He's a scientist, researcher, professor, author, social entrepreneur, and activist. When he talks about his work, he doesn't just talk about the implications for potential beneficiaries; he talks about the implications for humanity. He's won dozens of awards, from highly prestigious honors from Scientific American to the Ordem de Rio Branco; many hope he will be the first Brazilian to win the Nobel Prize. Amongst his many accomplishments, the most notable include his ground-breaking neuroscience research, which will one day very soon allow paralyzed people to walk again, and his foundation, the International Institute for Neuroscience of Natal, has already given thousands of underpriviledged children in Brazil's Northeast the opportunity for a sophisticated science education. He is arguably one Brazil's most famous and accomplished scientists, if not the most famous of his time, whose work could literally change the world. And it's possible you've never heard of him.
At first glance, Dr. Miguel Nicolelis is just another Brazilian expat living in the US. A paulistano born and bred, a passionate Palmeiras supporter, and a fervent patriot, he lives in North Carolina with his family, where he teaches and works at Duke University. But in reality, he's a superstar of science and education, a dreamer and utopian putting his ideas into practice. He was recently featured on the Daily Show, which inspired me to do some research and get in touch with him (sorry, readers outside the US - I couldn't find this on Youtube). It's possible I'd seen his name here and there, but it was really the first time I'd heard about his work.
Dr. Nicolelis is best known for his neuroscience research that shows that brain signals can be used to create movement using prosthetics. His Walk Again Project is an international effort for neuroscience study and for developing the technology necessary to enable victims of paralysis and neurological disorders to move using a full body suit. His new book, Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines---and How It Will Change Our Lives, describes his research and the future of "technology-driven human evolution." His neurological experiments with monkeys are world-famous and have garnered attention and funding for further research on neurological disorders and Parkinson's disease.
I was pleasantly surprised when Dr. Nicolelis agreed to speak to me, and soon discovered that he's always eager to share about his work in Brazil. We chatted on Skype (in Portuguese) about his foundation, his thoughts on life in Brazil and the US, and his plans for the future.
First, we discussed the Campus do Cérebro, or The Brain Campus, which is part of the Natal Neuroscience Institute. Right now, the campus consists of a medical center for women, which treats 16,000 women a year providing pre-natal treatment and services. These women are the first step in his "Educação Para Toda A Vida," or Lifelong Education program. The women receive pre-natal care, and then their children are funneled into the school program on the campus, providing a birth to college trajectory that Dr. Nicolelis hopes will transform lives. There are currently two pilot schools with 1,000 children, where students from public schools attend part time to learn about science. The institute also built a school in the interior of Bahia for 400 children as a part of a pilot project there. In December 2011, a new school will be ready to serve 5,000 children, essentially serving the entire town of Macaíba, which will provide a full time education from nursery school through the end of high school. Children born into the pre-natal program will attend the school to begin the Lifelong Education program in earnest. Dr. Nicolelis hopes to expand the education program by building twelve other schools in other regions of the North and Northeast of Brazil.
But it doesn't end there. The campus also includes a neuroscience institute, which is home to about a dozen Ph.D neuroscientists working in conjunction with Dr. Nicolelis' program at Duke and partners at the Hospital Sírio-Libanês in São Paulo on neuroscience research and Parkinson's therapies. The institute has attracted Brazilian and foreign scientists alike, and a new 14,000 square-meter building is under construction to create 45 new labs for the Neuroscience Institute. An Advanced Studies Institute is underway, which will aim to study and develop neuroscience technology. The Swiss government donated a supercomputer, and when everything is complete, the institute will have the fifth most powerful supercomputer in the world. And there's even more! The institute is constructing a sports park for children, which will be the largest sports park in Brazil's Northeast. They're also constructing a planetarium and observatory for children.
