The Federal University of ABC: Pioneering research education in Brazil

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10 mins
The Federal University of ABC: Pioneering research education in Brazil

Meet German physicist Dr. Klaus Capelle, President of the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, who made rather unconventional, yet successful, career choices. He authored an award-winning PhD thesis in Physics (best doctoral thesis of the year) at the University of Würzburg in Bavaria in 1997; acquired a second master’s degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (United States); and was visiting researcher at the Institute of Chemistry of São Carlos (IQSC), University of Missouri in Columbia (United States), University of Bristol (United Kingdom) University of Lund (Sweden), and Berlin’s Freie Universität (Germany). Dr. Capelle had the academic success needed to carve a successful career in his own native country. Instead, he chose to pursue postdoctoral research at the São Carlos Institute of Physics (IFSC-USP) in Brazil from 1997 to 1999. Following this, he stayed on in Brazil as a FAPESP Young Investigator grant recipient at the São Carlos Chemistry Institute at USP (1999 to 2003); Professor at IFSC (2003 to 2009); and Professor, research provost, and later President at UFABC. Dr. Capelle has authored over 90 scientific papers and is on the editorial board of several journals. He received a Certificate of Appreciation from the American Chemical Society (2011) and an Outstanding Referee Award from the American Physical Society (2012), for his outstanding work as a reviewer of scientific manuscripts.

UFABC is gaining reputation as one of Latin America’s pioneering research universities. It is the only university in Brazil where all of the professors hold PhDs; it is also the only academic institution whose scientific publications have an impact factor above the world average. As president of UFABC, Dr. Capelle has to ensure that the university maintains this record and implements several other policies to become a world leader in research education. This interview promised to be exciting! Not only could I talk to Dr. Capelle about UFABC and its pioneering efforts but I could also query him about his unconventional career choices.

In this first segment, Dr. Capelle talks about the reasons behind the success of UFABC: The institution’s focus on interdisciplinarity helps students develop a variety of skills so that they are able to make better career and academic choices. Moreover, the institution’s policy for hiring professors ensures high quality in line with global research standards.

UFABC is the only university in Brazil where all of the professors hold PhDs; it is also the only one whose scientific publications have an impact factor above the world average. To what would you attribute the success of UFABC?

UFABC aspires to be a world-class research university and takes many measures to achieve this aim. One of these is that since its creation, in 2006, UFABC has adopted a strict policy to hire only Ph.D. scientists and to demand that all candidates for faculty positions demonstrate research experience and propose research projects. We have a special preference for interdisciplinary research that transcends the barriers of traditional fields of knowledge. Moreover, once hired, our professors are allowed to plan their activities such that they are teaching during some parts of the year, and have are free to perform research at other times. The average age of our professors (43 years) is lower compared to other academic institutions in the country. And the percentage of international faculty members (almost 12%) is higher than that in traditional Brazilian universities, which contributes to creating a very dynamic and diverse environment.

We spend significant financial resources on the construction of modern research laboratories and on state-of-the-art equipment, a significant part of which is organized as multiuser facilities, run by the university, not by individual researchers. This allows for better resource allocation and planning. The university complements funds received from funding agencies with resources from our own budget to increase the number of research scholarships available for our undergraduate and graduate students. We have also created specific offices in the university to help researchers in their management of proposals and reports for funding agencies and in their interaction with industry.

To be fair, I must add that other good Brazilian universities are catching up with UFABC in terms of the percentage of Ph.D. scientists, as the education system in Brazil is improving on a whole. This is a very healthy development.

UFABC is known for its interdisciplinary approach, with students beginning their graduate year with a focus on multiple disciplines. Could you elaborate on this?

Scientific research today is highly complex. The traditional distinct fields of specialization knowledge no longer cater to the most exciting scientific questions, nor do they help in addressing the most urgent problems of society today. Take a subject such as “energy”. Energy research can be approached from the point of view of physics, chemistry, engineering, economics, politics, environmental science, and many others. A student who chooses one of these specializations may learn a lot about energy within that limited context, but very little about the others. At UFABC, we created special classes and designed courses and programs to deal with interdisciplinary subjects to give students a broader perspective.

