I took this photo from a moving cab in Brasilia the other day…
September 28th, 2012

I took this photo from a moving cab in Brasilia the other day, as we raced around the vast concourse where the iconographic monument is located. The round white futurist assembly building is part of the whole complex. As you can see, the surrounding buildings share the same modernist spirit as the original monument and in fact the entire city is a great big modern urban utopia. When I was in grade six we all had to do a project on a city somewhere on the globe. For some reason, I chose Brasilia. It was only a year or so old and I guess I was fascinated by the sheer newness of the experiment. My show and tell included several images of the round assembly hall and the surrounding sculpted monuments. In the days long before the web my helpful father scrounged the public library for the photographs. Those reimages have stick with me ever since.

And so here I am after all these years, getting quite the thrill of being in a city with which I had an early fascination. In the ‘fifties, the government of the day decided to relocate the capital of the country to a completely new, from-the-ground-up construction in the centre of the country, away from tourism-crowded Rio. A call for design and major urban planning went out and the winner was Oscar Niemeyer who made his reputation on the enlightened architecture of modernism. Today the city looks like a shining example of mid-twentieth century aesthetics. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well, a largely successful experiment in poured concrete.

I am here with a mission from Atlantic Canada. We have been traveling the country, meeting dignitaries and educators. Brazil is very much in fashion now, especially with Canada. The Brazilian government committed to exporting about 100,000 students in the next few years in their Science Without Borders initiative—getting the population educated for the 21st century—and so we are here to see about exchanges, partnerships, language training, opportunities for mutual benefit, and so on. In Sao Paulo the Canadian Embassy threw us a lovely welcoming reception. We have since met with the secretary of Education in the state of Pernambuco and many university officials. It’s fascinating. These trips are well worth the cultural immersion. One learns a lot in a fairly short amount of time—but especially about education systems and the challenges facing a country like Brazil that is ramping up quickly to compete with major world powers.

I have certainly heard two recurring themes all week. First is that language is a huge challenge. Brazilians don’t speak English. I don’t speak Portuguese either and so there’s been a lot of head bobbing and hand gesturing, a maddening reality when you need to find a washroom. Clearly, we need to step up our own capacity for language training, while the Brazilians need to start teaching second and third languages early in their own education programs. We learned how to train Asian students and so we likely should be focusing, as well, and with equal efficiency, on this South American market. The institution that gets that and gets it done soon will be well ahead of the competitive recruitment game.

Second point is that Brazilian parents do not want their children traveling for education. They want them close to home, where they can a good eye on them, not far away in the great big unsafe, drug-addled world. That’s a cultural fear we share, I should think, and it’s what keeps Canadian students from traveling abroad in greater numbers.

But Brazil will be hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 and so the country is experiencing a fair bit of anxiety about being prepared for international scrutiny. Language training will be part of the planning and will help accelerate awareness of the importance of education. I am not sure about changing parental attitudes about travel, however, and so that remains a longer term challenge, as it does for us.

There is no doubt things are changing here rapidly. You can feel the stress of expectation.

I have lots more to say about this experience but now I am off to a meeting at Sao Paulo University, a large and prestigious institution whose top-flight students I would love to lure to our doctoral programs.

Ciao ciao, as they like to say here.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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