discovered the mechanism of the disease that carries his name and that is caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi. The tree also identifies more recent pioneers, such as biochemist Walter Colli, a professor at USP, and microbiologist Isaac Roitman, of the University of Brasília.

According to Maria Carolina Elias, the study’s goal was to measure the contribution of pioneers, but it also assessed other traits of Brazilian protozoology. “By tracing relationships between advisors and their students, we were able to observe how the field evolved as well as the current scenario,” she says. For example, it was noted that 68.4% of researchers who earned doctorates in protozoology remained in the field, while 16.7% switched to another area. The study also revealed a relation between growth in the number of researchers and expanded policies that support research in the field. The scientific community in protozoology increased in size from the late 1970s to the early 1990s as a result of the CNPq-funded Integrated Program on Endemic Diseases (PIDE), which invested $12 million in some 200 research projects on endemic diseases from 1976 to 1986. “The program had a tremendous impact. We noted more researchers being trained in this period,” says Elias.

Mena-Chalco’s group is also mapping individual family trees. The first one, focused on Etelvino José Henriques Bechara, professor at the USP Chemistry Institute (see interview in Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 229), was made public in November 2015 at an event held at USP to honor the researcher on his 70th birthday. According to the tree, Bechara has 34 academic children – master’s and PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows for whom he served as advisor or supervisor – along with 582 other descendants. “I already have great-great-grandchildren and I don’t even know them,” Bechara says. “It’s gratifying to learn that my students went on to advise others, who in turn are training another generation,” states the chemist, who has worked with free radicals since completing his own doctorate, under the advisorship of Giuseppe Cilento, an Italian who was a professor at USP in the 1950s and 1960s and at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in the 1960s and 1970s. In Bechara’s opinion, academic family trees reveal aspects of a researcher’s work that standard benchmarks fail to capture. “I’ve been in academia for 48 years, and the quality of my work has always been measured by the papers I’ve published. Genealogy shows whether I succeeded in training qualified researchers and passing on my scientific values,” he says.

The search for academic ancestors sometimes yields nice surprises. This was the case with Jean-Yves Béziau, French mathematician and naturalized Brazilian who is a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Béziau started investigating his own roots 10 years ago. “I was surprised to find that I’m the academic descendant of German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716),” he says. The discovery came after Béziau was invited to take part in the Mathematics Genealogy Project, created in 1997 and one of the oldest repositories of academic genealogy. Currently a service of the North Dakota State University Department of Mathematics, the project holds records dating back to the 14th century and encompassing over 200,000 doctorates in mathematics and related areas, like engineering. To get to Leibniz, Béziau began with his advisor, mathematician Daniel Andler, professor at the Sorbonne University, in Paris; he found there to be 11 degrees of separation between him and Leibniz.

The Mathematics Genealogy Project is an example of an endeavor that has managed to reach far back in time. For those doing research in this area, one of the challenges is identifying the oldest advisors. The Lattes resume system, launched in 1999, has few references to the pioneers of Brazilian science. Reconstructing the tree often demands a search of historical records. “Part of our work with academic genealogy in the field of protozoology has been manual,” emphasizes Elias. Mena-Chalco underscores another problem. “In the past, there was no such figure as an advisor, as we know today. So we had to rely on other sources to identify academic ancestors,” he explains.

Similar obstacles are faced by Alberto Laender, full professor at the Department of Computer Sciences of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). In 2015, he and his colleague Fabrício Benevenuto inaugurated an academic genealogy project called The Science Tree, which plans to gather genealogical data on researchers from a wide range of countries. The goal is to study the training, growth, and dissemination of research groups worldwide. Data are being culled from a number of sources, like the Lattes Platform and the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD), which has catalogued more than 4.5 million theses and dissertations from around the globe. This will make it possible to link the trees of Brazilian researchers who trained abroad with their advisors.

According to Laender, his team at first worked with data on only 638,000 researchers, generating a forest with about 98,000 trees. “NDLTD data are recorded by academic institutions in various countries, and quite often the information isn’t properly filled out. For example, many papers don’t have the advisor’s name,” he explains. One of the biggest challenges, he says, is to obtain data that can be identified and processed automatically. “Even though much more data on researchers is available today than in the past, studies in academic genealogy still require clean-up work. But it’s worth it in the end,” says Laender. Preliminary project results were presented at an international conference on digital libraries, held in Newark.