By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – For many years, Brazilian astrophysicist Duília de Mello has devoted time and energy to the pursuit of a mission: making science reach places where it has not traditionally been present. One way she has tried doing this is by partnering with celebrities and artists who in her opinion can act as spokespeople for scientists.
“When high-profile individuals in the arts and culture say positive things about science, it’s possible to reach the general public because radios and TV sets in homes and bars all over Brazil continuously showcase artists, and people talk about them all the time. That’s not the case with scientists,” said Mello, who lives in the United States, working as a tenured professor of physics at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington DC and as a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). She was interviewed by Agência FAPESP during a visit to Brazil to participate in the FAPESP 2023 Interdisciplinary School in Exact and Natural Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
One of the goals of the School, which took place on November 5-8 at Embu das Artes, São Paulo state, was to offer researchers with postdoctoral scholarships and fellowships from all over Brazil an opportunity to find out more about the academic careers and research initiatives of scientific leaders in Brazil and abroad in various knowledge areas.
As CUA’s Vice Provost for Global Strategies, Mello said one of her activities is determining which countries can help offset the downtrend in the number of university students in the US, which is shrinking in line with the aging of the general population. Brazil’s population is aging faster than ever before, and Mello advocates the introduction of a proactive immigration policy to attract undergraduates and researchers, mainly from other Portuguese-speaking and Latin American countries.
Mello and her research team use terrestrial observatories as well as space telescopes Hubble and James Webb to analyze how galaxies behave. In the interview, she spoke about the scientific projects in which she is involved and the discoveries that could be made as a result of new missions planned by NASA.
Agência FAPESP – As noted by FAPESP President Marco Antonio Zago in his welcoming remarks to the School, interest in a scientific career among young people is waning worldwide. Is this also the case in your own field of astrophysics, even though it fascinates young people if science fiction movies and series are anything to go by?
Duília de Mello – I think the phenomenon is global and is happening in all knowledge areas. It’s partly to do with the priority given to money and the tendency to measure success in your career and personal life by the amount of money you’re earning. When we talk to young people about a career in science, they say it’s not financially worthwhile. They want a career in a field that will give them a more immediate financial return and enable them to make money. In my view, this has been motivated by the phenomenon of internet influencers. If you ask a 12-year-old boy or girl, for example, what they want to be when they grow up, they’re quite likely to say they want to be influencers and to have thousands of followers as a sign of success and a way to make money. This is a worldwide trend, and it’s deeply worrying, mainly because to be an influencer you should need knowledge in a certain field or talent to justify your online following on social media – but that’s not usually the case. I think professionalism and professions are undervalued nowadays, and that’s also a cause for concern. I’ve thought about this problem a great deal. I try to motivate young people to find a true vocation. If science is a genuine vocation, I tell them, they should follow it, because the money will be a consequence of their choice. Also, they should be aware that it’s okay to be middle class. Scientists are middle class all over the world. Lack of interest among young people is indeed a very serious problem. I’ve seen it not just in the US and Brazil, but also in Europe and other parts of the world. We need to motivate young people to like science and technology and to envisage the possibility of making a career in these areas.
Agência FAPESP – Experts see the phenomenon as particularly alarming, with the potential to have very severe economic effects not only in developing countries like Brazil but also in scientific powerhouses like the US that rely a great deal on attracting talent in science and technology. Are the effects of the phenomenon also felt there?
Mello – The US went through a very complicated period during the [Donald] Trump administration. Its international relations were affected a great deal in those four years. The COVID-19 pandemic happened during the same period, and we should take that into account, but in any event, the number of researchers migrating to the US declined. This is improving, and the US is starting to look attractive to the world again in terms of scientific career opportunities. In addition, more foreign students are applying to US universities. But it’s true that in recent years there’s been a decline in the attraction of both students and foreign talent in science and technology. The US used to focus almost entirely on China, but India is also in its sights now as well. Many more Indian students are now coming to the US, as the Indian middle class expands and young Indians start to emigrate more. We’re also observing a lack of interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] in the US, as has been the case in much of the rest of the world for some years, despite all the encouragement given by the [Barack] Obama administration. Another important trend in the US that will affect the number of new researchers and that is driven by demographics is a drop in the number of schoolchildren because the population is aging. Undergraduate numbers will fall as a result. We’re aware of this, and we’re putting plans in place to offset this drop by attracting more students from abroad. We’re looking to see which countries can send the most students to US universities. This is part of my job as Vice Provost for Global Strategies at the university with which I’m affiliated. An African country that will tend to see more emigration is Nigeria, for example. It will probably be the next country in Africa to show a rise in emigration, mainly to the US.
Agência FAPESP – The Brazilian population is also aging faster, as shown by the 2022 census data recently published by IBGE [the national bureau of statistics]. Should Brazil also start thinking about immigration policy and identifying potential sources of foreign talent in science and technology?
