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Vanderlei Bagnato: “This isn’t a case of brain drain”

Currently on leave from USP, physicist Vanderlei Bagnato has spent most of his time in Texas, where he is working to set up a biophotonics laboratory modeled after the center he heads in São Paulo

Bagnato: “I have no intention of severing ties with my work in Brazil”

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Since February this year, Vanderlei Bagnato has been on leave from his role as a professor and researcher at the University of São Paulo’s (USP) São Carlos Institute of Physics (IFSC), in his hometown in São Paulo State. The 64-year-old physicist and materials engineer accepted an invitation from Texas A&M University to set up a biophotonics lab on its main campus in College Station, 170 kilometers northeast of Austin, Texas. The American university was keen to tap into his experience from spearheading a major research program at the Optics and Photonics Research Center (CePOF) since 2000, where he explored techniques for employing light to treat or manage certain types of cancer and infections.

Despite his research background in atomic physics, Bagnato advocated for and ultimately helped to establish biophotonics research programs at CePOF, one of the Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) funded by FAPESP (see Pesquisa FAPESP issues 299, 289, and 235). In this interview, during one of his monthly visits to Brazil, Bagnato talks about how he accepted the challenge of dedicating roughly two-thirds of his time in Texas to establish a new lab, and devoting the remaining third in São Carlos, overseeing his prior projects. “I still supervise and am actively involved in all my projects at CePOF,” he said. “This isn’t a case of brain drain. Brain drain is when someone leaves Brazil for lack of opportunities here. But I’ve always had opportunities here.”

How did Texas A&M University come to take an interest in your work? Were you involved in other collaborations with researchers from there?
I had never previously collaborated with them until 2018. I had once met Marlan Scully, a professor at A&M, one of the largest universities in Texas. It wasn’t until 2018 that I was granted a fellowship from the university for my contributions to biophotonics. They confer this honor on senior researchers they are looking to collaborate more closely with. So I became a Hagler Fellow, which entitles me to spend anywhere from 3 to 12 months at the university. It doesn’t have to be a continuous stay; it can be spread out over several years.

So what exactly does a Hagler Fellow do?
I was informed that I could visit the university at my convenience, to deliver lectures, conduct seminars, engage with professors and students, and establish collaborations. In total, the fellowship provides recipients with US$200,000 to be used for academic activities during their time in Texas. I made two trips there during my vacation leave from USP, once in 2018 and again in 2019. It was during these occasional visits that we started our first project, exploring ways to overcome bacterial resistance to antibiotics using light manipulation techniques. We had started this project at the RIDC and finished it there. I delivered a lecture on treating skin cancer, including melanoma, with photodynamic therapy, and we coauthored several other studies.

At this point, had they extended any offers for a permanent position?
The last time I was there before the pandemic, in 2019, one of the university’s associate deans invited me to dinner. He told me they were keen to bring me over to Texas to establish a comparable program to what I had in Brazil—robust basic science combined with real-world applications and collaboration with industry. I replied that the kind of arrangement they were proposing would be less than ideal for someone past 60 like me, and that I had no intention of making a permanent move from Brazil. That initial inquiry ended on that note. With some remaining funds from my fellowship, since I had never spent very long in Texas, they decided to extend the fellowship for another year. But then the pandemic hit.

So everything came to a halt?
Yes. In 2020 there were no further developments. Then, in 2021, I got a call from the head of the Biomedical Engineering Department at the university, where I am currently based, asking if I’d be interested in a closer collaboration with them. I mentioned that I had a long-standing aspiration to be the principal investigator for a project within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Global Health program, which focuses on infectious and noncommunicable diseases that have a global impact. I had already been involved in the program, but not in the capacity of principal investigator since I wasn’t based in the US. My desire was, and still is, to bring the Global Health initiative to Latin America, where we can test new technologies while making a positive difference in people’s lives.

So did they make a new offer?
During that call, they offered me a comprehensive research funding package and additional benefits. I would have several million dollars on hand to set up a biophotonics laboratory, plus the opportunity to hire two young professors and bring on board several postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. The yearly funding they offered to set up the lab is roughly equivalent to an RIDC’s entire budget throughout its lifecycle. They also offered a compelling monthly stipend, and what’s more, they said that if I wanted to, I could maintain my ongoing research and projects in Brazil. This particular aspect of their offer was especially compelling. I have no intention of severing ties with my work in Brazil, especially my long-term projects. I realized their proposal was in earnest, and asked for some time to think it over.

The projects are symbiotic with ours. In Texas, I’m currently conducting several experiments that complement our studies here, and the reverse is also true

Why do you reckon they chose you instead of an American or European researcher to set up the lab?
Americans are known to be pretty ambitious. They’re keen on bringing in seasoned researchers to start research programs in new fields, working alongside younger talents. There are probably quite a few Europeans who are stellar, maybe even better than me. But the university already had a sizable contingent of European researchers. From humble beginnings around 20 years back, our work in biophotonics has since grown. A quick online search today will show that our group is one of the most prolific in papers published on photodynamic therapy and skin cancer. Texas A&M, as its name implies, has a strong tradition in agriculture [the “A” in the name] and mechanical engineering [the “M”]. In the field of mechanical engineering, they have long been prominent in the aerospace sector. There are great biophotonics researchers throughout the United States, no doubt. But in Texas, this is a field that is still incipient. The university is looking to establish a biophotonics department that resembles our counterpart in São Carlos. They didn’t ask me to change a thing. Their intention is to fully replicate the model we’ve adopted at the RIDC. This is my shot at creating a sort of stateside branch of our center.

