On February 20, Serrapilheira announced it was renewing funding totaling R$3,000,000 to three prominent scientists. Bruno Mota, Mario Leandro Aolita, both 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), will each receive R$700,000, plus a bonus of R$300,000 for integrating and training people from underrepresented groups in science.
The researchers were initially selected through the 1st Call for Proposals for the Serrapilheira Science Support Program and awarded a grant of R$100,000—seed money—for one year. After that year, they were re-evaluated by 15 ad-hoc peer reviewers from institutions around the world. The renewed funding has a fluke: all three grantees are physicists. “Although it is a coincidence, since the Serrapilheira Science Support Program is not specifically focused on physics, the result shows that this is a promising field of excellence in Brazil,” said the Institute’s Executive Director, Hugo Aguilaniu.
The three researchers work on the cutting edge of physics. Bruno Mota applies fundamental principles and techniques from theoretical physics to understand the structure and inner workings of mammalian brains. Despite the interdisciplinarity with neuroscience, cosmology is at the heart of his research: he was finishing his PhD in cosmic topology when he discovered that neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel had developed a method for counting brain cells and was observing a few patterns in the organization of rodent brains. Mota found this to be intriguing and wanted to learn more about it. Eventually he carried out post-doctoral studies in this field. Learn more on Bruno Mota’s profile.
Rafael Chaves and Mario Leandro Aolita, on the other hand, conduct research in a field that did not even exist until the mid-1980s: quantum information. This area of study is the result of interaction between quantum mechanics (the fundamental theory behind modern physics) and information theory (stemming from mathematics and computer science). This field uses the counterintuitive properties of quantum mechanics like quantum superposition and quantum entanglement to store, process and send information more efficiently than classical systems.
Fundamentally, Rafael Chaves’s research seeks to understand the implications of quantum information processing in computers—including the impossibility of copying said information. He also studies how cause-and-effect relationships come about in quantum mechanics. He does this 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. Read more about Rafael Chaves.
Mario Leandro Aolita’s project is split into two parts, the applied and the basic. In the former, he seeks to develop so-called quantum computers, which promise to be able to solve problems that no conventional (not even the supercomputers of today) have managed to puzzle out. Regarding the basic part, he studies the connection between quantum entanglement, superpositions and causality in relation to Einstein’s theory of relativity and other possible theories (yet to be developed) of quantum gravity. See Aolita’s profile.
“Although they are still young, they are already part of international networks and contribute innovative ideas,” states Serrapilheira Science Director Cristina Caldas. “This reflects, among other factors, years of investment by the Brazilian academe 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 both for training them as well as for welcoming them as researchers. This is solid evidence of the efforts these institutions have made to grant Brazilian physics a space for competing on the international stage.”
“One of the projects’ distinguishing features is their multidisciplinarity: the two in the field of quantum information are closely connected with mathematics and computer science, whereas Bruno Mota’s work, besides also using mathematical models, is connected to biology,” points out University of São Paulo physicist Marcelo Martinelli, who was one of the peer reviewers of the proposals. “This is due to the fact that physics never comes alone—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. As such, the research is granted the freedom and flexibility required for carrying out scientific activity, thus making it possible for the scientists 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 integrating and training underrepresented groups in science is a voluntary choice made by the researchers. Provisions for this measure are set out in the Best Practices Guide for Diversity in Science, issued in 2019 by the Serrapilheira Institute. See here.
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