Guest post: doing ecology in Brazil

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Pavel Dodonov, a postdoc in Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question (from Pavel in fact) on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is the first of what I hope will be several on this topic.

Brian invited me to write this post on my own “experiences, questions, challenges, opportunities, etc on doing ecology in a developing country”, namely in Brazil, and I gladly accepted. In order to have a more representative view, I also asked some friends about their own impressions; still, it is likely that my post is too optimistic, especially considering that I did all my studies in a university in São Paulo state, which is the most developed state in Brazil. Plus, being the son of a university professor, I come from a fairly privileged background, which made things easier for me.

I have a degree in Biological Sciences and a Masters and PhD in Ecology, all from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), and currently I’m a post-doc at the State University of Santa Cruz, in Bahia. During my PhD I spent six months in Canada, including four months at Dalhousie University in Halifax (NS) and two months doing fieldwork at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Manitoba. This was a fantastic experience for several reasons – Canada is beautiful; I was able to work more closely with my cosupervisor; doing fieldwork in a totally different environment was quite awesome; but, most of all, it made me realize that we in Brazil are not as far behind in Science as we often think we are. During the two-month field season I noticed that my own ecological training was on the same level as of the other people working there, and in Halifax I was able to help some people with statistical analyses. So my first impression is that we do have good knowledge and training here; what we often lack is self-confidence and a more publication-oriented thought, or more confidence in our ability to write papers for high-ranking journals. Yet I know many great researchers here, publishing in high-ranking journals including Nature or Science, driven by scientific curiosity and applied conservation issues and performing really fantastic research.

Still, there are many difficulties, some of which I present below:


The main difficulty for doing ecological research may be the language. English is the lingua franca of science – but, even though we have English as a school subject, it is really basic and often not well taught. English is needed not only to read and write manuscripts, but also because many important text books have not been translated and because software often does not have support in any other language. Even learning R without understanding what the function names mean seems quite hard.

There are English courses and schools, but they are often too expensive for people with lower income. Yes, it is possible to learn English by yourself, but it demands a lot of time and dedication which many people just don’t have. Basic English knowledge is a requirement to entering at least some grad courses, and recently (in 2012) the Brazilian government started the program “Inglês sem Fronteiras” (“English without Borders”), providing free online courses and free TOEFL exams for students and staff. Still, it’s not the same as having good English education since childhood.


Actually, I’m not quite sure how hard it is to get funding here as compared to, for example, Canada or the USA. We have some advantages: the good universities, including grad courses, are free – so no debts acquired to pay for your education. On the other hand, one usually has to go to a good school to pass the university admission exams, and these schools are quite expensive. The good news is there have been several initiatives to make the universities more socially inclusive, including racial quotas or quotas for people from public schools. There are also bolsas, which can be broadly translated as scholarships, from the undergraduate to the post-doc level; some of them are directed at lower-income people whereas others analyze solely the applicant’s grades, curriculum and research project. These bolsas may be granted by the University, by State funding agencies or by Federal funding agencies. As a reference, those given by the main Federal agency, CNPq, are of about 125 USD per month for undergrads, 470 USD for Masters students, 690 USD for PhD students, and 1280 USD for post-docs, and may or may not have additional resources for fieldwork, conferences, equipment etc. There is also funding to send students abroad – the Ciência sem Fronteiras (Science without Borders) was a really fantastic program for this – and to bring researchers for conferences or research projects. But now we’re facing severe cuts in funding for science, so the future of Brazilian science as a whole may be at stake.


Acquiring equipment is often hard, due to importation taxes and the not really effective mail delivery. And I’m not speaking solely of expensive equipments; basic stuff, including flagging tape and rite-in-the-rain fieldbooks, is quite hard to come by, so I sometimes ask my cosupervisor to bring flagging tape from Canada. When equipment gets broken it also takes a long time to be replaced, often delaying one’s research for months. The good part of it is that we’re good in improvising and “doing more with less”. In addition, there often isn’t enough funding to pay for gas etc, or for some reason you’re not allowed to use your funding for it, so paying from your own pocket to do research is not uncommon. My own research was only possible because I had a car and was not afraid to use it.

My car during my Master’s field work at a cerrado site

There are many well-equipped laboratories, with equipment acquired from different funding sources throughout the years. Conversely, there are other universities with a lack of things like toilet papers and doors in the bathrooms, and even the best universities may lack drinking water in some buildings. So, as for all else in Brazil, there’s huge variation in university infrastructure.


Safety in the field:

For some strange reason first-aid or survival courses are neither mandatory nor common, not even in large projects such as the BDFFP. In many sites there are issues with poachers or criminals – I have a friend who had to be escorted by the police due to poacher activity, and another who had to stop fieldwork for a week or two because of gunfire in the area.


Other fieldwork issues:

This likely applies to other countries as well… Dealing with people is not trivial, and it may happen, for example, that the management of a protected area changes during your fieldwork and the restrictions to your research change as well. Private owners not always respect what was agreed on; tags, equipments etc may be stolen by people living or passing through the area; when working in areas of traditional or indigenous communities, it is often not clear to whom as for permission, and your study may be interrupted at the final and most important stage. These are all true stories.


