20th anniversary of the establishment of the São Carlos Institute of Physics, and six decades participating in the history of Materials research in Brazil.


2014 is a celebration year for one of the protagonist institutions of the history of Materials research in Brazil. The São Carlos Institute of Physics (IFSC), from University of São Paulo (USP), celebrates its 20th anniversary.

However, the origins of IFSC and its contributions to Brazilian Materials Science and Engineering date back to 60 years ago. “From its origins, IFSC had a central role in the development of Materials Science and Engineering, since Materials research was present with the pioneers of IFSC,” says Professor Antonio Carlos Hernandes, IFSC dean from 2010 to 2014 and researcher in the field of Materials.

The beginning of the history can be set in 1953, when USP, which had been founded in 1934, opened a teaching and research facility in the then small city of São Carlos, in the heart of the state of São Paulo. It was the School of Engineering of São Carlos (EESC), which exists to the present. At the time, the dean of the school, Theodoreto Souto, mandated to form a team of lecturers and researchers, recruited professors to São Carlos, mainly in São Paulo (USP), in Rio de Janeiro and abroad, but failed for them to settle in town for long.

Sergio Mascarenhas in 2012. Image: SBPMat.

From Rio de Janeiro, the first to integrate the EESC professors’ team was physicist Armando Dias Tavares, assistant of Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro in the Physics laboratories of the National School of Philosophy of the University of Rio de Janeiro (now Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, UFRJ). Then, collaborators and students of Dias Tavares, who had learned to do science in the “school”  of Costa Ribeiro and Bernhard Gross (main pioneers of Materials research in Brazil) left the “marvelous city” to the inland of São Paulo, invited by Souto. Among them, the newly graduated in Physics and Chemistry and honeymooners Sergio Mascarenhas Oliveira and Yvonne Primerano Mascarenhas – a couple who leaved an important legacy in the history of Materials Science and Engineering in the region and in the country – arrived in São Carlos in 1956.

At a time when most of the human and material resources for research in Physics, in the world and in Brazil, were intended for Nuclear and High Energy Physics, the Mascarenhas couple chose to start studies in Condensed Matter Physics, field they had worked with Costa Ribeiro in Rio de Janeiro. Documents prepared by IFSC state that Sergio and Yvonne saw two possibilities in that area for the group of São Carlos: to internationally stand out in a field where there was less competition, and to generate applications that had a positive impact on the region’s economy and quality of life of its population.

Thus, in the 1960s, Sergio Mascarenhas created the Condensed Matter Physics Group. “Thanks to a very strong exchange between USP in Sao Carlos, and the universities of Princeton and Carnegie Mellon in the United States, and also groups from England and Germany, mainly in Stuttgart, we managed to establish a very intense research training program, which continues to this day”, Mascarenhas commented in an interview granted in 2013 to the SBPMat Newsletter. Among the works with the greatest impact conducted at the time by the São Carlos group, it is possible to mention research related to defects in crystals, such as ionic crystals with a color core, which were later used for optical memories.

In the late 1960s, a new teaching and research institution, the Federal University of São Carlos (USFCar), was created in town, with the effective participation of professors of the EESC group. In particular, Sergio Mascarenhas, who was the first dean (pro tempore) of the university, proposed the creation of the first graduate course in Materials Engineering in Latin America, seeking to build a bridge between Materials Science and the generation of products, processes and services. The course started its activities in 1970.

In another pioneering initiative in the Materials field, the São Carlos group, with Sergio Mascarenhas as head of the organization, hosted the Brazilian community of solid state physicists (then consisting of about 50 researchers) in town to conduct the “First National Symposium on Solid State Physics and Materials Science “in a small shed.

Building of the São Carlos Institute of Physics and Chemistry  in 1970. Image: IFSC/USP.

As a result of the growth, institutionalization and gain of autonomy trodden by Mascarenhas and colleagues of the São Carlos group, in 1971 the Institute of Physics and Chemistry of São Carlos (IFQSC) was created, and the first dean was Mascarenhas himself. IFQSC had from its very beginning a Department of Physics and Materials Science, and a Department of Chemistry and Molecular Physics. Another step was taken in 1994 when IFSC was dismembered, giving rise to the Institute of Chemistry of São Carlos (IQSC) and IFSC, whose first dean was Yvonne Primerano Mascarenhas.

