Tag Archives: travel

The foreign language of science: a trip to Brazil and thoughts on the elite

Surf: Brazil In September, I traveled with fellow BSR blogger Piper Klemm to Florianopolis, Brazil to attend a meeting of their Materials Research Society. The official language of the conference was not English, and despite assurances from the conference organizers, we were confronted with an odd experience: speakers giving talks entirely in Portuguese, accompanied by slides in English. When presenters from North America, Europe, and Asia spoke, they reverted to English or (occasionally) Spanish. Even in a different hemisphere, English was alive and well as the vehicular language. We were able to pick up plenty of information, and take some photos (seen throughout this story-click to see full size) to boot. In between talks, though, I reflected on what English’s dominance means for the average global citizen.

Balneario Camboriu In Brazil, English might be lingua franca for science, but this stood in contrast to the rest of the country. Even in airports and large hotels, where one might expect some international contact, few people spoke more than cursory snippets of English. At the end of the day, the majority are blocked from directly interacting with science for two reasons: certainly, because of a lack of a basic education in science, but also because they did not speak the language of the majority of other scientists.

Inspiration from abroad

Fourteen hours into a 21 hour train ride, I began to second-guess myself: had I make a mistake in weighing the cost vs. benefit ratio of my trip?  After 19 hours of flights and layovers to reach St. Petersburg, a maze of buses and subways, a 21 hour train ride to a small town in northwest Russia, a concerning “off road” bus ride to a discrete dock, and a very cold boat ride through the gray bleakness, we finally reached the remote field station along the White Sea.  I was exhausted, and (as the person who had travelled the farthest) becoming concerned that perhaps I was being too indulgent with time, money, and resources by travelling this far to learn protocols and information that I could have probably obtained by reading a paper or walking to a neighboring lab at Berkeley.

Fourteen hours into the program, I had no more doubts – travelling halfway around the world to discuss scientific questions and to collaborate with researchers from various parts of the world is absolutely worth it.

Notes from the field: Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

If I told you that I recently travelled to Brazil and saw a number of the world’s most unique plants and animals while trekking through a densely vegetated, humid environment, you’d probably assume I was referring to a hike through the Amazon rainforest, right? That’s because, for good reason, the Amazon attracts quite a bit of international attention — its struggles against deforestation and pollution make their way onto the pages of mainstream news outlets frequently. Meanwhile, we rarely, if ever, hear about the determined fight for the survival of Brazil’s other great forest: the Atlantic Forest on Brazil’s southeast coast. But the Atlantic Forest is exactly where I found myself over winter break, and while my excursion into a protected area of the forest accounted for just one day of the two-week long trip, its beauty and fragility left a lasting impression on me and my fellow travelers.

The main thing to know about the Atlantic Forest is that it is currently about 85% smaller than it was five centuries ago, yet it still houses nearly as much biodiversity as the much larger Amazon rainforest to the north. A large fraction, up to 40%, of its biodiversity cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. Extensive deforestation and fragmentation has made it necessary for NGO’s to step in and help maintain the vibrancy of the now fragile ecosystem. For example, my excursion was guided by members of a non-profit organization called Projeto Juçara, whose mission is to protect the Juçara palm tree. Juçara (juice-ARE-uh) palms are heavily poached for their edible palm hearts, and over time the trees have become one of the many endangered species residing in the Atlantic Forest. As my companions and I walked through the forest, we scattered Juçara seeds alongside the path in the hope that we could help restore the tree to healthy numbers in that area of the forest.