Serrapilheira renews support for researchers with R$3 million investment

Physicists Bruno Mota, Mario Leandro Aolita and Rafael Chaves, awarded with renewed funding of up to R$ 1 million from Serrapilheira

On Thursday, February 20, Serrapilheira announced a R$3 million investment towards the renewal of fundings for three prominent scientists. The scientists selected were Bruno Mota and Mario Leandro Aolita from the Institute of Physics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and Rafael Chaves from the International Institute of Physics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN). Each will receive R$700,000, and have the opportunity to receive a R$300,000 bonus if they hire and train people from underrepresented groups in science.

The researchers were initially selected through Serrapilheira’s first call for proposal in the Support for Brazilian Science program. They were each granted R$100,000 in seed money for one year. After that year, they were re-evaluated by 15 ad-hoc peer reviewers from institutions around the world. Interestingly, all three grantees are physicists. “Although it is a coincidence, since Serrapilheira does not specifically focus on physics, the result shows that this is a promising field in Brazil,” said Hugo Aguilaniu, the institute’s Executive Director.

The three researchers work on the forefront of physics. Bruno Mota uses fundamental principles and techniques from theoretical physics to understand the structure and inner working of mammalian brains. Despite the interdisciplinarity with neuroscience in Mota’s research, cosmology is at the heart of his work. He was finishing his PhD in cosmic topology when he discovered neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel. She had developed a method for counting brain cells and was observing patterns in the organization of rodent brains. Mota found this intriguing and wanted to learn more about it. He ended up doing his postdoctoral studies in this field. See Mota’s profile.

Rafael Chaves and Mario Leandro Aolita conduct research in quantum information, a field that did not even exist until the mid-1980s. This area is a fusion of quantum mechanics, the fundamental theory behind modern physics, and information theory, which stems from mathematics and computer science. This field uses counterintuitive properties of quantum mechanics, like quantum superposition and quantum entanglement, to store, process and send information more efficiently than classical systems.

Rafael Chaves’s research seeks to understand the implications of quantum information processing on computers at a fundamental level. One implication studied, for example, is the impossibility of copying such information. He also studies how cause-and-effect relationships come about in quantum mechanics. He does so by applying the mathematical theory of causality, machine learning and artificial intelligence in order to understand the limits of classical physics and reassess the basic concepts therein. See Chaves’ profile.

Mario Leandro Aolita’s project is split into two levels: applied and the fundamental. At the applied level, he seeks to develop the so-called quantum computers, which promise to solve problems that no conventional computers have puzzled out, not even supercomputers. At the fundamental level, he studies the connection between quantum entanglement, superpositions and causality in relation to Einstein’s theory of relativity and other quantum gravity theories yet to be developed. See Aolita’s profile.

“Although they are still young, they are already part of international networks, contributing innovative ideas,” said Serrapilheira’s Science Director, Cristina Caldas. “This reflects, among other factors, years of investment by Brazilian academia in these scientists. Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), International Institute of Physics (IIF)/Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), The Brazilian Center for Research in Physics (CBPF) and others are to thank for training and for embracing them as researchers. This is strong evidence of the efforts by these institutions to grant Brazilian physics a space for competing on the international stage.”

One of the peer reviewers of the proposal, physicist Marcelo Martinelli from the University of São Paulo pointed out: “A distinguishing features of the projects is their multidisciplinarity: the two in the field of quantum information are closely connected with mathematics and computer science, while Bruno Mota’s work, besides using mathematical models, is also connected to biology. This is due to the fact that physics never exists in a vacuum – what we consider to be the cutting edge in this field will always be coupled with other sciences.”

The funding of up to R$1 million, granted after the seed money, reinforces the institute’s principle of focusing its resources on few, but high-potential projects. The research supported by Serrapilheira aims to answer basic questions of science, even if the projects involve risky strategies. For that reason, scientists are granted freedom and flexibility required by science to develop their projects in the long term.

The funding will be used over the next three years. Applying for the R$300,000 bonus for hiring and training underrepresented groups in science is voluntary. Guidelines for this policy are outlined in the Best Practices Guide for Diversity in Science issued by the Serrapilheira Institute in 2019.

Learn about the peer review panel:

Aldo José Zarbin, Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) – Chemistry
Andrea Brito Latge, Fluminense Federal University (UFF) – Physics
Ane Alencar, Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) – Ecology
Bettina Malnic, University of São Paulo (USP) – Neurology
Luiz Mello, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)/Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP)/D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) – Neurology
Marcelo Martinelli, University of São Paulo (USP) – Physics
Marcelo Tabarelli, Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) – Ecology
Maria Vargas, UFF – Chemistry
Sonia Esperança, Program Director Emeritus of the National Science Foundation (NSF) – Geoscience
Susana Sichel, UFF – Geoscience