Next on the agenda is to expand the project to create the Cidade do Cérebro, or the Brain City. The institute has completed the first phase of creating the Brain City, which will be a neuro-technology industrial park to produce highly advanced technology and products for the "brain industry." The industrial complex will be built 10 kilometers from what will be the largest cargo airport in Brazil and Latin America, the Aeroporto Internacional São Gonçalo de Almirante. The airport already has one landing strip and construction is underway. The Brain Institute will have something of a symbiotic relationship with the airport (even though the institute was established before the airport was planned), and there's a free trade zone right next to the airport, which will allow for the production of supplies, parts, and products needed for production in the industrial park.
Even with the institute's success so far, Dr. Nicolelis has pulled off a stunning feat in one of Brazil's least developed regions where non-profits and other organizations struggle to survive. How did he pull it off? The first is with a wealth of funding. The Safra family is the main sponsor (the institute's official name is "The Edmond and Lily Safra International Neuroscience Institute of Natal"), and partners include the Swiss government, the Hospital Sírio-Libanês, amongst others, as well as private donors from all over the world. Dr. Nicolelis has also helped sell educational projects around Brazil, which would create schools within businesses that wish to educate workers, and in some businesses, invest in the education of their employees' children. The institute also receives funding from the Brazilian federal government ($25 million is expected this year), which largely comes from the Ministry of Education, which is fortunate considering a 23 percent cut in the Ministry of Science's budget this year. Also, Dr. Nicolelis is the institute's official fundraiser - "eu sou o único fundraiser dessa brincadeira," he joked. "It's a mystery," he says, "but somehow it works." Using simple, low cost methods, he's raised R$125 million for the project.
Not only has Dr. Nicolelis had luck with funding, but he's been able to attract talented scientists to work far from Brazil's developed urban centers. With the economic crisis in Europe and the US, he's also been able to attract foreign scientists. Science infrastructure is taking off and jobs are more competitive, so Brazil is actually able to start reversing brain drain, Dr. Nicolelis explained to me. By offering better conditions in Natal than in Rio or São Paulo, with modern labs and equipment, he's been able to find young talent, though it can be a difficult mission. Plus, he says, he's able to offer a "great adventure."
The project certainly has had its challenges. Dr. Nicolelis has had to square off with local politicians who he says simply aren't interested in bettering the lives of their constituents; the project receives no municipal or state funds. There's the endless bureaucracy typical in Brazil, as well as people who tried to make him give up. The city government has not been very interested in helping with the project; one of the two branches outside of downtown Natal is located on a dirt road that the city still hasn't gotten around to paving, and when it rains, Dr. Nicolelis told me, "it becomes a river of mud." He's tried speaking out to the press to protest the local government's lack of cooperation, given the institute is the largest project in the state and one of the largest in the country.
Still, where many others have failed, Dr. Nicolelis has had incredible success. His advice for social entrepreneurs? "You have to have a huge obsession," he says, "since it's easy to give up." You risk running yourself down; he himself has struggled with the physical and emotional drain over the years. For Brazilians, you have to have the passion and desire to give back to your country, which he says is very important, since Brazil helped get him where he is today. You must be obstinant, determined, obsessive, and compulsive, and you can't conjugate the word "desistir" (to give up). As soon as you really consider giving up he says, you will. In his experience, though, the success of seeing 2,000 childrens' lives radically changed, 20,000 mothers receiving medical care, and the Brain City coming to fruition, Dr. Nicolelis developed something of a force to persevere. "Other projects started around the same time ours did," he told me, "and ours is the only one that survived."
To understand just the state of science in Brazil, two recent articles are helpful: GlobalPost's recent coverage and also a fantastic piece from Science Magazine. There's much more happening than you might think, though many projects are in agriculture and biofuels, as opposed to other fields. But Dr. Nicolelis plans to change that.