Another milestone in the part of IFSC in the history of Materials research in Brazil was the creation, in 1993, of the inter-unit program in Materials Science and Engineering at USP São Carlos. Managed by IFSC, the program brings together professors of this Institute, IQSC and EESC, as well as researchers from other institutions in the region.

Action with academic and social impact

Besides participating in the inter-unit program, IFSC has one of the most acknowledged and applied postgraduate programs in Physics in the country, which has obtained, since its creation, full marks in assessments from the Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES). Within its master’s and doctorate, it is possible to perform research in a wide range of topics, including several possibilities in the Materials field, from fundamental research in Condensed Matter Physics to studies on semiconductor materials, polymers, ceramics and glass. Also in the Materials field, IFSC currently has consolidated research groups, for example, the Polymer Group of “Professor Bernhard Gross,” and is home to large projects such as National Institutes of Science and Technology (INCTs) and Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers.

However, the impact of academic performance of the São Carlos group in the Materials field has exceeded the limits of the city of São Carlos. According to Professor Antonio Carlos Hernandes, the first consequence of this performance was the graduation of doctors (PhD) who began to operate in such field in other higher education institutions. “Thus, many university and research centers operating in Materials today have the IFSC training on their DNA”, says Hernandez.

“IFSC brings together what is essential to the quality of Materials research, with equipment and people with experience in various types of materials,” says Professor Osvaldo Novais de Oliveira Junior, deputy dean of IFSC for the period 2012- 2016. Relying on these features, Novais adds, hundreds of masters and doctors graduated in Materials, many of which have become leaders of research groups in all regions of Brazil. “These leaders of various institutions, as well as others who are part of IFSC, currently play an important role in organizing the Materials community in the country, acting in the Brazilian Materials Research Society (SBPMat), coordinating events and national and international cooperation programs, and formulating public policies”, he adds.

But the impact of IFSC’s performance in the Materials field goes beyond the academic environment. Professor Hernandes highlights, among other examples, the creation of technology-based companies located in the city of São Carlos. “These high-tech companies originated from IFSC researchers work, often involving Materials research”, professor Novais states, which also brings up another type of social contribution made by professors and researchers of the institute, the “tireless work of popularization of science, with various programs for students of primary and secondary education, as well as for the general public. “

SBPMat´s community people: interview with the scientist Sergio Mascarenhas.


Sergio Mascarenhas on September 23,  2012, lecturing at the XI SBPMat meeting, in Florianópolis city (Brazil).

Along his path as a scientist, Sergio Mascarenhas Oliveira, currently 85, has provided some important contributions to the improvement of the scientific research, mainly in Brazil, and for the Materials field in particular. Starting from Solid-state physics, pillar of the Materials Science, he covered several domains of knowledge, such as Molecular Biophysics and Medical Physics, to name a few. Impelled by the idea of fulfilling the social role of the scientist, which is related to social development, Mascarenhas promoted advances in science and technology with a significant impact on areas as farming, health and education.

An example that illustrates the work of Professor Mascarenhas is the recent development of a system to measure the intracranial pressure that is minimally invasive. The motivation for this came when the Professor was diagnosed with hydrocephaly in 2005 and, during treatment, had to be subject to skull drilling operations in order to measure his pressure. From this moment on, jointly with students and companies, as well as supported by several entities, he conducted a series of studies, which lead to a cheaper and minimally invasive system, applicable to a large range of patients.

Mascarenhas was born in Rio de Janeiro. From 1947 to 1951, he studied Physics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro State (UNIRIO) and Chemistry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). After some time as a researcher for universities in the US, he decided to return to Brazil. In the country, he played a major role in the establishment and coordination of some institutions as, among others, the Physics and Chemistry Institute of São Carlos from São Paulo University (USP), the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and its Materials Engineering course (the first one to be offered in Latin America), as well as the instrumentation unit of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and USP’s Institute of Advanced Studies of São Carlos and its International Studies and Projects Program for Latin America, which he still coordinates until this day.

Sérgio Mascarenhas is a Full Professor, now retired, at USP. He was also a visiting professor in the US at the Universities of Princeton and Harvard, and at MIT; at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Japan, the London University (UK), and, in Italy, at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics and at the University of Rome.