Are you formally resigning from USP?
I’ve been a tenured professor at USP since 1981, back when I started setting up the first lab for ultracold atoms outside of the United States and Europe, meanwhile working to build the first atomic clock in the Southern Hemisphere. As I considered whether to accept the offer from Texas, I went over for a talk with the management at USP. I told them I wasn’t planning on retiring just yet. As I had the option of taking around two years of sabbatical, I took leave from USP in February 2023 and moved to Texas. It hasn’t been easy. I’m in a small rented flat, and my wife is only able to accompany me to the US on occasion. I’ve got kids and grandkids back in Brazil. But I’ve got a formal arrangement with Texas A&M whereby I can spend anywhere from a week to 10 days in Brazil each month. I have continued to supervise graduate students in Brazil, and I hold weekly meetings with them, both online and, when back in Brazil, face to face. I’ll only have to make a decision when my sabbatical ends. Regardless, one way or another, I won’t be parting ways with USP. I hope my stay in the US can further enable my activities at USP. It won’t help if I retire now.

The funding for the RIDC ends in 2024. Are you worried that your absence, even if not permanent, could put the future of the center at risk?
I accepted the Texas offer because it’s a gateway to several opportunities, both for me and my colleagues. I’m not getting any younger, and it’s important that I move aside and provide opportunities for the team I’m leading in São Carlos. There are eight professors in our group. They need to have the chance to try their hand at leading projects themselves. I also hope the lab I’m setting up in Texas can help to internationalize our center and USP. And I hope the links I’m building with Texas A&M will allow our center to play a prominent role in major research projects in the US. In the recent past, our main focus was on sending students on internships and postgraduate studies to the US and Europe to learn about emerging scientific fields that were still nascent here. Student exchange has its place but, in my perspective, is not a viable internationalization route for a university like USP. We will only cement our international standing when our leading researchers are prominently involved in high-profile research projects internationally. That’s precisely what I’m aiming to do. I want to involve my team and bring as many of these projects as I can to Brazil.

What is the future outlook for the RIDC as FAPESP funding winds down next year?
That’s a real concern for me. I’ll have to figure out a way to secure more external funding. Currently, about half of CePOF’s funding comes from industry partnerships, thanks to our collaboration with EMBRAPII [the Brazilian Agency for Industrial Research and Innovation]. The other half primarily comes from FAPESP, and to a lesser extent, federal initiatives like the Brazilian National Institutes for Science and Technology [INCTs]. This public funding will eventually dry up, but we can’t afford to let the center become defunct. USP is building a 7,000-square-meter facility, set to become the largest on the São Carlos campus, designed specifically to house CePOF. It’s nearly finished and should open next year. In biophotonics, we’re working to establish a biomedical engineering program at USP, one that could potentially span multiple campuses. We’re hopeful that we can, to some extent, offset the winding down of the RIDC program by securing thematic projects.

How big will the biophotonics lab in Texas be?
It will be more modest, with two professors, maybe around six postdocs, and approximately a dozen graduate students. At CePOF, We have roughly 130 people and 26 labs. About 60% of the team is working in the field of biophotonics, around 30% are focused on ultracold atom research, and 10% on plasmonics and related fields. Alongside myself, there are eight professors, roughly 70 graduate students, approximately 15 postdocs, 30 engineers working on EMBRAPII projects in collaboration with industry, and around 10 technical and administrative staff. Every year, CePOF researchers churn out an average of about 120 scientific articles and roughly seven patent applications. Since the center’s inception, we’ve incubated 30 startups. The biophotonics lab in Texas won’t rival what we have here. It will collaborate with us.

How exactly?
The projects there are symbiotic with ours. In Texas, I’m currently conducting several experiments that complement our studies here, and the reverse is also true. We’re using what’s known as the Sinclair model, which involves employing pigs, whose skin layers are similar to humans’, for melanoma research. I’ve got two new projects pending approval in the US, one in Global Health and another in collaboration with the Air Force. Houston, Texas, is home to a leading cancer treatment and research center, MD Anderson. They’re collaborating with me on this project in Texas, and we plan to send Brazilian doctors involved in CePOF projects for internships there.

Is your move to Texas a case of brain drain?
Brain drain is when someone leaves Brazil for lack of opportunities here. I’ve always had plenty of opportunities in Brazil. My situation is quite the opposite. I want to establish a laboratory that helps attract more people to Brazil and offers them the resources they need. We need to be in a position to retain talented individuals here. I want to build strong links with the research ecosystem in the US. I want to understand their science market, how academic research interfaces with industry, and foster a culture of science. We have to showcase Brazil’s science capabilities. I intend to serve as a sort of scientific ambassador for Brazil, more than just being a visitor. I plan on always being associated with USP; I can’t picture myself being away from it. I’ve already supervised over 130 graduate students, and I’ll continue to do so.