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Spotlight on ICTP-SAIFR

5th Birthday at the Brazilian Center

5th birthday celebration symposium at ICTP-SAIFR. photo credit: ICTP-SAIFR
5th birthday celebration symposium at ICTP-SAIFR. photo credit: ICTP-SAIFR

01/12/2016 - Trieste

Over one thousand physicists and two thousand graduate students have traveled to São Paulo in the past five years, all drawn to the bustling theoretical physics institute there. The South American Institute for Fundamental Research, known as ICTP-SAIFR, is an ICTP partner institute international research center. SAIFR recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, and hopes to expand and continue its busy calendar of research, training, and outreach activities.

ICTP-SAIFR was the first of ICTP's partner institutions, independent research centers modeled after ICTP, with a similar program of schools, conferences, and visiting scientist programs. ICTP-SAIFR was started with scientific and administrative help from ICTP staff, and extensive support and collaboration from São Paulo State University (UNESP) and the São Paulo Research Funding Agency (FAPESP). Situated on the campus of the Instituto de Fisica Teorica (IFT) at UNESP, ICTP-SAIFR has made a name for itself in physics, acting as an international meeting point and conference center.

Nathan Berkovits, the director of ICTP-SAIFR, oversees a research staff of five scientists and a regular rotation of post-doctoral fellows. With the help of four administrative staff, SAIFR organizes and hosts hundreds of seminars, as well as over 75 schools, workshops, and conferences. "Our scientific calendar is open to including activities on almost anything related to theoretical physics," says Berkovits. "It varies with what our scientists are interested in and what our 60 Associate scientists from around South America propose." Recent activities have covered gravity and string theory, relativistic astrophysics, particle physics, mathematical biology, and pathogen dynamics. "We get a lot of great proposals," says Berkovits. "Right now we can fund about half of the suggested activities."

Running these high-level scientific activities is one of the main successes of ICTP-SAIFR over the past five years, reflects Berkovits. "We are fortunate to have hired great faculty, who do high-quality research," he says, highlighting the support that both FAPESP and The Simons Foundation have provided to fund competitive positions for talented young scientists. The ICTP-SAIFR faculty contributed to a recent citation of its host UNESP by the journal Nature, for the university’s sharp increase in quality research output. Nature pointed to UNESP's strength in physics, which is reinforced by the quality work coming from ICTP-SAIFR's scientists.  

ICTP Director Fernando Quevedo is very proud of ICTP-SAIFR's accomplishments in its first five years of existence: "It's far beyond my expectations," says Quevedo, chair of ICTP-SAIFR's Steering Committee. "It's very difficult to create new institutions. We have been extremely lucky for several reasons; the efforts of local physicists, especially Dr. Berkovits, have been great, and UNESP and FAPESP have been very willing and very supportive." Quevedo hopes that the institute's many accomplishments will allow it to be ambitious in the next few years.  "ICTP-SAIFR is one of ICTP's greatest achievements since I came here."

The faculty is one of many accomplishments of the first five years of SAIFR that both Berkovits and Quevedo point out; another is the training offered to young scientists. ICTP-SAIFR's PhD schools provide a valuable resource to young South American physics students, providing intense instruction over several weeks. These schools train masters and PhD students in the latest research in advanced techniques and fields, as well as providing international networking opportunities. "I think the PhD schools fill a niche, and are really appreciated," says Berkovits, explaining that while most South American countries have excellent undergraduate programs in physics, only a few have well-developed graduate programs. The PhD schools help connect promising graduate students to the international physics community and potential research opportunities.

One of the ICTP-SAIFR initiatives designed to further scientific networking for young scientists is an annual exam for undergraduate students in physics, where the top five students are offered placement in a joint IFT/ICTP-SAIFR/Perimeter Institute Master's program. Peruvian student Vladimir Calvera won the top score at this year's exam, and is currently finishing his studies at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. He's currently interested in quantum optics, but one of the advantages of the master's program is the exposure to the many fields that it offers. "My experience with ICTP-SAIFR has been refreshing," Calvera says, describing the schools and workshops he has attended there. "Subjects I had already been exposed to, I gained new insights into, and also got to learn about many new fields." While his experience so far has been in experimental physics, schools at ICTP-SAIFR have increased his interest in theoretical physics. "The topics are advanced, and a good challenge," Calvera says. "It's been good to meet scientists from all over the world.

Joint activities with other institutes around the world help maintain the flow of high-level, international physicists. In addition to the partnership with ICTP,  SAIFR enjoys a fruitful collaboration with the Perimeter Institute in Canada that has yielded more resources for another one of ICTP-SAIFR's facets, outreach. ICTP-SAIFR professor Pedro Vieira, who holds a joint appointment with Perimeter, has leveraged that partnership to expand outreach in São Paulo. Materials prepared for high school physics teachers by Perimeter, workshops for high school students, science social hours, and public lectures have all helped ICTP-SAIFR excite the next generation of physicists.

There are still challenges ahead, ongoing hurdles that ICTP-SAIFR hopes to address. One, as Berkovits outlines, is the quality of public schools available to students in Brazil. "There's a big gulf in quality between the expensive private schools and the public schools," he says. "Most of the best students in Brazil just don't have access to the best teachers." In addition, historically many of Brazil's top students gravitated to engineering instead of physics, giving engineering a cache that is only gradually shifting. Beyond the effort to raise the quality of students at ICTP-SAIFR, bureaucracy within and between government agencies and universities also makes hiring more faculty and expanding programs difficult, along with a country-wide funding crunch for science.

But overall, ICTP-SAIFR's success is encouraging for its scientists and for physicists throughout South America, as the institute hopes to gradually expand over the next several years. Berkovits hopes ICTP-SAIFR will be able to hire several more permanent faculty, as well as become more competitive and attractive for top talent. "We'd like to become the best theoretical physics institute in South America, one of the top in the world," Berkovits says. "I would love to see someone from our institute be the first Latin-American physicist to win a Nobel Prize." With the current trajectory, that goal may not be far off for the vibrant ICTP-SAIFR.

---- Kelsey Calhoun