He has advised about 50 theses for master’s degrees and doctorates, and published approximately 200 articles and books. Among many awards and honors, it is worth mentioning the Grand Cross of the National Order of Scientific Merit (given in Brazil, by the President of the Republic); the Guggenheim Award and Fulbright Award (United States); the Yamada Foundation Award (Japan); the Brazilian award from Conrado Wessel Foundation in 2006 in the General Science category, and titles of Emeritus Professor and Honorary Doctorate degrees from several universities in Brazil and abroad. In 2012, it was time for the SBPMat to grant Professor Mascaranhas an award, the memorial lecture Joaquim Costa Ribeiro. Mascarenhas is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society, and a founding member of the Latin American Academy of Science, and of the Academy of Science of the São Paulo State.

Below, there is a transcription of the interview Professor Mascarenhas gave us at 08:30 PM on March 26, once a work meeting was closed. The scientist told us a little about his background, the social role of the scientist, and his message to our younger readers.

Main contributions to science, technology and innovation, particularly in the Materials field in Brazil.

As I started doing sciences in Brazil in a moment when there was virtually no Materials, I was lucky enough to introduce this kind of research, both in applied and basic forms. So, I would say that, from the institutional perspective, an important contribution was the creation of the Condensed Matter Physics Group in the Physics Institute at USP São Carlos, in the 1960s. Thanks to a very intense exchange between USP São Carlos and the universities of Princeton and Carnegie Mellon in the United States, as well as groups from England and Germany, mainly from Stuttgart, we managed to establish a very strong researchers training program, which still exists today.

After that, I had the chance to be the first president of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), and then, I proposed the creation of the Materials Engineering Course. It was the first course of studies in Materials Engineering in Latin America, and was a great success, both on the academic and the business sides. So, these were two institutional contributions that led to the establishment of an actual School of Materials Science and Engineering in Brazil.

From the point of view of the research, there are contributions that I managed to do with the collaboration of many young and senior professors. First, the researches related to the defects in crystals, such as ionic crystals with color centers, through radiation or crystal growth with impurities. These ionic crystals displaying color centers were used later for optical memories. This was the result from a very strong collaboration between our group from São Carlos with the RCA laboratories in Princeton and Bell Labs, in the United States.

Another field we were pleased to see how it developed was the electrets, dielectric materials that can retain an electrical polarization for a very long time, up to 100 years, as we see in teflon. These electrets, then, were studied mainly by the group advised by professor Bernard Gross, who I was happy to bring to São Carlos. He worked with groups from MIT and Bell Labs and they developed the famous electrets microphone, which was used in all cell phones, telephones and many other applications. This was an application that gained a global status, coming from a product that was practically born in São Carlos.

Later, my extension of this concept of electrets to biological materials led to the concept of bioelectrets, which are biological materials also capable to retain an electrical polarization for a very long time. The concept of bioelectrets, I think, was one of the contributions that I was fortunate to do, and today is globally used. There is a book on electrets published by Springer publishing house [MASCARENHAS, S. 1979. Bioelectrets: electrets in biomaterials and biopolymers. Electrets – Topics in Applied Physics., Springer-Verlag, vol. 33 , p. 341 – 346] in which, in one of the chapters, I discuss this notion of biolectrets. The concept applies to proteins, DNA, polysaccharides. I think this concept is very important for being significant in Biology and Medicine.

Finally, we started working with concepts of Materials also in the field of Molecular Biophysics and Medical Physics. It happed due to the fact that I was invited by Nobel laureate Abdus Salam to conduct, in Trieste (Italy), a series of courses, for twelve years, in these two areas. These contributions were capable to spread the idea and the career in Medical Physics in many developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. So, this was one of the contributions that please me the most.

But it all depends on people, especially young people. I always say that professors are only good when they have students that are even better than them. I had the joy of counting with students that were better than me, who went further and continued with the school of Condensed Matter Physics, such as in the case of professor Roberto Faria, who, nowadays, it the president of SBPMat and works in the frontier of conductive polymers – a revolution in the field of electronics, energy, pharmacology etc.

Current occupations and new frontiers of knowledge.

