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Yvonne Primerano Mascarenhas: Thinking never hurt anyone

Mascarenhas, 91, talks about her academic career and her work advocating science and education

Yvonne Mascarenhas: honored by colleagues and pupils

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

At a three-hour event held in an auditorium at the São Carlos Institute of Physics of the University of São Paulo (IFSC-USP), more than 20 scientists, students, and staff took turns at the lectern to highlight the scientific importance and contributions of physicist Yvonne Primerano Mascarenhas. The ceremony was originally set to take place in 2021 as a celebration of her 90th birthday, but it was postponed due to the pandemic and was finally held on the afternoon of September 16, 2022. One thing all the testimonies had in common was their emphasis on the role the researcher has played in the life and career of her colleagues and students, in establishing the field of crystallography in Brazil, and in helping consolidate IFSC-USP. From 1994 to 1998, she was the institute’s first director after it split from the former São Carlos Physics and Chemistry Institute at USP, where she had been working since the mid-1950s. She talked about her career in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP.

One of the points repeatedly highlighted in the tribute you received was your role in establishing USP’s scientific and academic structure in São Carlos. How would you describe your contribution?
I started working at the Crystallography Laboratory in the USA, headed by English physicist G. A. Jeffrey, in 1959. It was an extraordinary opportunity to be part of a group using computers to carry out the long calculations needed to determine the molecular and crystal structure of substances based on the intensities of diffracted beams. The University of Pittsburgh had an IBM 650 computer, which had been launched by IBM a year earlier. When I was planning my return to Brazil, Jeffrey gave me some advice: “Yvonne, try to get in touch with other research groups, especially in chemistry, because they need to know about the molecular structures of the materials they study. This will give you a chance to spread the idea of using crystallography by X-ray diffraction, instead of working alone, shut away in your lab.” So that’s what I did. After giving a seminar at USP’s Institute of Chemistry, I established the first structures in collaboration with Otto Gotlieb [1920–2011] and Ernesto Giesbrecht [1921–1996]. But when I arrived in São Carlos, I realized the campus had no computer. The only existing computer at USP—an IBM 1620—was at the Polytechnic School. So I began traveling to São Paulo on a regular basis to use it for about two hours at a time. I strongly insisted that some of the funding received by our Physics Department at the São Carlos School of Engineering [EESC] be dedicated to buying a computer and in the end we got one thanks to funding from the IDB [Inter-American Development Bank].

The first computer was shared by various departments and helped boost computer research for many groups at USP in São Carlos. How did that come about?
The first computer at USP’s São Carlos campus was an IBM 1130—the successor to the IBM 1620. The Data Processing Center (CPD) was opened, which modernized the teaching and research of all departments at the EESC, which at the time was the only school on the campus. Over time, the school’s faculty grew more skilled at using computers. Later, professor Odelar Leite Linhares [1924–2004] made a great contribution when he began teaching computational methods. The area developed quickly and impressively at the EESC’s former Department of Mathematics, leading to the creation of the Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science (ICMC).

And how was computerization important to the development of crystallography?
In 1968, I learned about the computerization of a collection of X-ray diffraction measurements during a brief visit to Pittsburgh, in the USA. There was a massive difference between this new methodology and the old methods, which used photographic techniques to record diffraction data. Convinced of the equipment’s importance, I submitted a research proposal to FAPESP a few years later—it was approved and our laboratory got its first diffractometer for X-ray diffraction in 1975. One important detail is that this diffractometer was automated by a 1620 digital computer, which also allowed calculations to be performed. This feature was soon utilized by other members of our department. Since the 1970s I have been determined to spread the importance of modern theoretical methods for identifying structures, especially among the Latin American community. In 1976 we organized a beautiful Latin American course on direct methods for structure determination, which was a great success. Several scientists from Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile started working with us and using the automatic diffractometer after that.

