The physicist Sérgio Mascarenhas de Oliveira from Rio de Janeiro, one of the architects of the transformation of the interior of São Paulo into one of the most important scientific centers in the country, died on May 31st at the age of in Ribeirão Preto (SP). 93.
Mascarenhas helped transform the then emerging USP campus in São Carlos into one of Brazil’s major research centers in the field of solid state physics (with areas such as conductors and crystals with important technological applications).
He was also a key figure in the creation and implementation of the UFSCar (Federal University of São Carlos), which is currently the twelfth best university in Brazil according to the Folha University Ranking, and Embrapa Instrumentação Agropecuária, which aim to develop innovative technologies for the agricultural industry.
The researcher and his wife at the time, also scientist Yvonne Primerano Mascarenhas, were less than 30 years old when they made the long journey between Rio de Janeiro and São Carlos for the first time in February 1956.
Mascarenhas and Yvonne (back then with the first child in their arms and the second in their tummy) had to take two different trains in a 24-hour journey, as the paved roads only reached the Rio Claro, 65 kilometers away. In the new town the family would grow to four children and ten grandchildren.
“We found a good physics teaching laboratory with German equipment and a medical X-ray machine in the basement. Sérgio managed to swap it for another one that better suits our goals, ”Yvonne told this reporter in an interview published in Pesquisa Fapesp magazine in 2017.
From these humble beginnings, Mascaren has managed to develop a diverse research portfolio whose interests range from the optical effects of crystal structure to the role of electricity in phase changes (roughly speaking, changes in the “state of matter” such as from solid to liquid).
He had a certain vocation as a polymath and varied interests that led him to apply his discoveries in fields as diverse as medicine and agronomy. He was also intrigued by the more philosophical aspects of his subject and often acted as a scientific popularizer.
“Science is really universal and nature doesn’t know that there are physics, biology, engineering, just poor unidisciplinary scientists, curricula and textbook chapters,” he told journalist Mariluce Moura, also in Pesquisa FAPESP magazine.
Health problems also motivated him to innovate in science. It happened in 2006, when the researcher was diagnosed with hydrocephalus (fluid build-up in the brain) and unhappily learned that it was necessary to drill into his skull to install a sensor inside to measure intracranial pressure.
This is, of course, a very invasive procedure that continues to be performed as it has long been believed that the rigidity of the skull bones prevented a measurement of the internal pressure of the skull outside the skull.
With the help of his mentees, Mascarenhas began to investigate the topic and was able to show that the dogma was wrong: With the help of a relatively simple device, it is possible to measure intracranial pressure non-invasively.
The findings eventually led to a medical technology company called Braincare, whose goal is to use measurements to track a range of health problems that affect the nervous and cardiovascular system, such as head trauma and aneurysms.
“We want it to be possible to practice medicine on the basis of quantitative evidence. This is the key to our work. We were able to show that intracranial pressure is not a number, but a spectrum that varies over time, like an electrocardiogram. And that gives us a lot of information about the state of the central nervous system, ”explained researcher Folha in 2018.
At the time, he pointed out the difficulties of research in the country, which have only worsened since then. “The situation in Brazil for those involved in science and technology is very complicated. We innovate, we create new things, but it’s difficult to get this to market, ”he said.
Ildeu de Castro Moreira, physicist at UFRJ and president of the SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science), an institution of which Mascarenhas was honorary president, highlighted the role of the researcher in the creation of several generations of Brazilian scientists.
“We will miss Sérgio, a fantastic person, a tireless educator, an upright and politically active Brazilian citizen,” he said.
Vanderlei Bagnato, director of the IFSC (Institute of Physics of USP de São Carlos), the academic “house” of Mascarenhas, highlighted the scientist’s commitment to innovation and the social impact of research.
“It was innovative from the start. Even before we even talk about it, I was using science as an essential tool for development. Dissatisfied with the great social inequality in Brazil, he has always fought for science to be the means to change this situation, ”wrote Bagnato.