Lately, I have been concerned with examining phenomena under the point of view of complex phenomena, in which there is a great amount of variables and non-linear phenomena. For example, there is the brain, the Internet, the origins of life. So, the engineering of complex systems for Materials results in a number of very important effects, which are going to be gradually explored. This issue of complex systems permeates Engineering, Biology, Education, Agribusiness, which is one of the most important areas for humanity in the production of food, the issue of biomass, which is a very important problem for the production of energy, and the comprehension of the brain.

So, I think my function now it to draw the attention of the youth and of the research centers in developing countries to the importance of studying complex systems, which requires a lot of computer modeling, the understanding of what is artificial intelligence, Game Theory, chaotic systems, fractals… And the research on complex materials holds a crucial importance.

Another area that I think is going to progress more, and is an announced revolution, is the biomimetics field. You look to biological nature, which has worked for millions of years to produce materials as shells, bone, hair, organs, and learn how the evolution of the properties of these materials occurred. It is as we could open the large biological treasure of knowledge.

The social role of the scientist.

I think the social role of the scientist is essential for two reasons. First, if you look at the human history, all great evolutionary leaps in human thought came from basic science, which turned into technology. It is important for the scientist to provide, not only a voice to society, but some kind of self-awareness of the society, which is consolidated in science, technology and education policies. I think one of the best examples for that is looking at the convergence between science and technology. When Faraday’s electric motor was invented, it took about 40 years for it to be fully used. Nowadays, you cannot even think what would happen to society if there were no electric motors. When nuclear energy was discovered, in 10 to 15 years it already had some applications. And in the same year laser was invented, it was applied. Then, the convergence between science and technology is huge. It means that scientists and research are important to produce economic development, which leads to social development, which leads to cultural development, which leads to what Charles Percy Snow said was the third culture. In his book, “The two cultures”, he showed that, by the time of World War II, there was a very long distance from humanism to science and technology, even a lack of respect between these two players of the human development. But said distance has to converge into a third culture, in which it is possible to find a much more holistic view, not only of men, but also of the universe, as in the example of the Gaia theory  of James Lovelock.

So, for the social development, research is the only weapon that men can hold to bring humanity to a stage of respect for nature, humanity itself and its role in the cosmos. I think, if we didn’t have universities producing researches and extension, and then taking their researches out, we wouldn’t see the formation of the virtuous cycle, which transforms knowledge into quality of life and new possibilities for men, for this homo sapiens sapiens that came out of caves and went to space.

A message to our younger readers, starting their careers.

I think this career, in Materials Science, Materials Engineering, Biomaterials, Complex Materials, is a huge world that is at dispose for the future of mankind, but this future depends on today’s youth, who can face its challenges and experience the great pleasure of building a more virtuous humanity through the research with Materials. If you start to think what Materials mean to human life, even in a more straightforward perspective, focused on happiness and wellbeing, our lives depend on materials. Our nutrition depends on materials, as well as communication, health, the manufacturing of equipment, machines, robots, ships and satellites. Thereby, materials really are a great source for innovation and wealth. The young people choosing this career are actually choosing to work for the future of science and technology.

“Memorial Lecture Joaquim Costa Ribeiro” honrará Sergio Mascarenhas Oliveira no XI Encontro da SBPMat.


Sergio Mascarenhas Oliveira será o segundo cientista honrado com a “Memorial Lecture Joaquim Costa Ribeiro”, honraria instituída pela SBPMat em 2011 em homenagem ao brasileiro Joaquim Costa Ribeiro, pioneiro nas pesquisas de fronteira na área de Materiais. A primeira palestra foi concedida no ano passado ao professor da UFPE Sergio Machado Rezende.

Nesta palestra, Mascarenhas apresentará uma revisão da pesquisa em Materiais e suas aplicações no Brasil, começando justamente por Costa Ribeiro e chegando até o boom da transdisciplinaridade do século XXI, e apresentará propostas e cenários para o médio e longo prazo. O palestrante também abordará a questão dos sistemas complexos e o conceito de metamateriais.

A apresentação ocorrerá no primeiro dia do XI Encontro da SBPMat (domingo 23) no Espaço Cascaes.

Resumo do trabalho em inglês: http://www.eventweb.com.br/xisbpmat/specific-files/manuscripts/index.php?file=xisbpmat/13079_1347230660.pdf