Where are Brazil’s ‘Hidden Figures’? Although representing only 5.5% of the total, over 5,000 black Brazilian women conduct research in the exact sciences

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Note from BW of Brazil: Let’s face it, when most people think of doctors, lawyers and scientists, the first image that usually pops in a person’s mind is a white man in white jacket or suit and tie with slightly graying or completely gray hair. And that image is generally accepted in the Western world. Now, what occupation does the average person most likely associate with black women? Nevermind…I don’t really wanna know. We’ve talked about this is numerous previous posts here, which is one reason why I absolutely love featuring black women in places that stereotypes often don’t allow people to imagine them. This blog has actually already done a few features on Afro-Brazilian women scientists, such as Maria Augusta Arruda, who was actually a victim of one of these stereotypes, Nadia Ayad and Sonia Guimarães, who is also featured in today’s story. 

In fact, Sonia is the second reason why I was happy to read about this story. Although she probably wouldn’t remember, Sonia once met yours truly at an awards ceremony back in November of 2013. I made sure to let her know that I shared her story on this blog back in January of 2012. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Sonia discovered of her importance in Afro-Brazilian History through this little blog! Too cool! One just never knows who’s checking out one’s material! Below, meet just a few of Brazil’s own ‘Hidden Figures’!

Quem são as cientistas negras brasileiras-Q
Sonia Guimarães at the Instituto Tecnológico da Aeronáutica (photo: ROOSEVELT CÁSSIO)

Who are the black Brazilian female scientists?

Black women who conduct research focused on exact sciences are just over 5,000

By Beatriz Sanz

As a child, Sonia Guimarães was the second best student in her class and loved mathematics. In elementary school, she was among the top five in the class. She went to school in the afternoon, but those who stood out had the chance to go to morning class. Sonia was not because she was deprived by the daughter of one of the employees, who had pleaded for the vacancy. “Who took it? The pretinha (little black girl). I felt depreciated by this,” she recalls. Today a professor of physics at the Instituto Tecnológico da Aeronáutica (Aeronautical Technological Institute or ITA), one of the country’s most respected and prestigious educational institutions, she recalls that this was not the only experience with racism that marked her life. But despite those against her, she got the first doctorate degree in physics awarded to a black Brazilian woman.

But she didn’t even know that deference. “I discovered by chance when the Black Women of Brazil website did a story. Not even my bosses at ITA knew that! Some students have discovered because they searched about me on the internet.” A public school student her whole life, Sonia worked as a teenager and all her money was earmarked to pay for courses, as she would take she would go to a technical high school. She dreamed of being a civil engineer. In order to fulfill her dream, she took the Mapofei, a vestibular (college entrance exam) that in the 1970s provided vacancies to the great engineering colleges of São Paulo. But she was oriented by a professor to be placed in courses that had lower demand as options in the vestibular. Her choice was for physics. “In the second year [of the course], I did a civil engineering degree, but I started taking physics classes studying solid materials, and I fell in love.”

Estrelas Além do Tempo 2
Film ‘Hidden Figures’, recently released as ‘Estrelas Além do Tempo’ in Brazil.

Sonia’s saga parallels that of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan who were part of NASA’s “computadores humanos” (human computers) team at a time when blacks could not even use the same toilets as white employees at the Agency. They are the protagonists of the film Hidden Figures (released as Estrelas Além do Tempo in Brazil). The presence of black women in science is also minimal in Brazil. Although the country is 52% blacks, it was only in 2013 that it became known how many were in the scientific area.

It was in that year that the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq or National Council of Scientific and Technological Development) requested that the Brazilian researchers define their race and color in their resumes. A study done in 2015 based on this information shows that among 91,103 undergraduate scholarship recipients, whether in Master’s, Doctorate or Scientific Initiation format, black women who conduct research focused on exact sciences are just over 5,000, or 5.5%.

Anna Maria Canavarro Benite
Anna Maria Canavarro Benite, president of the Associação Brasileira de Pesquisadores Negros

This little diversity contributes to science produced in Brazil being detached from the population’s needs, says Anna Maria Canavarro Benite, president of the Associação Brasileira de Pesquisadores Negros (ABPN or Brazilian Association of Black Researchers). Although the country is one of the largest producers of scientific articles, coming in 13th place in the ranking compiled by the company Thomson Reuters, this production is detached from the population’s need. “Brazil produces a lot. But for example, now the country is experiencing a yellow fever outbreak and such research doesn’t help the practical life of society,” she says.

