Guest post – doing ecology in Canada and Brazil

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Isabela Borges, a Brazilian who completed part of her undergraduate degree in Canada and is now exploring where to pursue a graduate degree. A while back we had an ask us anything question 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 third in that series.

As a Brazilian who spent the past few years studying ecology and evolution in Canada, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between doing science in developed and developing countries*. I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where I started my undergraduate work before transferring to Canada to complete my degree, and am now back in Brazil considering where to continue my education. Having navigated both worlds, I’ve had the great privilege of seeing first-hand how science is conducted and perceived in these countries. Pavel and Falko already gave an overview of how ecology is done in developing countries, so I thought I could talk a bit about the contrasts between Brazil and Canada that most affected my experience as a student.

The main contrast is obvious and outside of academics’ control. In the past few years, the Brazilian government has cut investments in science to an extreme, irresponsible, and cruel extent. The fact that Brazilian academia has continued to be productive speaks to the amazing resourcefulness and persistence of its members, but shouldn’t distract from the disastrous consequences that those cuts will have. Researchers are being forced to cancel projects, students can’t count on scholarships and stipends to be paid, and the strikes needed to protest it all lead to even more delays in production and graduation. I cannot imagine my Canadian peers sharing most of the concerns my friends and I have about Brazilian academia in terms of job security and quality of life. Delayed paychecks, unsafe conditions, political instability – these are issues affecting undergraduates and tenured professors alike. I know there are problems in the practice of science in developed countries as well, but the situation in North America and Europe still seems utopic in comparison.

In many ways, studying ecology in Brazil will always be wonderful. We have some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, species, and landscapes. Our scientific community is superb in both production and engagement. The reality, however, is that current working conditions drain a tremendous amount of energy that could otherwise be used to generate knowledge. Things that once seemed ordinary here – the utter lack of safety on campus, the frequency of fires and chemical emergencies, scarce and ancient equipment – now strike me as unfair and unacceptable. For me, it means that leaving feels selfish and staying feels complicit. The problems are so ingrained into the fabric of the country, I don’t think there is enough resistance that can be enacted within academia to change much – and who wants to go into politics**?

Academically, the combination of perks and hardships of doing biology in a developing country has direct consequences to how students spend their energy. In Brazil, the most passionate work I saw came from undergraduates putting together outreach events and spearheading local conservation and sustainability initiatives. The fact that I was attending a public university in difficult economic and political times emphasized the need for these institutions to be arenas for short-to-medium-term problem solving, and I grew to greatly admire my peers’ involvement in societal issues. Being part of that community was what made me love biology, and I assumed this would be the general atmosphere of student communities elsewhere. When I got to Canada, however, the focus seemed entirely academic. I completely lost touch with that sense of urgency and accountability towards non-academic issues.

All things considered, Canada has more or less figured out how to be a safe democracy, and this had a larger effect on me than I would have predicted when I first moved. The general lack of interest in outreach and applied initiatives was disappointing at first, but I quickly got used the privilege of living in a more functional country, and let my own interest slip. The increased focus on hypothesis-driven research was surprising and fascinating to me. It was present in all the research opportunities I had, advised by North American PIs, with North American peers and funds. The biases I absorbed about the differences in prestige between descriptive/applied research and hypothesis-driven/theoretical work has obviously influenced my preference for the latter, but in a way that I can’t untangle from my own personal taste. Now that I’m back home, the pull of North American academia is weaker and the issues of my country are clearer – and I’m finding it difficult to be as excited about doing work that seems disconnected from the everyday realities of where I live.

In Canada, I got to do research in different labs, fieldwork in different countries, and get paid for my work. At every step of the way, I heard from friends back home who were stuck in labs where they didn’t want to be because there wasn’t funding to go elsewhere, who didn’t have a reliably functioning library, and were often without class due to water or power outages on campus***. That mix of experiences gave me insights about these separate academic worlds that are now weighting on me as I try to sort out my grad school aspirations, along with the geography of the next few years of my life.

I think these decisions are harder to make in developing countries, where there is so much more uncertainty and, at least for me, a weird one-sided relationship with a nation that you desperately want to help grow but that doesn’t support you in your own development. Wherever I go next, I know I want to end up back home. I hope having an international perspective can make me a better, more aware and responsible scientist for Brazil.

 

* I know there are many issues with those designations, but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll use them anyway. Given how I’m only discussing my (limited, westernized) experience, what I mean by developed and developing are North America/Europe and Latin America/Africa, respectively.

 

** If US politics makes you hopeless, check out Brazil’s last 3 years.

 

*** Rio de Janeiro was one of the states most affected by Brazil’s economic crisis, which had huge impacts on its Federal and State universities, where my friends are. I can’t really speak for the situation in other parts of the country.

21 thoughts on “Guest post – doing ecology in Canada and Brazil

  1. “For me, it means that leaving feels selfish and staying feels complicit.” – That is a powerful sentence, Isabela; one that really resonates with me too.

    Ecologists from developing countries suffer through this vicious cycle all the time. Research capacity is weak in our home countries, so we seek opportunities abroad, which further reduces the likelihood of of ever growing research capacity locally…

    • Hi Falko,

      I’m glad it resonated with you! I didn’t want to be too gloomy but also didn’t have much of a solution to suggest. Hopefully by thinking and talking about the problem we can eventually find a way to break the cycle.