Mello – I believe Brazil needs an immigration policy and should start implementing it right away. Brazil has a huge advantage in the shape of the Portuguese-speaking countries with fast-growing populations. It needs to open up immigration from countries like Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Cabo Verde. It should play an increasingly important role in this Lusophone network. I believe academia should create departments and professorships to foster research in and on these countries. Why don’t we have top-tier Mozambican and Angolan scientists working as university professors in Brazil? We should stimulate this. We have a great deal in common with these countries via the language, which connects us. Brazil can attract immigrants from Latin American as well as African countries. Indeed, some of the postdocs at this FAPESP School came from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, for example. Brazil can be a regional power, and I hope its leaders realize it needs an immigration policy to attract talent from these countries.
Agência FAPESP – One of the aims of FAPESP schools like this one involving selection of postdocs from other countries is precisely to show them the career opportunities and the opportunities to do high-impact science at universities and research institutions located in São Paulo state. What other initiatives besides this regional effort should Brazil take in a wider sense?
Mello – I think Brazil isn’t an internationalized country. We have a very serious problem, which is that so many of our major cities are on the coast, far away from the rest of South America. This tends to make us isolated within the continent. These factors have to be taken into account. We should try to attract more people by hosting large events. It’s necessary to put Brazil on the world map and show that it’s an educational powerhouse. I’m very much in favor of the idea of increasing the promotion of Brazil’s internationalization by means of large events, including educational meetings. Events like the existing mathematics, physics and astronomy Olympiads. Next year, Brazil will host the 17th International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics. People will come from all over the world to compete in Vassouras, Rio de Janeiro state. FAPESP, which is a force to be reckoned with in São Paulo state, can contribute a great deal to this mission of showing the world that Brazil is an educational powerhouse. The language is a problem as relatively few people know Portuguese and we don’t have a tradition of teaching in English. I, for example, can’t send American students here because even the leading Brazilian universities don’t offer many courses in English. This is a limitation and also makes Brazil isolated.
Agência FAPESP – Alongside the decline in young people’s interest in science, science denial has increased. Experts say it’s linked to the poor quality of education, but this doesn’t seem to be the only factor since anti-science attitudes are rife in countries with better educational systems than Brazil, like the US. How can the scientific community address this problem?
Mello – Yes, I never thought that one day I’d have to explain the Earth isn’t flat (laughs). I think one way to combat this is to have more scientists doing science popularization and disseminating scientific knowledge. Scientists mostly work in labs, in universities, and don’t tell society much about their work. In my opinion, this is highly negative. If people don’t know what it’s like to be a scientist and what scientists do, then they cannot believe in science. To them, science seems to be exotic, esoteric, distant, and restricted to people who wear white coats. They don’t identify with scientists. They don’t believe them if they don’t know them. I hope the pandemic showed scientists in Brazil and the world how important it is to explain to society what we do and the importance of all fields of science, not just those involved in vaccine development. We have to create a generation of people who believe in science and like science but aren’t necessarily scientists. We don’t need thousands and thousands of scientists, let alone astronomers. But we do need a society that believes in science and considers science valuable. During the pandemic, we had a campaign entitled “Science will save us”, and science really did save us. Now it’s time for us to show people once again that it was science that saved us from the pandemic and will save us again now from global warming. It’s time for us to leave our labs, tell people what we do and build society’s trust in science.
Agência FAPESP – You do good work in science dissemination, including initiatives to arouse interest in science among children and young adults. What motivates you to engage with society in this way?
Mello – It’s an attempt to get out of the bubble. I’ve been doing science popularization and diffusion for 30 years and have gained a great deal of experience in the field. It takes talent because you need to translate complex concepts into simple language. It’s something I do relatively easily thanks to the experience I’ve acquired, but it’s very hard work. I believe we’re doing too much science dissemination inside our epistemic bubbles, to people who already like science, and that’s wrong. We have to go into corner stores, bars and homes across Brazil. Science should become an everyday subject. It should occupy pages in newspapers and be splashed on magazine covers. My science dissemination projects are currently trying to do this. I’m trying to establish partnerships with celebrities like Raí [a Brazilian former soccer star] so we can join forces in this effort. In his case, we’ll be taking a bit of science to his NGO, which is called Gol de Letra and works with children and youngsters in the poor suburbs of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I’m also trying to reach out to artists because I believe they can translate science into simple language for ordinary people. When high-profile individuals in the arts and culture say positive things about science, it’s possible to reach the general public because radios and TV sets in homes and bars all over Brazil continuously showcase artists, and people talk about them all the time. That’s not the case with scientists. So I think they can be our spokespeople. That’s the aim of the work I’ve been doing in the past two years.
