Feminist and researcher at the Institute of Physics at UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul), researcher Marcia Barbosa, 60, appears on a UN list of the seven leading scientists who have shaped the world alongside famous names such as from french Marie Curie and the American Katherine Johnson.
Still, it was not uncommon for her career to be criticized, including for her clothes and wearing a miniskirt. The piece ended up becoming a registered trademark. “It is something that I try to bring as resistance. Everyone has to dress as they like. But even today they continue to bother me because of this issue. ”
In her research, the scientist is fascinated with water and the fact that ice floats on the liquid and the delay in boiling water compared to other materials. They may seem like common behaviors, but Barbosa says that they impact human existence itself.
Why is studying water so fascinating? Every time I talk to people who study water, they say, “Water? It is so common, we already know everything about water ”. In fact, we don't know many things. When we put an ice in a glass of water, the ice floats. But the other materials, when they are in the solid phase and are placed in the liquid phase, sink.
It is very important for ice to float in water because it allows life to survive when the environment is very cold. There was a time when the entire planet was frozen and had the possibility of having water below. In fact, this is the possibility that we look for when investigating life outside the planet.
What is a water anomaly? I spoke of an anomaly (the ice float), however, there are more than 70. Anomaly is something that water does differently from others (materials). As we live with water in our daily lives, we think that is normal, but it is not. It is not normal for the solid phase to float in the liquid, but this is what allows life. All of these requirements imply something that helps us to live.
The specific heat, for example, which is the amount of heat you have to give to something to increase the temperature by one degree. Imagine the amount of cooking gas to boil water. The specific heat of the water is high. It means that I have to give a lot of heat, much more than any other simple material that exists in nature. In the case of the oceans, water becomes a major regulator, in the sense that temperatures do not fluctuate as much.
Which of these anomalies do you research? I dedicate myself more to the study of mobility anomaly. Water molecules at low temperatures or in confinement have the property of moving very fast. If I take water molecules and make them closer together, the particles will move faster. As if someone put more cars in traffic and they moved more — obviously cars don't work that way, but water works.
Our research group develops simulations, computational experiments. When you compress the water molecules, they move faster.
Can the study of this anomaly be applied? We begin to look at what happens to water when I confine it to very small, nanometric structures. To get an idea of what a nanometer is, imagine a strand of hair sliced across 60,000 times. With such small diameters, the water crosses at a speed that classical theories that are valid for the macroscopic environment cannot explain.
We started doing work to understand how we can use this. We found that water flows through nanotubes, but salt does not. We can build a desalination filter using this property. Our focus is to think of new mechanisms for cleaning water.
How did your name get to the list of seven scientists who shaped the world released by UN Women? I have no idea! (laughs). I saw how everyone saw it, I got scared and I thought: "What am I doing there?" I have suspicions that they searched in different parts of the world and, when looking at Latin America, (they found me).
I'm very on the internet, I won the L’Oréal-Unesco award in 2013, and rarely an exact, hard science scientist, she is very feminist. My personal reading is that the UN wanted to show this transversal character. But, obviously, I wouldn't be on the list if the science I do had no impact.
You said that rarely is an exact scientist a feminist. How did your feminism awaken? I am a daughter of the lower middle class, I studied in a public school, I entered university at a time when people did not come from public school and at the time when there was a dictatorship in Brazil.
It was necessary to conquer student representation, to gain a voice within the university, to perceive women in an environment where there were no female students, realize that women are not in a position of power within the academic or political structure and understand that something we have to do to change.
How did this feminism develop afterwards? I had a great opportunity in 2000, when the International Physics Union decided to ask why there were so few women in physics. A committee was set up to study the problem, and the president of the Brazilian Physics Society indicated my name.
We have built 65 women's groups around the world, I like to call them small terrorist cells. Within the union itself was a bomb. There was no woman on the council, so he started having women, they had a president. Every committee had to have a woman, every conference they funded had to have a woman. Because of this movement, in 2009 I won the Nicholson medal from the American Physics Society.
Last year a scientist heard from a tablemate that she should read an article written by herself. It is common?"Mansplaining", "Keep interrupting"… It is no use getting old that you are not safe from it. We have to set up protection strategies. There must be at least two women in the room. When the guy starts doing this (interrupting or teaching something to a woman with mastery of the topic), the second woman says: "Wait a minute, let her finish". We are starting to have this. We have to talk about things.
I like that very much in this generation. My generation did not speak, swallowed and moved on to survive. The new generation does not swallow. Speak and don't care who they call mimimi.
It is not a secondary issue. It takes diversity to do science, it takes different people thinking to have more solutions. Diversity is a strength, it is not a weakness.
In addition to water research, I do scientific work on gender, I publish articles. Even without ever reading or writing about the topic, but as they are men, they think they can come and explain to me why there are few women (in science).
How do you respond? My answer is always "I don't find anything, I have evidence, look at my data here". And then I bury the data person. Because if you're a science person, she understands data.
Have you experienced harassment? Already suffered bullying countless times, cases in which people attributed the success of my work to physical characteristics. "She arrived at the Academy because she wears a short skirt" or "I lost that discussion because your perfume hindered me". Even the act of trying to use your academic power to achieve sexual favor. For a long time, this person hindered my scientific life.
You mentioned wearing a short skirt. Is it a lady's mark? A kind of protest? Very. Back there. As soon as I started to leave Brazil, presenting a poster, the foreigners said to me: “Márcia, dress you up more like a man who will suffer less”. It is a lie, you will not suffer less. No, I am not going to limit myself because the other can think x, y and z. It's the other person's problem.
The miniskirt became a registered trademark. My niece jokes that I'm going to be 80 years old wearing a miniskirt and those Kendall socks (laughs). It is something that I try to bring as resistance. Everyone has to dress as they like. But even today they continue to bother me because of this subject.
Did you imagine that you would witness setbacks in the social area? When in the country would an economy minister speak ill of the wife of a president of another country? Every time I leave (the country) it is a shame. Something I didn't feel before, not even when I left the country, when Brazil was “underdeveloped”. We are going through this shame. And that shame is transferred to less investment.
MARCIA BARBOSA, 60
Professor at the Institute of Physics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), she was included by the United Nations in a list of seven scientists who shaped the world, alongside famous names such as Marie Curie and Katherine Johnson. In 2019, she was elected to the World Academy of Sciences. In 2013, she won the L’Oréal-Unesco award for women in science