Anita Canavarro
Anita Canavarro, professor of chemistry at the Federal University of Goiás

Anita Canavarro, as she is known, is also a professor of chemistry at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG) and dedicates her career to “decolonizing” the teaching of the discipline in public schools. The professor calls “decolonization” the need to place blacks as producers of technology. “We have traces of erasure and invisibility. Several technological artifacts used in Brazil are dated before the arrival of the colonizer and to this day are not credited,” explains Anita. The mining industry, for example, uses distillation stations that have architecture similar to that of African peoples that casted iron, she explains. “At the same time, the first Brazilian Constitution prohibited blacks from going to school on the grounds that they had contagious diseases.”

Before becoming a scientist, the ABPN president was a resident of the Baixada Fluminense region in Rio who got closer to the exact sciences because she realized that the courses related to the degree were less disputed at the Federal University of Rio Janeiro (UFRJ), when she began her grad work in 2001. “Once In the course, I fell in love with the processes of transformation of matter. Today my reading of the world is very connected to that.”

Unlike Anita and Sonia, Katemari Rosa has always been passionate about science. “I chose to do physics because I wanted to discover the sky, as a child I fell in love with astronomy,” she says. Most astronomers are trained in physics so she pursued the course, she explains.

Katemari Rosa
Katemari Rosa, professor at the Universidade Federal de Campina Grande

A gaúcha (native of the state of Rio Grande do Sul), Katemari studied at the current Federal Institute of Rio Grande do Sul (IFRS), linked to the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRS). It was on campus that she was able to frequent the observatory and the university planetarium.

When she looks back, she remembers the cases of racism she suffered, but which she did not identify as such at the time, such as when the school employee that took care of trainees recommended her for a dental assistant job. In addition to answering telephones and doing specific things of the function, those working in the position were instructed to the washing of the office’s dishes. “The clerk would never recommend one of those white girls for that job.”

The biggest shock she had, however, was when she moved to Salvador (Bahia) to take her Master’s degree. The city with the most blacks in Brazil had a public university that did not mirror this, since in the Institute of Physics of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) there was no black professor. “We have difficulty blaming it on racism because that means there are people thinking we are a less people. It’s a defense mechanism, as Derrick Bell put it,” she says, citing the first black law professor at Harvard in the 1970s. “It’s difficult to explain and only those who feel it, know. We have these feelings, even if we don’t attribute it to racism, in the everyday experience.”

The physicist currently works at the Federal University of Campina Grande (UFCG), where she focuses her efforts to train new professors who understand the need to inspire young people to follow the path of science. “One of my students did a project to examine high school physics textbooks. In the images analyzed, black people only appeared as mechanics, African sprinters or futebol players,” she reports. Black women were pushing baby carriages. “And we think that physics has nothing to do with it but it’s full of images that reinforce the role of the woman, the role of blacks. A gente aprende desde cedo onde são nossos lugares (We learn early on where our places are).

Denise Fungaro
Denise Fungaro of the Centro de Química e Meio Ambiente

Chemist Denise Fungaro, on the other hand, confesses that she didn’t pay attention to the lack of black professors and colleagues when she entered the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1983. “I was not discriminated against. I have never had black professors, but since the evaluation is done through tests, there is no way for the person to discriminate against you,” she says. “Today I understand that I was the exception, the única aluna negra (only black female student) in the course in a country where 52% of the population is black.” She has just been awarded the Kurt Politzer Prize, awarded by the Brazilian Association of Chemical Industry (ABIQUIM), but her desire is to inspire her daughter who is three years old. “I want her to know that she can be successful in other areas that are not just artistic or sports.”

Meanwhile, Sonia Guimarães thinks about retiring from ITA, but does not know when. In her conversation with EL PAÍS, she recalls the days when she worked in Italy and studied in England while giving interviews to high school girls through the “Elas nas Exatas” (Women in the Exact Sciences) project. She has also become a volunteer teaching English so that other young blacks can realize their dreams of studying abroad.

Source: Edição Brasil no EL PAÍS

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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