Agência FAPESP – You’ve made a successful career in a field that’s predominantly male and highly competitive, in one of the leading countries in scientific production and as an immigrant. What advice on surmounting the obstacles you’ve faced can you offer girls who want to pursue a similar career?
Mello – It was harder at the start of my career because there were fewer women astronomers, but now there are a bit more. My advice to girls who are interested in a scientific career is to try to meet women who already have one and talk to them. I think sisterhood is an incredible force because you give a hand and you’re lifted up too. It’s really important to have this awareness that doing things alone is harder and sometimes impossible. We need to be aware that we’re probably not going to be able to do everything on our own. We need to find people who’ll give us a helping hand at the right time, when we need it. We shouldn’t be ashamed of asking, of sticking our necks out. We should remember that we grow stronger together. I help people who come to me whenever I can, and I also recommend this to all other women: whenever someone helps you, remember to pay it forward by helping someone else, because if we do that we’ll all grow together.
Agência FAPESP – You were the first woman to become a tenured professor in the physics department of your university. Why are women so underrepresented in this field?
Mello – Physics is still one of the fields in which women are most underrepresented. Few people are aware that careers in this field are very antiquated. We still teach physics as [Isaac] Newton invented it, not even as [Albert] Einstein refashioned it later on. This turns people off, especially girls. When a girl has to decide what she’s going to do, she ends up looking for a more interesting field. Another problem is that they don’t identify with it because they don’t see any women physicists. There’s an American woman activist who says you can’t be what you can’t see, and that makes a lot of sense in physics. If girls don’t see women working in a field, they won’t feel represented and, perhaps unconsciously, they’ll avoid choosing the field for their career. For this reason, it’s highly symbolic that I was the first woman to become a tenured professor in my university’s physics department. I don’t know if this will have an impact in the long run, but in the short run, we have a graduate studies program with a gender balance, for example. We have as many women doing PhDs as we do men. That’s something you don’t see in any other physics graduate programs at US universities. I tend to believe this is due partly to my representativity and my efforts to bring other women into the field.
Agência FAPESP – What are the main questions asked by astrophysicists about the evolution of galaxies?
Mello – I’m an extragalactic astrophysicist. I study the lives of galaxies and how they evolve because I’m interested in understanding how our own galaxy became like it is now. In my view, this is very important because we’re in a solar system, our star is the Sun, and we’re in a galaxy. How did we get here? How did the galaxy evolve to the point where it contained a solar system and even life? These questions and others like them motivate me every day to understand better how galaxies form and evolve. I’ve enjoyed really interesting moments of discovery during my career thanks to this mindset. When we discover a supernova, a star that has exploded and died, it’s very important because we breathe oxygen produced inside that star, we have iron in our blood that was born inside the star. All of the chemical elements in nature were created inside the star. This knowledge alone is incredible, but knowing in detail how this influenced the origin of life, for example, is extremely important. Science is incremental. Small pieces are put together to mount the jigsaw puzzle of an understanding of life, of our origins. I try to contribute a little to this work of assembling this great jigsaw puzzle that is understanding the Solar System inside the Milky Way, which in turn is inside the Universe.
Agência FAPESP – As an astronomer associated with NASA, you’ve participated in missions that use large space telescopes like Hubble and James Webb to obtain deep images of the Universe. What discoveries can be made via forthcoming missions?
Mello – I believe many discoveries have yet to be made because the main frontier for astronomy or science is understanding energy and dark matter. These two components make up more than 90% of the Universe. We’ve been focusing on the wrong things – big stars, galaxies and light, none of which are dark energy. We’re working on only 4% of the Universe and could be working on 96%. NASA’s next missions, including one called the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope [scheduled to launch in May 2027], aim to gain a deeper understanding of dark energy. I believe we may have to undertake a major revision of this subject in the coming decades. The Universe is accelerating owing to the presence of what we still call dark energy. But what is it? How does it work? What is it made of? Could it be that the laws of its physics are unknown to us? These are some of the questions we will try to answer.
Agência FAPESP – What scientific projects are you currently involved in?
Mello – I’m involved in a project that I like a lot and that involves several Brazilian amateur astronomers. In this project, we’re studying what exists outside galaxies and trying to find vestiges of collisions between galaxies. This matters because the Milky Way is going to collide with Andromeda and what will happen after the collision is that a galaxy will be left. We don’t know exactly what this galaxy will be like, and that’s what I’m trying to understand. I also continue to work with deep images from Hubble. I have a project with a former PhD student in which we’re trying to understand how the disks that contain the arms of galaxies like the Milky Way are formed. We’re looking at the Universe when it was about 7 billion years old, which is an interesting era because we know the Sun was born about 4.5 billion years ago. We have to focus on a period a little earlier in order to understand how these disks were formed.
Duília de Mello was one of the speakers at the FAPESP 2003 Interdisciplinary School in Exact and Natural Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (photo: Elton Alisson/Agência FAPESP)