Who was Sérgio Mascarenhas, Brain::Science's patron and inspiring scientist

Recent contributions of the Brazilian physicist, inventor and professor have revolutionized research on the brain and also opened up pathways for new diagnosis and treatments

Brazilian physicist Sérgio Mascarenhas, professor emeritus at the São Carlos Institute of Physics (IFSC) at University of São Paulo (USP), is the patron and mentor of Brain::Science, a science communication website created by a group of researchers, entrepreneurs and journalists.

Mascarenhas passed away in May 2021 and has left important contributions to brain research, which revolutionized the area and opened doors for new forms of diagnosis and treatment.

A rare mix of inventor, scientist, professor and entrepreneur, Mascarenhas was a tireless defender of the idea and practice of developing Brazil through education and science, technology and innovation, by creating, applying and disseminating technology to solve concrete problems in society.

An emeritus researcher at the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and honorary president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), Mascarenhas has produced and inspired dozens of high-impact technological contributions, the most recent being a revolutionary method for monitoring intracranial pressure and intracranial compliance, overturning a 200-year-old medical doctrine.

Interdisciplinary in nature, his intellectual contribution is internationally recognized in various fields of science and technology, especially in the areas of medical physics, materials engineering and agricultural instrumentation.

Mascarenhas’ collaborative networks include the laboratories of Bell Labs and RCA, the prestigious Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States, as well as centers of high reputation in countries like England, Germany, Mexico and Japan, where Sergio innovated using dosimetry methods to measure the radiation to which victims of the atomic bomb were exposed.

At the genesis of his initiatives was the idea of ​​bringing universities closer to companies and vice versa, focusing on the productive use of new technologies and giving the training of human talents a central role in the engine of innovation.

Over 70 years, Mascarenhas created innovative processes and methods, invented devices, equipment and systems, helped to define parameters of excellence for the provision of essential services with safety and precision, such as individual monitoring of workers exposed to ionizing radiation.

With powerful arguments and captivating speech, our “Professor” – as he was affectionately called by everyone (from elementary school students to ministers of state) – has brought together scientists and scholars, business researchers, philosophers and government officials, technicians and diplomats, students and investors, professors and entrepreneurs. Mascarenhas himself was a kind of amalgamation of all these personas in a single Homo sapiens technologicus and, for that very reason, he knew how to merge the different aspects of knowledge in a program oriented to development and the common good.

Scientific Contributions

Sergio Mascarenhas’ latest contribution and source of inspiration for the launch of Brain::Science has challenged a medical dogma, the so-called Monro-Kellie doctrine, and thereby allowed, for the first time, non-invasive monitoring of intracranial pressure in patients by providing the real-time visualization for doctors and nurses of the graph of this vital sign. Used in even more recent research, the method has revealed, also in an unprecedented way, the properties of the relationship between intracranial pressure and blood pressure. Its applications include neurosurgery, traumatology, cardiology, among other areas.

With this work and by then almost octogenarian, Mascarenhas founded brain4care. In 2021 the technology of the non-invasive monitoring system for intracranial pressure was clear`ed by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), in the United States, and is already in clinical use in 17 hospitals in Brazil, including Albert Einstein, Sírio-Libanês and Beneficiência Portuguesa, in São Paulo, the Pequeno Príncipe Hospital complex in Curitiba, and for research purposes in leading organizations abroad, such as the Cleveland Clinic (USA) and the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center (USA), in a list that grows every day .

More than 40 years earlier, in the early 1970s, he had already created a method for the consolidation of bone fractures with electrical currents, an archeological dating method using paramagnetic electronic resonance, in addition to having developed a cryogenic scalpel, a technology that was previously non-existent in the country, opening a front of collaboration in research with hospitals and medical schools that would multiply over the following years and decades, in several areas of medical specialty.

Over the years, Mascarenhas’ work with medical physics also involved applications of electrets in the field of ​​cardiology, through research carried out in the early 1980s in partnership with Adib Jatene, a physician and former Health Minister of Brazil, through the Institute Dante Pazzanese of Cardiology in São Paulo.

Still in the 1970s, Mascarenhas developed a series of research and technological contributions with the study of bioelectrets, which resulted, for example, in the work carried out in partnership with his then master’s student José Nelson Onuchic, whose dissertation dealt with “research in water biophysics”.

At that time, Mascarenhas was interested in researching the electrical properties of the water molecule under the influence of physicist Linus Pauling and believed that water would work as a bioelectret. The study attracted the attention of physicists Michael Kasha and John Hopfield, opening the doors for Onuchic to do his doctorate at Caltech (USA), which would be the beginning of a brilliant and award-winning international career for the former student from Mascarenhas.

Work with bioelectrets also led Mascarenhas to collaborate with Lars Onsager, a professor at Yale University and Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry in 1968, for whom he co-authored an impact publication in 1978 on the electrical charging effect of amorphous ice, which is present in the clouds. This discovery applies, for example, to the study of lightning and other electrical activities in the atmosphere, which are of crucial importance for understanding the climate and its effects on agribusiness, which led Mascarenhas to idealize a kind of “cloud physics laboratory ”, a scientific and technological dream not yet accomplished in Brazil.