You mentioned working with researchers in Latin America. Some ended up actually moving to São Carlos, such as Aldo Craievich and Eduardo Castellano. How did you go about attracting scientists from abroad and what role did they play?
In December 1971 I was invited to participate in a meeting of the Ibero-American crystallography group, to be held in Concepción, Chile. I met several Ibero-Americans there, including Eduardo Ernesto Castellano and Aldo Craievich. Aldo had a background in crystallography, but in a different subfield known as small-angle X-ray scattering. I thought it would be wonderful if he could come to Brazil. Castellano only came after we did the Latin American course on direct methods in 1976—he was interested in the automatic diffractometer. Aldo agreed to come and spend some time here in São Carlos with a grant from the CNPq [Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] and was later hired as a professor at the IFSC. Castellano came with some others from Argentina and was so happy to get the chance to use the diffractometer. He had a CNPq grant too and a year later he joined as a professor, but he maintained ties with his home institution, La Plata National University. One of the reasons to participate in international scientific meetings, in my opinion, is to meet new people and establish collaborations, even remotely. In my case, it yielded excellent results with the arrival of high-level scientists for both short and long periods, with some even settling in Brazil.

Students who enjoyed the project will hold onto that magazine and it will be a positive memory in their school life

In 1994, you were the first director of the Institute of Physics after it separated from the Institute of Chemistry. How was it? What did you achieve?
I applied for the position after being encouraged to do so by some other professors. It wasn’t difficult being the director. One advantage of the institute is that we have great staff. One director leaves, another takes over, key employees for different disciplines are retained. Things develop organically, with no major points of contention. When the Institute of Physics and Chemistry was formed [in 1971], a culture was established that teaching and research were more important than the institution’s administration, which should always be managed consensually. So we initially had consecutive directors who were professors from the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture at USP, Eneas Salati and Eurípedes Malavolta, who helped us a lot.

How was this culture of prioritizing teaching and research created?
The institute is composed of several extremely active research groups, many with an interest in education and scientific communication. My participation in this area is modest compared to what Professor Vanderlei Bagnato does through the Optics Group. And Professor Dietrich Schiel [1940–2012] created the CDCC [Center for Scientific and Cultural Dissemination at USP], an important communications center in São Carlos that is really well located and used. In order to stimulate good research, it has always been essential to attract good teachers, graduate students, and postdocs, as well as obtaining funding for high-quality projects from funding agencies. This has been achieved with great success, as evidenced by our graduate programs being classified as level 7.

How did you get into working in education?
I took compulsory retirement in 2001, leaving me with no more administrative or teaching commitments. I decided to continue in the line of scientific communication, but focusing on public schools. I received funding from FAPESP and the CNPq for various projects. I always thought I could offer personal help and looked for schools with teachers interested in receiving this kind of support. I was happy working directly with students and teachers in the school system. There are three schools still running the projects the way we envisioned. At the beginning, I thought I could provide a kind of supplementary education for high school students. One of the projects funded by FAPESP was really successful, through which we provided almost full-time education to students from the Professor Sebastião de Oliveira Rocha State School [EESOR], chosen with input from Regional Director of Education Débora Blanco. The students had lunch at USP’s university restaurant and returned in the afternoon to take extra classes. We reinforced the subject matter—physics, chemistry, mathematics, and Portuguese—and it was a success. The project was initially carried out with students in their first year of high school. These students then went on to the second year, then to the third, and then they took the university entrance exam. They were very successful. Then I decided to change the focus a little bit and I introduced a project methodology that used information and communication technologies (ICT) with students aged 11 to 14. This methodology worked better for middle school classes than with high school students.

High school students are very focused on the university entrance exam, so adherence to multidisciplinary projects, which are long—one project lasts a whole semester—is lower. Fortunately, schools already had access to computers and the students were able to use them for research, as well as textbooks. They had to read up on the subject in question and then work together to produce a paper, with teachers from various disciplines involved. The reading and writing part was led by the Portuguese teacher and the physics, chemistry, and mathematics aspects aided by a physics or chemistry teacher. The project resulted in the production of a magazine describing everything the students had done.