In 2010, Dr. Nicolelis published what he called the Manifesto da Ciência Tropical, or the Tropical Science Manifest. In it, he outlined his ideas and goals for developing science in Brazil, including science education, development for science instructors, expanding university research opportunities, technology institutes, building "Science Cities," joint ventures, expanding the Brazilian space program, and much more. It's such an expansive list that it seemed like the type of thing a minister or politician would come up with. So I asked if he has any political ambitions. "No," he answered emphatically, "my only ambition is to do things to transform people's lives."
Dr. Nicolelis is also spearheading the Comissão do Futuro da Ciência Brasileira, or the Future of Brazilian Science Commission. It's a government-organized group made up of Brazilian and foreign scientists, researchers, journalists, and professors to help transform science in Brazil. The first goal is to get an overview of the current state of science today and to identify problems hindering those working in the field, and then come up with a detailed list of goals and suggestions for what needs to change in the next decade. This way, Dr. Nicolelis says, Brazil can transform its human potential into knowledge and products that contribute to both the country and all of humanity. It's the first time the Brazilian government has invited scientists to head a commission outside of the Ministry of Science, and it's the first time Brazilian and foreign scientists will come together to discuss the future of Brazilian science. He added: "The good thing about being a scientist is that you already think way into the future." The first meeting is planned in the next few months, with an international meeting planned for the end of the year, though bureaucratic woes are slowing things down.
In addition to the commission, he's in talks with the Minister of Education to begin producing iPad software and apps aimed at science education. Since equipment is one of the most expensive parts of science education, he wants to create apps that function as equipment to reduce costs, and eventually create a science apps industry in Brazil.
One of Dr. Nicolelis' dreams is to inspire passion for science in his fellow countrymen. The 2014 World Cup presents both a goal and opportunity for Dr. Nicolelis' Walk Again Project, which he has called the "Tropical Moonshot." What's missing in Brazil and the US, he says, is a program like the space program of the 1960s that galvanizes society to get people excited about science, and a program that really has the power to change the fate of humanity. The brain, he says, is similar to space in terms of magnitude and complexity, so he dubbed the project the moonshot. After all, the Apollo space program was what originally inspired him to become a scientist, and helped inspire interest in science the world over.
So Dr. Nicolelis' plan is to ask the Brazilian government permission to participate in the opening of the World Cup. He hopes that the full body suit that will allow paralyzed people to walk will be ready by then. His vision is for two young Brazilian quadriplegics, outfitted in the full body suits, to walk out onto the field with the soccer players. Just the thought is enough to give you goosebumps. "If Brazilians can make a human walk that couldn't walk before, Brazil will prove it's another country," he said. This way, he can demonstrate that science can be used for transformation, to help humanity. I asked if he'll be ready by then. "I guarantee it," he told me. "I want to surprise the world."
Though he spends most of the year in North Carolina, his Brazilian heritage is very important to Dr. Nicolelis, and he makes a point of adding it in to all of his appearances and speeches abroad. "Para mim, essa brasilidade é muito profunda, muito importante," he explained. Brazil gave him the opportunity to do his work, and he wants Brazilians and foreigners alike to know that those opportunities exist. "It's important to create the image that Brazil produces scientists, not just soccer players and samba dancers."
An equal opportunity critic, Dr. Nicolelis expressed frustration with bureaucracy and local politics in Brazil, and also life in the US. He says in the 22 years he's spent in the US, a lot has changed, and things are very polarized. "It's hard to have certain opinions," he said, and described what he called "cultural oppression," caused by a bitter and polarized, even backwards environment driven by the extreme right. He also witnessed how American universities have become big businesses, a far cry from what he said used to be "intellectual paradise." Intellectual life is important, and as a "guy from the left" he dislikes how things have become so much about money. When he's not in Brazil, he really misses the human warmth and Brazilian way of life.
With his track record, Dr. Nicolelis seems likely to be able to accomplish amazing feats, ones that are already changing people's lives. He's determined but pragmatic, and though he possesses a brilliant mind, is humble and self-effacing. He's living proof that while it may not always seem that way, anything is possible in Brazil.