Science transcends borders, breaks down barriers, and provides new understanding regardless of language. This, anyway, is the ideal.
In reality however, it’s often the case that the pressures of funding, teaching, and fieldwork…or simply the fact that ecological work is often specific to a particular region of the world…means that we don’t have the time to look. At the same time, many American scientists don’t speak a second language, so reaching too far outside the English speaking world is difficult. Breaking through that barrier can be eye opening.
Attending the Annual Conference of the Brazilian Ichthyological Society (XXII EBI 2017) in Porto Seguro, Bahia last week was eye opening in terms of the breadth of work being done that isn’t necessarily accessible in English. It also opened my eyes to a different reality in terms of the funding of scientific instrumentation and infrastructure, a reality that presents an opportunity for American and European researchers.
Porto Seguro is on the Atlantic Coast of the Brazilian State of Bahia, in Brazil’s Northeast region. Porto Seguro, meaning safe harbor, got its name from the fact that it is the location that Portuguese explorers first made landfall in Brazil in 1500. The city is dominated by local tourism, with beachgoers from all over Brazil. The neighboring towns each have their own feel. Arrial d’Ajuda to the south is a haven of great food, winding streets, and a subculture of artists and musicians that is very welcoming of alternative lifestyles and hippie culture. Talamanca, further south is known for world class beaches, solitude and as a vacation spot for celebrities; most recently, according to the locals, Leonardo DiCaprio.
The conference itself was held at the Federal University of Southern Bahia (UFSB), a mostly open air campus complex about 10 minutes outside of Porto Seguro. The conference attracts fisheries related researchers and students from all over the world, and also from eight other countries, with one speaker coming from as far away as Switzerland. Several English speaking reseachers were invited to speak, including Dr. Kirk Winemiller (Texas A&M), Dr. Benjamin Walther (Texas A&M, Corpus Christie) and Timothy Jardin (U. Saskatchewan).
The number of undergraduate students is impressive for a national conference, with multiple days of afternoon poster sessions and many speaking spots given to undergraduate researchers. This is due, in part, to a commitment by the Brazilian government to fund undergraduate researchers with schorarships and stipends. The quality of the undergraduate research was extremely variable but the simple commitment to get undergraduates directly involved in research and subsequently presenting to a national audience is noteworthy.
With so many universities in the United States pushing to increase STEM involvement and undergraduate research, providing more opportunities to present undergraduate research may be one way to provide outlets and networking opportunities that keep these students involved in science.
Dr. Cristiano Queiroz de Albuquerque, a professor at the University of Rio Grande (FURG), organized the first ever symposium on otolith (fish ear bone) research in Brazil. Otoliths provide a wealth of detailed life-history data and the field is advancing quickly. Advancements in microchemical techniques for determining natal location, movement patterns, and spatially and temporally explicit environmental conditions across life stages in particular are growing areas of interest in both fresh and salt water systems. Benjamin Walther presented an excellent overview of advancements in the use of magnesium isotopes to track exposure to hypoxia in fish by exploiting the unique redox equilibrium of magnesium. As climate change and anthropogenic impacts increase, the number and severity of hypoxic zones this is a clever way to uncover temporally explicit exposure to hypoxia in individuals.
Throughout the meeting I noticed that all the sessions shared a single thread, an explicit discussion of the need for collaboration and cooperation in order to secure access to advanced equipment.
Based on my experience this is not the norm in the United States, likely because advanced equipment is easily accessible and relatively inexpensive. But, with import taxes increasing the value of electronics %50-%100, recent inflation and a weak Real to the dollar (the Brazilian currency is pronounced hey-ow) securing telemetry equipment or a GoPro for underwater behavioral research can be significantly more daunting. On top of that, following the recent change of government here, the ruling party is attempting to permanently freeze Brazilian scientific funding at 2007 levels for 10 years. All of these factors mean that collaboration is essential.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in otolith research, where many of the latest techniques require expensive mass spectrometers and laser ablation systems to sample for tiny amounts of trace elements, and measure the differences in the weight of their isotopes. Dr. Albuquerque opened the session with a talk entitled, “Otolith chemistry in Brazil: where are we?”. While highlighting some of the excellent work being done here using otoliths he also presented the current state of laser ablation mass spectrometry here in Brazil. There are only two systems in the entire country. One system, which was over 30 years old, recently broke irreparably. The other system is not ideal and has low throughput. In contrast, I know of three centers in the Pacific Northwest that are readily able to analyze otoliths using the latest technology. So, again, to do advanced work in Brazil requires collaboration.
This, I believe, should be seen as an opportunity for researchers in the United States. There are numerous talented, motivated researchers in Brazil who have access to ecological systems that are so unique and varied that the number of questions to be asked are daunting. From the massively biodiverse Amazon region, to the wetlands of the Pantanal, to a vast latitudinal gradient of coastal and estuarian ecosystems this is a country full of stunning ecological diversity…and that is just in the water, on land the opportunities are just as diverse. As is the case all over the world these systems are also under various levels of anthropogenic impact that requires scientific results to inform how these systems can be managed and conserved. But, to answer these questions researchers here need the access to equipment and expertise we take for granted here in the United States. It is an opportunity for American researchers to reach out and expand into a whole new world of research opportunities.
Having said that, the language barrier is not to be scoffed at. Few Brazilians are fluent in English and finding the resources to learn Portuguese isn’t always easy. But, among researchers, many speak English and anyone with experience in Spanish can get along here with a bit of effort, especially in writing where the words are all very similar (the sound of those words is sometimes very different). All the presentation slides in the otolith symposium in Porto Seguro were in English, while speakers presented in their native language (Spanish, English and Portuguese). Despite the mix it was a very productive session. Finally, having conducted a successful collaboration with a Brazilian colleague already…technology is your friend. Google Translate and other software makes collaboration over email very easy even if you don’t speak the language at all.
So, in summary, there is much more fisheries research being done in Brazil and Latin America than we see in English language journals, but it requires some digging to find. Now is a great time as an American or European researcher to reach out abroad and establish collaboration in those ecological systems you’ve always dreamed of working in. Doing so requires making the leap across the language divide, but the researchers I have met are all incredibly welcoming, motivated and open to new possibilities.
Finally, Brazil has a very interesting model for getting undergraduate researchers involved directly science. Conferences here in the United States should consider imitating the Brazilian system and intentionally integrating more undergraduate research into their meetings as a way to involve new STEM students in communicating their work and becoming a part of the community.