What do these students do next? In the tribute you received, a teacher talked about students who went to an Olympiad in Europe. What are the long-term rewards?
That was related to our first high-school project. The students participated in a national and international competition called the International Young Physicists’ Tournament (IYPT). We formed a team of high-school students from EESOR who won the national round and later participated in the Brazilian team that took first place in the international competition in Prague, Czech Republic. These students all achieved fantastic results in their university entrance exams, enrolling on courses such as engineering, mathematics, computing, and human sciences. Now we are working in primary education, so it is more difficult to follow what the children involved go on to do. The teachers tell us that these students are more likely to get involved in other initiatives, develop better leadership skills, and take part in decision-making processes—they become more mature. It is really positive to work on projects like this. At the end we have a get-together to celebrate. This human contact is very important. Everyone takes their own copy of the magazine home. Maybe some students don’t care, but those who enjoyed the project will hold onto that magazine and it will be a positive memory in their school life.

We still educate girls as if they are destined only to be mothers and caregivers, with an aversion to the exact sciences

You helped strengthen the São Carlos unit of the USP Institute for Advanced Studies. How?
Around the time I retired, my late ex-husband Sérgio Mascarenhas had gone to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. And USP already had its Institute of Advanced Studies [IEA]. When Sérgio returned, he was really keen to create an IEA branch in São Carlos. They asked me to take part and I told them that one of our fundamental problems was education at all levels, so I wanted to participate in a group dedicated to basic education. The group was formed in early 2001 and we carried out a range of activities. When Professor Paulo Saldiva was director of the IEA, he contacted me and said he was going to create several research groups, one of them on education. He asked me if it would be okay if this group was not based in São Carlos. Of course, I said it was fine. In view of its good results, when Saldiva reached the end of his term he asked Fundação Itaú to fund the group. An education committee was created, led by former dean of the Federal University of Southern Bahia, Naomar de Almeida, who is dedicated to modernizing education. There are so many ideas in this field—I don’t know whether it is possible to implement all of them. But thinking never hurt anyone. The more people actively thinking, especially if they are not too conservative, the better, because they will come up with new ideas.

What are your thoughts on female participation in your area of research?
The number of women in the field is reasonable at the national and international level, and even includes some Nobel Prize laureates. I drew up an academic timeline of crystallography in Brazil, on which I only included crystallographers who have supervised at least one doctorate, and it had 32 males and just 14 females.

How has it evolved? What was it like when you were a student?
Most women enter careers like pedagogy or teaching. These were pejoratively described as “waiting for a husband” courses. That irritated me, because when a woman goes to university, whatever field she studies, she will learn and grow. When I was a girl, high schools were either traditional or scientific. Traditional schools were for people who preferred communication, languages, and literature. I chose traditional because I loved to read. I studied at Colégio Mello e Souza, a private school in Rio de Janeiro. We had a really good chemistry teacher called Albert Ebert who showed us how science worked. I ended up studying chemistry and a friend of the same age did physics. Her name is Anna Maria Endler, and she is now professor emeritus at the Brazilian Center for Physics Research (CBPF). We still educate girls as if they are destined only to be mothers and caregivers, with an aversion to the exact sciences. This has to change. Change has been slow but positive, which gives me hope that we will continue to make progress and that gender equality will be achieved in the not-too-distant future.

Recently, you took action in São Carlos when there was a parliamentary inquiry into universities by the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo, which was critical of the autonomy of state universities. What did you achieve?
I got in touch with Professor Azuaite Martins, who is a politician from São Carlos with a very good record in the area of education, and I suggested: “Why doesn’t the City Council oppose this inquiry?” And he agreed immediately. But I played a very small part. Of course I was very grateful because he did what he had to do and persuaded the City Council to speak out unanimously against the inquiry.

What are your current plans? At your honorary event, the IFSC director said that he has plans for you to serve as a kind of ambassador for the institute.
I still supervise master’s and doctoral students and I still carry out research. I have close ties with a group here at the institute that is working on conductive polymers. But I’m retired. Professor Osvaldo de Oliveira, our director, was speaking figuratively. I am always ready to defend science and education, which have motivated me all my life. I supported a candidate for federal deputy and a candidate for state deputy who both back science, but neither was elected. Whenever they ask me, I am more than happy to support them. As long as you are lucid, you have an obligation to think and you can and should influence people who are open to your arguments.