April 17, 2014
Last year, Stanford University signed an agreement with the government of Brazil to bring some of its brightest graduate students and researchers to Stanford. Today, we meet with Leonardo de Assis, a visiting scholar from The Brazilian Center for Physics Research (Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas or CBPF) located in Rio de Janeiro.
Q. What department are you in and how long will you be at Stanford?
LdA: I am conducting research in the Suppes Brain Lab that is part of Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI). I originally came with the intention of staying for two years. The first year is ending and the Brazilian government has already approved the next four months. In order for me to stay on the additional eight months of the second year, I need to complete a publication in the preceding four months.
Q. Would you be able to share what process you took to get here?
LdA: In 2012, I read an article about the physics of the brain, written by researchers at Stanford University and San Francisco State University. The author from San Francisco State was Brazilian so I decided to contact him to talk about my research interests. As result of this first contact I received an invitation to be a visiting researcher at San Francisco State University between April and May 2012.
During that visit I spent most of my time at Stanford, so that I could meet the research group that generated the article that caught my attention. At that time the lead researcher of the Stanford group invited me to collaborate with his team and also invited me come back to Stanford for a longer visit. After returning to Brazil, I applied for the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program scholarship and I’ve been at Stanford since April 2013.
Q. What is the distinction of being a Lemann scholar?
LdA: For me it represents the recognition of my contribution as a scientist by a respected Brazilian institution. I am quite proud that I was one of the first scholars awarded with this distinction.
Q. What are some of the challenges you experienced during the process?
LdA: The main challenge was and still is financial. Stanford is located in one of the most expensive regions of the U.S. Even with the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program scholarship, the amount paid is still low given the cost of living in the area.
Another challenge was academic. I came to work in an area of interdisciplinary research that was new to me and I had to learn new concepts of physics, biology, psychology, computer science, and statistics in a relatively short time. Finally, there was the challenge with the language.
I have faced all these difficulties and I think I have adapted well to this new reality.
Q. May you describe the scope of your research?
LdA: My research deals on building mathematical models to describe the functions responsible for cognitive processes such as language or emotion. It is an attempt to understand how the brain works using mathematical models. In the future, we hope to be able to be able to decipher thought by looking at the signal processing of brain activity.
Q. What do you love about Stanford?
LdA: Regardless of whether someone here is a staff member or a famous scientist, I am treated with the utmost respect.
Q. What do you miss from home?
LdA: Apart from my family and friends I miss the security of the Brazilian health system. I like the U.S. but it is very expensive to get sick here.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish from your time here?
LdA: With the support of my Stanford collaboration that I will maintain when I return to Brazil, I hope to be able to continue my research with a more global vision of science.
Q. What advice would you give to other Brazilian scholars that would like to come to Stanford?
LdA: The value of research is still relatively young in Brazil. The thinking is that innovation comes from outside the country. Brazil compensates for the lack of good labs with excellent coursework. Therefore Brazilian students are often exceptionally qualified yet they underestimate their own academic qualifications. I encourage Brazilian students to have courage and not be afraid to reach for a foreign institution. Study the language of the country that you want to go to and learn about its culture.
To learn more about the work of the Suppes Brain Lab, click here.