Archive for October, 2011

Illinois – a hub state for technology development and creation?

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

We were always told that big technology drivers in the US are institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Caltech, Stanford and other well known for their disruptive inventions and creations. They are indeed very important with their creative environment and technology development. Companies such as Google and Facebook were born in Stanford and Harvard, respectively. Others such as Bose were created in MIT, and the list is extensive. Well, I live in Chicago, Illinois, in the Midwest area of the US and anybody would think the environment here is not very creative or full of innovations. I had no idea that Illinois was also a hub for creations and inventions, especially in very important areas of Information Technology (IT) and the internet. Since the beginning of the 1950s, for example, The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (and not University of Chicago or Northwestern, as anybody would think…) has a legacy of IT Excellence at Illinois with several game-changing breakthroughs in hardware, software, algorithms, and networking. The story of re-imagining how humans interact with computers and with one another, and the power of having immediate access to millions of sources of information was developed in this environment (for more details check the link: http://www.it.illinois.edu/legacy/). These breakthroughs include the invention of the transistor in 1947, which is the precursor of the microprocessor used in computers today. John Bardeen co-invented the transistor while at Bell Labs and subsequently joined the Illinois engineering faculty and physics faculty, where he co-developed the theory of superconductivity. Professor Bardeen became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in the same field (in 1956 for inventing the transistor and in 1972 for his work on superconductivity). The first computer entirely built and owned by an educational institution was also located in the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Other examples in the past include Illinois alumnus Jack Kilby (BS, 1947) that invented the integrated circuit, for which he was subsequently awarded a Nobel Prize. Interestingly, the LED concept and PLASMA screens that are used today in flat screen TVs were invented in the same university. The first practical visible spectrum LED was invented by Nick Holonyak, Jr. Don Bitzer and Gene Slottow, two Illinois alumni and professors, and Illinois graduate student Robert Willson invented the plasma display while working on the PLATO system (the first computer-assisted instruction system). In the 1970s, other technologies included the first parallel supercomputer, the UNIX system license from Bell Labs (which later became the LINUX Operating System). Importantly, in the 1990s, the first popular graphical Web browser named Mosaic (which later became Netscape and then Firefox) was developed by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina while working for this university. It was initially viewed as an exciting new tool, but no one at the time could have predicted that its wide adoption would lead to e-commerce, online classrooms, downloadable music and films, and new worldwide communities of people with shared interests that we see today. Marc Andreessen later became an icon in Venture Capital investments and later founded a VC Fund that helps develop several other interfaces and technologies that are becoming companies of success today (see Marc Andreessen’s TIME Magazine cover when he invented the Netscape browser). Finally, alumnus Max Levchin co-founded PayPal, allowing payments and money transfers to be made via the Internet. In 2005, two Illinois alumni, Jawed Karim and Steve Chen, along with Chad Hurley, were co-creators of YouTube, which has had global impact on everything from popular culture to governmental policies on video sharing in the internet. I did not imagine how many good technologies came out from Illinois and maybe several people out there did not know either. But, Illinois is an important hub for inventions and creations in several aspects of IT and the internet. Who knows what disruptive technology will be invented in Illinois in the future and became a worldwide success? Let’s wait and see…

My thoughts on biomedicine in Brazil

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

This blog post will focus on the recent cover of Nature Medicine discussing brazilian biomedicne and how the country – Brazil – has evolved in several fields but still lags behind in others (for a full story check the October issue of Nature Medicine). Well, I remember perfectly when I was studying in a private high school back in Brazil how difficult it was to enter in the best universities and get a degree (most of the universities are public and funded by the government, some are federal and some are state-funded). My high school was very good but expensive and my parents had a tight budget to maintain both me and my brother in one of these. Difficult times for them, but they made through it. It was also difficult to get into the public universities since we had (and still have) to do an exam (like in America, but here most universities are private). I passed the test and entered in one of the best universities there – the Federal University of Minas Gerais. I remember clearly that the first time I entered in one of the university’s building, it was falling apart… On the other hand, the parking lot of the university was full of fancy and expensive cars. The interpretation is that most students were rich and came from good schools. Moreover, when I started doing a training program in a laboratory inside the university, the infrastructure was awful compared to the ones I see in the USA. Well, I started my blog discussing about the Nature Medicine special and want to go back to this topic since I was interviewed for one of the articles (read the full story “Brazilians lured back home with research funding and stability”). There is no doubt that things in my home country are much better for academic research as discussed in these articles. Brazil contributes today with 2% of the world’s biomedical publication output; however this is slim compared to countries such as the USA and Germany. Even pharmaceutical companies are starting to invest in Brazil. Brazil is indeed becoming the 5th largest pharmaceutical market in the world (read the story “Brazilian drug companies hope to benefit from foreign investment”). I was brainstorming about this topic after reading all articles and came up with a list of pros and cons of doing academic research in each place. First, let’s start with the USA. Things that still attach me here are the quality of research that is done (even though we can expect the same in some places in Brazil such as the state of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and others), most laboratories are well-equipped, the environment is very competitive, publishing articles and patenting ideas is much faster and has little bureaucracy, and I see that the relationship between academic and private sectors is somewhat good and productive (one example is the Silicon Valley close to Stanford University where most tech companies are located, although MIT in Boston is also a good example). The cons that I can point today in the USA are the budget cuts by the government (believe me it is affecting everybody in academia), the tenure track system that is obsolete and broken (this is terrible for young scientist like me that are starting and have new ideas), and the system is very conservative giving a lot of priority to well-established scientists. In the case of my home country, I see a lot of improvement and the pros of coming back to do academic research there are that the system is improving with much more opportunities compared to the USA, more money is being spent with research (which is very little compared to the USA and Europe, but there was a huge increase during the past years), new companies (not just spinoff) are being created coming from academia (much more than before, but I believe that some started in the academic sector in the past; one example was Biobras that started in the 1970s in the Federal University of Minas Gerais). The government together with the Ministry of Science have created incentives and “packages” for young scientists to attract scientists abroad to come back and the stability in the job as an academic professor (which in the USA is not possible until you are tenured…) is also a plus. The cons of coming back are the same old problems I saw when I left. For example, the infrastructure in most places is terrible, the word “bureaucracy” works for everything and I mean everything; the salaries are still low (even though in the USA they are not outstanding…), the relationship between academic and private sectors are still bad, publishing articles and patenting ideas is a painful process and the most important issue for a citizen that was not touched in the Nature Medicine special – social problems and violence in the big centers are still frightening. The amount of poor and miserable people is still alarming and the percentage of people that goes to universities is low compared to the USA. I think Brazil’s economy and science as a whole has improved a lot, but it still has a lot of regulatory issues and problems that somehow keep me in the USA. These are just my thoughts on the American dream slipping away and the idea of coming back starting to tingle. One lesson I have learned is that no place is perfect and you always face difficulties and problems anywhere not just in science. If I am going back or staying here in America just time will tell. For now I am still here…