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STEM in Brazil

Rene Nome

René Nome received the BSc (2000) and the MSc (2002) degrees from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina/Brazil, and a PhD Degree (2007) from The University of Chicago/USA. René was a postdoc at the Center for Nanoscale Materials (Argonne National Lab/USA), and a Fapesp Young Investigator at the Instituto de Química da Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) before joining Unicamp as an Assistant Professor. He is interested in applying ultrafast spectroscopy, single-molecule spectroscopy, and confocal microscopy to problems in condensed phase chemical dynamics.

Q: It's World Cup season, and to many of us in America we think of soccer or "futbol" when we think of Brazil. However, we also know that Brazil is viewed by the rest of the world as an important emerging industrial power, it is the "B" in "BRICS" after all. As a professor in a STEM field, what is the buzz in Brazil regarding the importance of an education and eventual career in a science, technology, engineering, or math field?

Nome: I am happy to say that "quality" has become a buzzword here in Brazil. Like most countries, Brazil has always tried to improve education in general and STEM in particular. A few examples from the previous century include the creation of programs for improving the quality of our teachers and teaching materials, science museums and science centers. More recently, expansion of our economy resulted in considerable increase in financial resources put into education and science; such increase certainly qualifies as a buzz. With it, I hope more people come to realize that education is associated with freedom and happiness. Science is fun!

Q: What types of special incentives, if any, have the universities in Brazil established for their researchers to engage the general population in STEM activities in order to promote career aspirations in these areas?

Nome: There are many special incentives nowadays. A few specific examples from UNICAMP include: (1) ProFIS, an interdisciplinary education program specifically designed for students who have completed high school in public schools from the city of Campinas; (2) Chemistry in Action, an outreach program from our Institute designed to engage high school students in Chemistry; (3) Student Support Services, a program providing undergraduate research scholarships for low-income undergraduate students. Outside of UNICAMP I would like to mention Science-for-all (http://www.ccell11.com/), a not-for-profit blog devoted to the general public with science essays from numerous faculty from all over the world. These are just a few examples with which I have been directly involved; similar efforts are commonplace throughout the country.

Q: In the U.S., we observe educational disparities among the various racial/ethnic minority groups, when it comes, for example, to the number of African Americans and Latinos obtaining advanced degrees in the sciences or engineering. In your opinion, how does Brazil compare to similar challenges?

Nome: We face the same challenges for the same historical reasons. So much so that a couple of years ago Brazil has implemented a so-called "Law of Quotas", an admissions policy whereby all federal universities as well as education, science and technology federal institutes are obliged to admit at least half (yes, one half!) of the students from public high schools. This policy is akin to affirmative action in the U.S. in that is intended to provide opportunities for minorities. In the case of Brazil, both racial/ethnic minorities as well as low-income groups are expected to benefit from the special opportunities afforded by this Law.

Q: You have spent some time in the U.S. for your graduate studies. Now as a professor in Brazil, you are on the other side of things. Having this unique vantage point, what are the similarities and differences in preparation between graduate students in STEM areas in Brazilian colleges and universities in comparison to their American counterparts in their respective U.S. colleges and universities?

Nome: The main difference is that students graduating from STEM areas in Brazilian colleges and universities typically spend four or five years taking only STEM-related courses. By contrast, the American counterparts study Social Sciences and the Humanities in college even when their major is in a STEM-related field. In a sense, undergraduate training is narrower, more focused, in Brazilian colleges and universities. So, maybe Brazilian students are exposed to more STEM topics before graduating. That does not necessarily mean that Brazilian students actually learn more because information and understanding are different things.

Q: What inspired you to choose your particular career path?

Nome: My interest in STEM probably goes back to my childhood when I learned from my parents that one can take pleasure from figuring things out. I guess I have always wanted to live an academic life. My specific choice of Physical Chemistry as a career path comes from my interest in questions related to daily experience and mundane examples of science, such as our own lives and the things we see and feel.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)