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A foreigner researching in Brazil

Atualizado: 4 de jul. de 2020

By Sabine Schultes

While writing this post, I'm at my work desk in the Munich Biology Faculty. From the window, I see green fields; the only salt water in a 600km (~370 mi) radius is a mere 20L (~5 gal) of artificial seawater in the laboratory, in a bucket containing copepods of the species Acartia tonsa. That's what is connecting me with my great passion, the study of biological oceanography.

Copepods are minuscule crustaceans, around 1 millimeter (~0.04 in) in length. With the naked eye, they look like jumping little dust particles in water. They live in all water ecosystems including lakes, rivers, underground water, and oceans. Their numbers seemingly rival the stars in the universe, and as they are so numerous, they have an important role in ocean ecology. They consume the biomass created by microalgae through sun energy – in a process called primary production – and transfer it to fish, as fish like to eat copepods. (Learn more about it here)


I have worked with copepods from the temperate waters of the North Atlantic, from the cold Antarctic ocean, and in 2007 I went to work as a post-doctoral researcher in the Oceanographic Institute of USP (University of São Paulo) to get to know the tropical copepods. What a joy! …and, at the same time, what an adventure to live in São Paulo, in a country 12000 km away from Germany. I jumped in without thinking twice and, when in a taxi at “Marginal Tietê,” between Guarulhos and the University City, I suddenly realized that I was far away from home. It is in these transitional moments, moving from one world to another, that all details are fixed in our memories. I was warmly welcomed by the “Paulistanos” (those who live in São Paulo) and, although Brazil is known for its beaches, samba and caipirinha, I had the opportunity to work with high-end technology in my research field.

The famous LOPC is a particle profiler, that can detect, count and measure plankton with high spatial resolution. By Catarina Marcolin.

I was in charge of two sophisticated instruments for my copepod analysis. My job was to establish measurements and calibration protocols. There was no bias or concern that “a woman does not understand technology.” Every day my learning experience was huge: living in a big city in a tropical country, Portuguese, image analysis techniques, electronic data exchange. Also huge was the help I received from science colleagues from Brazil, Canada and France. In only a short while, it was possible to christen the equipment in the Oceanography base at Ubatuba. For a marine science researcher, that was a dream coming true.

Another dream was coming true with the expedition of the project PROABROLHOS: to study with said equipment the zooplanktonic (copepods and other tiny animals) distribution on the Abrolhos Bank. There's a bunch of fish there, and remember that fish like to eat copepods! In this project, researchers from various universities of Brazil and the world joined forces in order to enhance the understanding on how this ecosystem operates, in order to protect the great biodiversity of Abrolhos and it's value to society.

To spend one month on board of the old oceanographic ship Prof. Besnard was quite the adventure (it has finally been retired – now the oceanographic institute has a new ship), but all worked out. Our results were published in the following years (2009 to 2013), but I decided to go back to Europe before that. How come?! Wasn't that a dream come true??

Yeah, well, looking back, I can sense I lacked some faith. But also, maybe I needed to be around my own people, culture, and family to get the faith to keep on studying the oceans of the world. Unfortunately, life in science is filled with uncertainties and short work contracts (1 year). At the same time, scientific realizations take years. To write a project, get funding, execute it, analyze the results, and communicate that new knowledge all happens in 5-10 years’ time.

Back from Brazil, it took me another 4 years of coming and going between France, Brazil (I fell in love), and Germany for me to finally get a position as a teacher in the Faculty of Biology of Munich in 2012, when I was 40. I live near my parents' house, and I am teaching zoology, ecology, and scientific initiation to undergrad and grad students. For the first time, I know where I will work, live, and study the ocean, until at least 2020, when the future may take me down another path.

I had few preconceived ideas before coming to Brazil. I like living in other countries. I usually try, at first, to observe and go with the flow. I discovered the “Brazilian way” of doing things, the São Paulo coldness, and I learned how to dance forró. I thought – still do – that all of the people around me were very dedicated to work, friends and family. The most important thing I learned in Brazil? That sometimes things may take a while, but all works out in the end!


About Sabine:

In Rio Grande, RS, Brazil

Sabine Schultes likes to see herself as biologist and oceanographer. She studied biology and hydrobiology in the Hamburg faculty, defended her masters in oceanography at the Université du Québec Rimouski, Canada and her doctorate at Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Bremerhaven. After some post-doctoral contracts in France and Brazil, she is now a teacher at the Munich Faculty (LMU), teaching zoology and ecology. She says that her parents taught her how to look for new paths and to socialize with people and cultures around the world. She is convinced that today, more than ever, we need to take care of our oceans.  

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