  2. Isabela, you clearly have a future in writing–academic, popular, English, Portuguese, I suspect any style, format or language you choose. Keep going!

  3. As someone who has worked in Latin America and in Canada, I noticed some large differences between students studying in both milieus. In Latin America, students often have awe-inspiring taxonomic skills but can be a little weaker on theory. For example, I once went to the forest with a woman who was working as a tech for a well known researcher. She could recognize over 400 tree species from their seeds alone and basically, the researcher’s program could not have existed without her. Here in Canada, our taxonomic skills are eroding to non-existent, and if you put a few images of common organisms on the screen, students will be hard pressed to recognize most of them. I hear that in the UK it is even worse, and that you can no longer do a degree in Botany, which I find pretty expletive deleted sad (see http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3108/beej.17.2)

    So I think that our colleagues from Latin America have a lot to teach us, and while theory is important, there is a lot of other stuff that is also important, like, you know, recognizing stuff

    • Taxonomists are an endangered species, aren’t they? And taxonomista are really undervalued, even in megadiverse countries. Often even ecologists undervalue taxonomic work, considering it just something that needs to be done to get an ecological study published, and being able to perform fancy statistical analyses is much more appreciated than being able to identify species.
      But I think this is at least in part because it’s harder to publish a species list in a good journal, even if it’s from a nearly unknown environment, than to publish a study with a well-known model species – even though making the species list often demands a lot more work. Perhaps data papers may be a solution to this, but I’m not sure.

  4. Great post, Isabela, thank you for writing this!
    One thing I found interesting is about outreach. Throughout my ten years at UFSCar, I was actively participating in outreach activites, and I know many people who were as well. In general, it seems to me, based on my own experience and on talking with people, that outreach, societal and political activites are common among students (and also staff) in universities in Brazil’s South and Southeast. Conversely, these activites are lacking where I am now, in the Northeast. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with Brazil’s geography, the South and Southeast regions are the most developed ones, and the North and Northeast the least. So if in Canada outreach may not be that needed because it is a well-structured demography, perhaps in the Brazilian Northeast (based on my own very limited experience) people have given up on outreach, as they don’t believe they’ll be able to solve anything anyway.

    • Hi Pavel, I’m happy you liked the post! That’s an interesting difference, I wonder if there’s some kind of socioeconomic spectrum dictating interest in outreach that goes something like: no outreach needed, outreach needed and possible, outreach needed and difficult. I have a friend who’s planning to go to UFRPE soon, and I’m curious to see how she feels about the differences between there and UFRJ. It’s definitely difficult to make any generalizations for a country this big.

      • Yes, there might be an “outreach gradient”… Sort of like an intermediate-disturbance-for-outreach-hypothesis?* But it might be for historical reasons as well – social movements in the North and Northeast have long been repressed…

        Another thing I wanted to mention, about descriptive vs hypothesis-driven research: I’ve seen both, durung my undergrad and grad years, but a focus on hypothesis-driven studies is clear in the younger professors; sometimes to the point of making trivial hypotheses instead of interesting descriptive questions. But I wonder how good this is. New species are being describef all the time, and we know next to nothing on the natural history of most Neotropical species, so shouldn’t we think more highly of descriptive studies?

  5. Dear Isabela, great post!

    As a Brazilian doing my PhD in Switzerland I felt like you’ve summarized some of my thoughts in this great text, thank you! Most of the time I feel like “leaving in a bubble” here and reading your post made me somehow even more aware of this. I also have to agree with Falko that your sentence “For me, it means that leaving feels selfish and staying feels complicit.” is powerful and this is sometimes how I feel relative to my choice of doing the PhD here, so thank you for putting it into words. Unfortunately, the situation in Brazil for researchers seems to be getting worse with all the cuts promoted by the government and making any kind of science has become terribly hard for everyone. Therefore, in my opinion (and maybe this could help you with your decision regarding your future career), being here in Switzerland right now is my best chance to become a good scientist in the future for Brazil.

    • Thank you so much, Mariana! It’s difficult when the choice of where to continue your career feels like a choice between yours and your country’s interests. I’m slowly realizing that it’s not that dramatic of a dichotomy, but it’s still something I think about a lot. I’m glad you’re happy with your decision, and it’s always nice to hear from people who left and plan to return.

  6. Great post, Isabela. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. As a Brazilian (also from Rio de Janeiro) I felt like reading my own thoughts and concerns about the future. In your sentence “a weird one-sided relationship with a nation that you desperately want to help grow but that doesn’t support you in your own development” you’ve put into words feelings that I and many other researchers have, especially with this controversial political situation. After living a year of my PhD here in Spain, I can understand the contrasting feelings you can have when returning to a turbulent home. But I also believe that no matter where you live or work, you can still help to improve Brazilian research, by collaborating with local researchers and guiding students.

    • Thanks Ana! I think you’re absolutely right, where you’re based matters less when there’s so much in terms of collaborations and projects and mentoring that can be done internationally. It’s really nice to hear that my feelings on the subject are shared by others with similar experiences. Cheers!

  7. Pingback: Guest post: ecology done and being done in Latin America | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Pingback: Doing Ecology in Brazil: the feeling of being almost there (and should we really want to be ‘there’)? | Dynamic Ecology

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