In 1979, his researches on radiation dosimetry methods were also the object of important scientific collaborations between Mascarenhas and researchers in Japan, where he was a visiting professor at the Riken Institute, having published works on the measurement of radiation doses received in the bones of bomb victims dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Other works with thermoluminescent dosimetry of ionizing radiation (technology known by the acronym TLD, from English thermoluminescence dosimetry) also resulted in the creation of one of the first radiation dose monitoring services on occupationally exposed individuals, with the creation of Sapra Landauer – Advisory Service and Radiological Protection, a company currently run by two of his sons and daughters, Paulo and Yvone Mascarenhas, who are also physicists, inaugurating radiological protection on a large scale in the country.

As a manager, Mascarenhas also conceived, created and directed institutions such as the USP Institute of Physics and Chemistry in São Carlos and the National Center for Research and Development of Agricultural Instrumentation (CNPDIA) of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), a center that is has been renamed as Embrapa Instrumentation, where he developed a pioneering ground tomography system in the world along with Silvio Crestana, his former doctoral student.

In 1983 and 1984, Mascarenhas contributed decisively to the creation of the Adib Jatene Foundation, which is linked to the Dante Pazzanese Institute of Cardiology (IDPC) and is especially dedicated to ​​bioengineering. IDPC has made possible a series of actions to promote research and has created dozens of products, technologies and applied services in Medicine.

Another important work of Sergio abroad that had a significan impact on the training of human resources in Brazil was his role as director of medical physics and biophysics courses at the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), in Trieste (Italy), between 1981 and 1993, at the invitation of Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, with whom Mascarenhas articulated the creation of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), now renamed the World Academy of Sciences, headquartered in Trieste (Italy).

Already retired from the University of São Paulo, although never away from technology companies and research centers, he also worked in the 1990s as a consultant for the paper industry, creating research and technical education programs at universities and working in information of public policies in the area of ​​science and technology, partnering with government agencies both at the federal and state levels.

After returning from the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, Mascarenhas founded the Institute for Advanced Studies of São Carlos, at USP, where he launched the International Program of Studies and Projects for Latin America (Piepal), with financial support from the Ford Foundation. In addition, he created, also through the institute, the Innovation and Technological Prospecting Network for Agribusiness (Ripa), with federal resources and direct support from the Ministries of Agriculture and Science and Technology. Later, Mascarenhas developed a project for the creation of a research network and a pioneer university program in Engineering of Complex Systems.

Throughout its trajectory, Mascarenhas aggregated honors, awards and decorations in Brazil, the United States, Mexico and Japan, for contributions made to engineering, physics, and materials science – including the title of Commander of the National Order of Scientific Merit, an honorary degree granted by the Presidency of the Republic, in 2002, and the Conrado Wessel Foundation Prize in the Science category, in 2006. But as he said: “an award should not be seen only as an honor, but also as an opportunity to bring more advanced science and technology to Brazil and inspire our young people”.

A mentor for several generations

As a professor and mentor of many generations, Mascarenhas dedicated himself from an early age and throughout his career to teaching Physics. He supervised theses and dissertations. He was visiting professor at several universities in the United States (Carnegie Tech, in Pittsburgh, Princeton University and Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, and Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts), Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma and Centro de Estudios Avanzados), Japan (Riken, Wako), United Kingdom (London University, London) and Italy (University of Rome, University of Sassari and the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics, Trieste).

In universities, companies, research centers and other entities in which he worked, Mascarenhas trained and inspired talents that are currently worldwide recognized and awarded, including the former minister of Science and Technology of Brazil Sérgio Rezende, the former president of Embrapa Silvio Crestana and former director of the Ford Foundation Joan Dassin, among others.

Like some of his distinguished colleagues, Mascarenhas also had influence in the most important science and technology societies in the country. He was vice president of the Brazilian Society for the Advance of Science, in addition to being a member and director of several other associations, including the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Sciences of the State of São Paulo.

In an interview given in 2020 to Brazilian mainstream media, Mascarenhas highlighted the importance of technology for national development, and showed himself, more than ever, as someone deeply concerned with the sector: “If Brazil does not follow the path of science, knowledge, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, it will be increasingly colonized by other nations’ technology […] The path to development passes through technology, education and entrepreneurship”.

Imbued with this conviction, Mascarenhas had always been welcomed and celebrated in his resourceful visits at corporate headquarters, laboratories, factory floors, classrooms and hospitals, always helping to find or improve a solution, overcome a challenge and generate value from the application of knowledge.

This characteristic – which actually was a philosophy of life and work for him – is summarized in a model established from the so-called “Sábato Triangle” (in reference to the Argentine physicist Jorge Alberto Sábato), having science, industry and government as its vertices, the three of them being understood as building blocks of a technological development policy still to be pursued in most Latin American countries. To this already widely used model, Mascarenhas incorporated a fourth vertex, that of management and strategic planning, forming a tetrahedron with technology at its center.

Like few others, Professor Sérgio Mascarenhas was able to unite science and culture, creative spirit and entrepreneurial drive, intellectual fascination and practical achievement, always with vibrant enthusiasm and tireless determination.