Brazilian Scholars Unite: Brascon Sets a Stage for Sharing

On July 25th 2011, the announcement echoed through the world and was translated into over 100 languages by the break of dawn: Brazil, over a ten year period, would soon begin sending 101,000 students overseas to study science, technology, math, and engineering. It was called Ciência sem Fronteiras, or ‘Science Without Borders’—a bold way of supporting the intellectual development of the nation’s most talented students, the next generation of innovators and leaders of Brazil.

Across all national, cultural, linguistic, and traditional academic borders, Brazilian students from the country’s 26 states and Federal District would study abroad at the undergraduate and graduate levels, committed to return to Brazil to make lasting impact not only in science and technology, but also in education and the country’s developing infrastructure. These scholars would be, in short, the group to carry Brazil’s spirit of innovation across multiple fields and groups and to catalyze social change.

Overnight, new ETS sites (the test centers where English proficiency exams are offered) had to be built and to accommodate the demand and testing services even had to be offered in neighboring Argentina and Uruguay. Soccer rivalries no longer mattered: the development of the future leaders of the nation and science education in Brazil reigned. GOL and TAM reservation systems shut down. Car rentals so Brazilian nationals could take the exam in neighboring states and countries tripled. So many applications were filled out that the entire registration system crashed multiple times. This would be one of the largest education development and mobility projects in the history of our planet.


Four years later, Brascon—a newly formed organization led by graduate-level Science Without Borders scholars with the goal of creating a network of innovative researchers to shake up Brazilian science for the next 20 years and beyond—organized and implemented the first conference to celebrate the stories and achievements of these extremely talented scholars doing their graduate studies here in the United States. This was the first time all Science Without Borders Ph.D. students in the US, 505 in total though not all were in attendance, had the chance to formally gather and share stories of success, challenges, and the incredible research projects they are working on. The timing of the conference, held this past weekend at Harvard University with over 150 in attendance, could not have been better: as the Science Without Borders program began in 2011, the first wave of Ph.D.’s will soon be graduating and heading back to Brazil.

In development since the one of the world’s most ambitious scholarship programs was launched, the immensely successful Brascon conference was a testament of the Brazilian scholars’ desire to unite and to explore what it means to be the future leaders of the country’s science innovation and education, and also the implications of being at the crossroads of science and Brazilian society. In the words of Dr. Marcelo Gleiser, who presented on the first day of the conference, “Vocês vão disseminar uma visao do mundo. Vão ser educadores com uma visão social.” (“You are going to disseminate a new vision of the world. You are going to be educators with a social consciousness and vision”). The handwritten note by Glivânia Maria de Oliveira (photograph below), the dynamic and charismatic head of the Brazilian Consulate in Boston who has won over the entire community in very short period of time, reiterated the importance of the scholars’ work and the importance of connecting in forums such as Brascon’s.

The conference featured the innovative research of the Brazilian Ph.D. scholars as well as invited guest speakers such as Miguel Nicolelis, Marcelo Gleiser, Ana Lopes, Bernardo Lemos, Márcio Resende, Jr., Leonardo Teixeira, and Cristina Caldas (among many others). Approximately 30 Ph.D. students broke out into poster sessions and explained their projects in depth to small interactive groups fascinated by the work. 10 Ph.D. students presented their research to in the large conference hall on topics that ranged from anaerobic digestion and algae cultivation, to turbofan swirl distortion, to crowd-funding and urban infrastructure. During Dr. Miguel Nicolelis’s presentation, the first on an early Saturday morning, it was difficult to find a dry eye in the audience. Riveting accounts of taking science into Macaíba and Serrinha and transforming lives, brining hope and healing to some of the most disadvantaged communities in Brazil, set the stage for what would be a profound series of introspections and motivational moments.

A network of support emerged for scholars working in almost all of the U.S. states: “mudou a minha vida, o impacto foi nada menos que isto, há na minha pesquisa uma nova procura que ganhei aqui em Brascon. Este congress nos ajudou a discerner em que caminho seguir depois do dotourado.” (though an emotive translation proves difficult, ‘the conference changed my life, the impact was nothing less than that, there’s a new search and series of goals to my research that come out of this experience at Brascon. The conference helped us see clearly the paths that we will take after completing our doctoral programs.’). Speakers, understanding the challenges that the Ph.D. scholars face in a new cultural system, naturally transitioned from hard science to the hard moments of navigating relationships with academic advisors. Part lab, part family gathering, always adaptive, Brascon provided support and established–through direct contact–a network that will prove extremely beneficial to the academic and professional paths of all present.

