Posts Tagged ‘university’

A PhD Defense in Brazil

Friday, June 19th, 2009

I had the privilege this week of serving on the PhD committee for one of my collaborator’s students, who is also a friend of mine.  I have served on a few PhD committees back in the U.S., and went through the process myself when I got my doctorate in astronomy.

How PhDs are awarded differs from university to university and country to country.  Within a country, the differences are few.  From country to country, the differences can be large.  For instance, I understand that in Belgium the student gets to bring along advocates for the work and can direct all questions to them and need not answer any at all personally.

In Brazil, the process is similar to what I’ve experienced in the United States.  I wrote about defending a PhD thesis elsewhere.

There was one big surprise.  After the hour-long presentation of the thesis, normally the public is excused and the “grilling” (sort of an oral exam given by the committee about the thesis topic to ensure the PhD candidate knows their stuff) then commences.  Well, in Brazil that part is public, too.  It was a surprise to me!  Seems like it might be more stressful, but I can see pros and cons to this approach.  In any event, we went for another 2.5+ hours, almost 4 hours in total, and most of the public attendees trickled away as the clock ticked on.

It didn’t take so long because of problems, but simply because many scientists like to hear themselves talk.  I try to keep this in mind, and that the exam is about the student and not me.  Luckily 2-3 of my questions were asked before I got my turn at the end, so I was able to keep my contribution in check.

Oh, the presentation and the questioning was all in Portuguese, so recognizing that my questions had already been addressed was great for me.  I followed a lot, especially the talk since I knew the topic and could see pictures and read words on the powerpoint presentation.  I had to ask my questions in English.  Just not enough of a technical vocabulary.  Everyone at the the PhD level in Brazil is expected to speak English, and do, so this was fine.

Oh, one final fun thing.  The topic of the PhD involved black holes.  In Portuguese a black hole is “buraco negro.”  Here is the awful way I remember how to say that.  I just think of Barack Obama, as “buraco” is pronounced similarly to “Barack O.” and then I need to remember that negro is pronounced differently than in English (with the “neg” in “negative”).  If Obama were white, I would probably have a more difficult time remembering this term.

Getting Locked Up

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

I’m not talking about prison here, although I’ll touch on prison later this week.

I’m talking about getting locked up at work, literally.

My first day back in after the holidays was Monday, January 5th.  Not many Brazilians came to work that day, and things in the Institute of Physics at UFRGS were quiet.  (It occurs to me I probably haven’t outlined a lot of details of my professional life here, and I’ll try to rectify that later this week, too.)

Now, crime is an issue everywhere in Brazil, even on University campuses.  UFRGS is actually close to a prison, too, and apparently in the past there have been escapes and the police have searched buildings room to room.  Fun.  Doors and windows have bars, and even the nicer bathrooms have locked doors requiring keys.

Security goes around at about 8pm and locks the buildings.

Now, in the United States it’s always possible to get out of a building.  Safety ensures that there are emergency exits that can be pushed open.

Brazil is different.

The building doors require keys.  I had a key, but I neglected to make a copy of it when I had it, and I returned it to my colleague when I went back to the States in November.  About 8:15pm I tried to go home, but the doors were closed.

A quick check of my part of the building revealed that I was the only one there.  Uh oh.

It’s a little embarrassing, but I know very little of how things work at the University.  I’m here to do astronomy, and I focus on that.  Dealing with Portuguese, buses, and other issues is plenty.  So I didn’t know what to do, or who to call, or where to look up to call, assuming I can manage with my limited Portuguese.  My office there has a telephone, but I didn’t even know how to get an outside line.

Also, to top things off, my cell phone pretty much doesn’t work in the building.  The signal is too weak.

So I sent email to my colleage and another friend and waited a few minutes.  Then I took my cell phone and walked around in search of enough bars to call out.  I found a corner and reached my friend.  He said he’d try to get help and call me back.  While I was waiting for him to call back, the electricity went out.

It was one of those days, you know?

Finally he calls back and says he can’t reach anyone he knows on campus.  He asks me to look for a message about after-hours security.  I finally find it, taped to the inside of the glass window of the door, requiring me to remove it to read as it’s intended for people OUTSIDE wanting access.  It’s dark, but I have a flashlight on my keychain, thank god.  The paper has three numbers to call.  My friend tells me he’ll call and get help.

I wait again in the darkness.  It’s about 9pm now.

He gets back to me.  No one is answering any of the numbers.  Of course!

Worst case scenario is that I’ll just stay locked up until morning, without access to food, water, or a bathroom.  Or electricity.

My friend agrees to drive out to campus (20-25 minutes by car from his place).  He finally shows up about 9:45pm, and it turns out that none of his keys will work on my section of the building either!  He goes off and searches for a campus policeman to open the door.  A bit after 10pm he manages to find one.

I’m free!

The whole experience was a bit surreal.  Just by not having a key and not watching the clock closely, I became a prisoner.  Life in Brazil.  There were a lot of little gaps in my knowledge that the experience revealed, and that I was really at the mercy of that lack of understanding and circumstance.

One bonus was that with the lights out, the sky was brilliant.  It was one of my best and clearest looks at the southern sky here since my arrival in Porto Alegre.  As an astronomer, I’ll comment on the southern sky at some point.  My favorite part is that the constellation Orion looks upside down to me, and that’s pretty cool.

As I was dawdling with my head tilted back to stargaze, my friend told me to hurry up because it wasn’t safe there so late in the dark.  I responded that it was perfectly safe.  I’d just spent two hours there looking for anyone outside to help me, without seeing pretty much anyone there.  Brazilians are justly afraid of crime and take appropriate measures, but danger is always overstated in our minds.  I’ve done some dumb things in Rio, being alone late at night in the wrong parts of town, without problem.  It’s stupid to tempt fate, but reassuring that the world isn’t quite as dangerous as it seems on TV and in our nightmares.

And really, it was this fear of danger and crime that got me locked up for two hours unnecessarily.  Our fear can make us prisoners.  And some mistakes/ignorance on my own part, to be fair, helped as well.

Anyway, only in Brazil…

Classroom Habits

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

Now, I don’t know if this is a local phenomenon or something common in Brazil, but there’s something very strange for me here.  I’m teaching a graduate level class in extragalactic astronomy for a few weeks right now to about 10-11 students.  It’s fine — I’m teaching my specialty in English (grad students officially need to know English) and am adding slides to my presentations.

The part that’s strange?

The students show up late.  Ten, fifteen minutes late.  It’s apparently normal.  They tell me, moreover, it is because professors show up late and they respond in kind.


I’m rarely early or even punctual myself, but as a professor in the U.S. if I am more than two minutes late I start to panic.  Five minutes, regularly enough, and you get labelled “late” in all your evaluations and the rest of the department and the Dean knows.  Ten minutes, and the students bolt and you have an empty classroom and it’s a monkey wrench in your schedule.

So I showed up two minutes late today, and there wasn’t anyone there yet.  And it was normal.  I’m living in Brazil…