To provide a solid basis for these studies, we also created two special “Interdisciplinary Bachelor’s Degrees”—one in Science & Technology and the other in Science & Humanities—where students receive a solid and broad scientific background. These are the only entry-level courses at UFABC, which means that all our students, regardless of their future specialization, choose one of these two degrees. As a consequence, a typical UFABC undergraduate student obtains (at least) two degrees, an interdisciplinary Bachelor’s degree and, if s/he wishes, a more specialized Bachelor’s, engineering or teaching degree. Thus, our students are thoroughly prepared both for the job market and for further graduate-level studies.

Today, international collaboration is critical to scientific and academic progression. Could you tell us more about UFABC’s international activities?

Internationalization is one of our top priorities. However, we do not regard it as an end in itself (an institution cannot be deemed “better” just because it is more international), but rather view it as a means to providing a stimulating and enriching learning experience for our students as well as enabling access to a broad range of research opportunities for our professors. After I took office as a rector of UFABC, early in 2014, we increased the staff at our international office threefold and created special policies to support internationalization. Today, UFABC is one of the few (or, perhaps, the only) Brazilian public universities where both undergraduate and graduate classes may be taught, upon request, in English, and where the faculty hiring processes can be conducted in English, too.

Currently, almost 12% of our faculty members are from abroad (a very high percentage by Brazilian standards) and more than 10% of our undergraduate students have participated or are participating in the Science without Borders program instituted by the Brazilian government. We also offer almost 2000 seats in our language courses, which include a special “Portuguese as a Foreign Language” class to help foreign students and professors. UFABC is still young (nine years old) and hence not yet very well-known outside Latin America, but we already have 33 official joint research agreements with foreign universities as well as numerous collaborations of individual researchers with colleagues from abroad. As a consequence, almost 9% of our graduate students are from abroad, and this number increases each year.

The university has also created a unique program named “Research since the first day.” Could you tell our readers more about this?

This is a good example for how an unexpected problem can be transformed into a success story. In a traditional university, a professor typically conducts his research with a group of undergraduate and graduate students who work on their projects under his supervision. When UFABC began its activities, it already had a faculty all of whom were Ph.D. scientists, eager to do research. But there were no students, except those in the first year. So how would these professors advance their research agenda at an incipient university? To address this need, a special program was created to involve students in research projects. Of course, people were initially concerned about the adequacy of exposing a first-year student to actual research, but these fears turned out to be unfounded. Our students love the program and greatly benefit from it, and many of our researchers are happy to recruit group members through it.

Now, almost 10 years later, the university, of course, has students on all levels. However, we proudly continue the “Research since the first day” program because it has turned out to be a huge success. It has helped us discover the scientific talent of many students, some of which have already co-authored publications in highly regarded international journals. A few years after UFABC launched this pioneering program, the Brazilian federal funding agency CAPES launched a nationwide program called “Young Talents for Science”, which has many things in common with our ”Research since the first day” initiative.

In 2013, you stated that, "One of the main challenges Brazil currently faces is the integration between academic research and the productive sector’s needs” (CISB newsletter, January 2013 issue). Is this still the case? And how does UFABC contribute to filling this gap?

That is still true. Lots of excellent research is done in Brazil, but with a few notable exceptions, such as Petrobras, Vale or Natura, and some smaller start-ups, most Brazilian companies do not tap systematically into this reservoir of knowledge and innovation to improve their products or to invent new ones. Many Brazilian companies view universities as a “human resources provider” and not as a “knowledge and ideas provider”. Of course, university research should not be primarily viewed as a supplier to industry needs, but this does not mean that the two systems should coexist in isolation instead of exploring mutual benefits.

To bridge this gap, UFABC has created its own Innovation Agency, which is responsible for a rich variety of activities related to university-industry interactions: fostering research collaborations, managing intellectual property rights, supporting junior enterprises, technology transfer, interaction with technology parks and incubators, advising inventors, etc. We actively seek prospective industry partners for this endeavor.

UFABC has also created, in collaboration with Brazilian agency CNPq, a unique program called “Academical-industrial doctorate”, where the prospective Ph.D. student spends three to six months in industry laboratories looking for a thesis topic/research question and only starts his research after returning from the partner company, once he has identified a suitable subject. With this approach, we guarantee that the resulting projects correspond to actual needs and projects of our industrial partners. (Of course, the traditional university-only doctorates are also offered at UFABC.)

This concludes the first segment of this two-part interview series. In the next segment, Dr. Capelle tells us more about the challenges faced by Brazilian authors, and discusses his unusual but successful career choices.

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Published on: Mar 10, 2016


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