The good things

Still, not all is bad. Working in an ultra-biodiverse country is amazing;  we sometimes get to see maned wolves, golden-headed lion tamarins, toucans and hear the howler monkeys howl even when we’re working with plants, and a lot of fieldwork can be done in closeby areas. A significant part of my own research was carried out at a Cerrado fragment within the university.

Golden-headed-lion-tamarins at a university campus in Bahia.

There are also great opportunities to work with environmental education with the people living at or near your study sites. There are opportunities to hire local people to help with the fieldwork – people who are much better than we are at doing the hard work. It is of course necessary not to treat them as cheap work force – still, I think they receive as much as a biologist would receive to do the same work. I myself always relied on volunteer help from friends and colleagues, and provided volunteer help for many people as well, but in some cases – climbing trees, placing transects in really difficult sites, driving long hours and so on – volunteer help is not enough, and even for simpler taks finding help is never easy.


Finally, we sort of have our own blogosphere, in Portuguese! For any Portuguese-speaking people reading this, some recommended blogs are Marco Mello’s “Surviving in Science”, Renata Muylaert’s “A Biologist”, Rafael Loyola’s “Zen Scientist”, Agusto Ribas’s “Recology”, and my own “Another Ecology and Statistics Blog”. (An aside from Brian – Google Translate makes it possible for an English speaker to read these blogs in a matter of seconds, believe me it is worth the slight extra effort).

Many thanks to Raquel Miatto, Renata Muylaert and Milene Eigenheer for helping me with this post, and to Brian for the invitation and the great post on this subject a while ago.

15 thoughts on “Guest post: doing ecology in Brazil

  1. This is a great post, Pavel, thanks for writing it. Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with an inspiring and talented group of Brazilian early career researchers, and I’ve been extremely impressed with their commitment and motivation. These young people are the best resource that Brazil’s universities possess, notwithstanding the issues that you highlight regarding basic resources.

    In 2013 I had the privilege of spending a month teaching and doing field work in Brazil and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. During that month I produced a series of blog posts that may be of interest to anyone contemplating visiting the country as an ecologist; they start here:

    • Thanks, Jeff! I’m glad you liked this post.
      It’s nice to hear the impressions of people who come here to teach courses and to know that this is a good experience for you as well as for the people taking the course here.

  2. Hi Pavel! Congratulations for the nice post, which provides an accurate picture of our reality as ecologists working in Brazil. And it is very good that you keep a positive view, despite the awful crisis we have been facing since 2014. Crises come an go, so we need to be persistent and resilient. “Always look on the bright side of life” (Python 1979).

  3. I’m sure scientific training in developing countries ca be just as good as training in the US, Canada or Europe.

    Up until WWII, the center of scientific research was Europe, and European scientists frequently perceived Americans as inferior. No doubt, US research achieved parity w/ Europe long before it was perceived as equal, and the same is likely true of today’s dev countries.

    • Good point! It’d be interesting to see if a country can be perceived as equal in terms of scientific training and research while being seen as lagging in terms of economy and human development.

      • Yes, that would be interesting…I wonder if China is close to that now. I also think it’s interesting how perception lags reality.

  4. This is an excellent topic and post! I just would like to add some extra points coming from other developing country.

    Not surprinsingly, not every developing country is the same, especially regarding scientific development. I am from El Salvador, and the biggest obstacle I see while being an ecologist (or a scientist in general) is the lack of what I call “scientific culture or history”. In my country the tradition has been importing knowledge instead of producing it. The best example of what this trend means is the lack of doctoral degrees in biology or in any natural science in the country (consider that we have a population of around 6 million). This forces us to leave and work as a scientists out of our countries for quite a while. This situation is similar in the rest of central american countries.

    I can see that the situation is different in the bigger countries in Latin America: Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colomba, Chile just to mention some. I wonder to what extent this the effect of history (since colonial times, central america was not as developed from the rest of the region) or the size of the economy.

    Either way, the main challenge is to convince our society (and our politicians) that is worth to invest in science.

    • Hi Carlos,
      This is an important point, thanks for pointing this out! I’d just like to say that, although many universities in Brazil have PhD courses, there still is very little science culture. A large part of the population doesn’t know what’s the use of science and what scientist do, and see grad students and sometimes even pos-docs as students who don’t work, just study and have an easy life. “So you’re just a student? You don’t work?” is a common phrase – even though a very important part of scientific research is done by grad students. (I personally was never asked this question; my response would be “Yep; and you just work, you don’t study? You’re lazy, man! :-)”)
      Convincing the politicians is even harder. As people don’t understand the importance of science, cutting funds for science does not make a politician look bad or lose votes in the next election.
      Regarding specifically ecology, importing knowledge is another issue – we often use theoretical models and classification systems developed elsewhere, often for temperate ecosystems which don’t really make sense here.

      • Pavel – many parts of what you describe don’t sound so different from North America. There are some PhD comics making fun of this (I couldn’t find it on a quick search though). But I’m sure it plays with its own versions and twists and from different starting points. I think Europe and although I know it less well maybe Asia is a bit better.

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