Made possible by volunteers and the scholars themselves (and without any fiscal sponsorship), the Brascon conference represents a deep desire to unite, share experiences, share research and collectively explore the implications of what it means to be the group of scholars, 505 in total in US universities, that have been chosen to lead Brazil’s future in science, the gathering was also intensely emotional.

People cried when sharing their projects and even when asking questions to the numerous panelists, partly because it was the first time they were able to be in the direct physical presence of each other, partly because it was so evident that the future of the country is so deeply part of their projects. It was nothing short of magical to be in the space so carefully and thoughtfully curated by the Brascon team over a period of three years between doctoral courses, exams, dissertation research, teaching, and lab work, all in a new culture and language.


Though the intended audience was primarily Ph.D. scholars and the organizations directly connected to Science Without Borders, the gathering also attracted students who traveled from Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. For Úrsula Kopke, a 23 year-old student of publicity and neuroscience, who traveled to Cambridge, MA just for the conference, it was the first time she had taken a flight and the first time she had left Brazil. People not even “inside” of the scholarship program, in other words, saw the importance of Brascon’s gathering at such a profound level that they too crossed all borders to attend. Úrsula’s open-hearted question about her own future in science, someone who grew up in a small town in the state of Rio de Janeiro, was met with a most powerful gesture of inclusion and belonging by one of her heroes, Dr. Nicolelis.

The mission of Science Without Borders, articulated on July 26th, 2011 at the beginning of the program, was at the very core of Brascon: “Nós vamos formar a base de pensamento educacional do país” (the Ciência sem Fronteiras will core of of educational thought and values in Brazil). From the U.S. to Hungary to Japan and beyond, Science Without Borders has most definitely showcased the enormous talent of Brazilian scholars at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Though the Ph.D. students have not yet completed their programs, they soon will and organizations like Rede CsF and Brasa have emerged and are carefully tracking the shift in mindset and focus that scholars are taking with them as they re-enter the Brazilian cultural system.


After the conference, I had the pleasure of sitting in on the Brascon team final dinner in which all involved in this massive effort reflected on the conference, what it took to create the first gathering of Ph.D. scholars in the US, and the meaning of the Science Without Borders program. I learned that this dynamic group spread across multiple states had been holding organizational meetings in such varied spaces as parked cars, moving subways, airports, labs, family dinner tables: anywhere necessary to make sure the conversations continued and this unique forum could happen. Some of the volunteers (and they were all volunteers) worked so hard that they did not even get to see the conference speakers–their immense satisfaction came through the collective experience of all present.

Ironically, as we all celebrated this incredible Science Without Borders program, a national project in every sense, just down the street at Harvard Square a large group wearing yellow and green gathered to protest corruption and called openly for the impeachment of President Dilma. In São Paulo, over one million protestors gathered. Some of them question massive investment into projects like Science Without Borders, calling it ‘a waste’ of public funds that should have been used to build schools and reform the k-12 public system. Yet all in attendance at Brascon left with a common understanding: these scholars will be returning to Brazil to participate in that very process of rebuilding public education and with important new perspectives gained not only through the programs of study, but also through that mysterious form of experiential learning that is ‘study abroad,’ in which—suddenly confronted by new values, languages, cultural traditions—the crossing of borders suddenly becomes a mirror into the self and the cultural system one comes from.

This article is the first in a series on Ciência sem Fronteiras. I will be sharing interviews with scholars, thoughts from ‘behind the scenes’ having worked very closely with CsF and 100,000 Strong in the Americas (joint initiatives that are inseparable), and insight on cultural and language immersion (among other topics). The work of Brascon set the stage for this and being with these dynamic scholars also let me see the different roles I have moved through in both education initiatives and in both countries. Agradecimento profundo, endless gratitude and respect for the people who made this event possible: Carleara Rosa, Gisele Passalacqua, Vanessa Dias, Gláucia Ribeiro, Raquel Rocha, Cristiano Reis, Sara Dumit, Tássia Pereira, Jéssica Silva, Luiz Felipe Ungericht, Karin Calvinho, Karina Lima, Luana Teles, João Vogel, Andre Guerrero, Ariane Brotto, Gabriela Veroneze. Rede CsF, Brasa, CAPES, SciBr, and the Brazilian Consulate of Boston were also instrumental in the Brascon organizing process.

And, of course, it is important to recognize the incredible work of so many people behind the scenes of this scholarship program. The people in the international offices at CAPES and CNPq who stay up around the clock, resolving issues not even imaginable, at Laspau and IIE, who, in partnership, join in that process, working directly with hundreds of US universities. This was a moment of sharing do coração that was also conscious of all of the people who made this initiative possible, still strong and still contributing.

Written in English by Jacob Dyer Spiegel | March 16th, 2016.

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