“When you’re young, it’s important to have a vision that you try to fulfill in spite of whatever difficulties you may have to overcome.”
This is the philosophy of Oscar Saavedra, a highly respected particle physicist from Bolivia, now a Professor at the University of Turin in Italy. He studies cosmic rays (particles that come from outer space) and a type of particle called the neutrino, topics which help us to deepen our understanding of the physical universe.
It seems strange to some that people choose to spend time and money studying fundamental science as Oscar does, especially people from developing countries where even the most basic needs of many people are not met. What is the point in thinking about the structure of the universe when sufficient food, water, sanitation, and healthcare are not available?
Although it is true that this type of science has no direct use, there are many indirect benefits that arise from such work: cancer treatment and the World Wide Web are amongst the most incredible examples. Also, many people believe that it is important to further our understanding of nature for its own sake: human advancement is characterized not just by technology, but also by the enhancement of intrinsically ‘human’ qualities such as morality, appreciation of arts, and an understanding of the universe around us. Finally, the concepts and techniques that one learns from physics form the basis of all other branches of science and technology, giving it a vital role to play in development. For further discussion of science in developing countries, see this 2011 article by Nature.
It is nearly impossible to pursue a career as a physics researcher in Bolivia. Although there are some universities offering degrees in physics, and there are a few facilities, such as the Cosmic Physics Laboratory at Chacaltaya, there are very few opportunities and very little funding available for post-graduate study. Oscar Saavedra followed his dream of becoming a particle physicist by moving abroad to study, and has achieved great success. He has helped to develop many important international experiments, including one which detected the explosion of a giant star called a supernova, for which he was awarded the 2007 Markov Prize by the Institute for Nuclear Research (INR) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has published more than 500 works, and organizes conferences and a series of summer schools in Latin America to help aspiring physics students to pursue their chosen career and push forward the boundaries of human knowledge, as he has.
As a boy, Oscar’s dream was to be a medical researcher and study the human brain. His possessions included a model skeleton and several anatomy books which he studied by himself. It was not until he started attending the College of San Calixto (a secondary school in La Paz, run by the Jesuit Fathers), at the age of 15, that he discovered his fascination for the skies. The college was, and still is, home to Bolivia’s only seismology observatory as well as an astronomical observatory.
“I wanted to see the stars,” recalls Oscar.
And so he volunteered to help out at the astronomical observatory every day after school. Bit by bit, his interest in the stars overtook his passion for anatomy. After a few months, the Father who Oscar worked with sent him with a letter of recommendation to the observatory at Chacaltaya, around 30 kilometers from La Paz. This observatory has an altitude of over 5,000 meters, making it one of the highest in the world.
“At the time the observatory at Chacaltaya was very famous. I was only 15 years old and I’d studied a lot of advanced mathematics by myself that weren’t taught at school,” explains Oscar. “The director gave me an exam to take and then asked me if I wanted to work there.”
So instead of working at the San Calixto Observatory, Oscar spent his free time working at Chacaltaya. After a month, the director called Oscar to his office and gave him an envelope with money in it as payment for his work. This was a big surprise to Oscar, who refused the payment, explaining that he was there to learn and not to make money.
And so began what was to become a very impressive career in physics. At the time, there were no opportunities for post-graduate physics study in Bolivia; instead Oscar set his sights on Europe. He won a scholarship for a PhD program at the University of Turin and, after graduating, returned to Bolivia where he was invited to become the director of the Cosmic Physics Laboratory at Chacaltaya. He was only 25 years old at the time – the youngest director in history. After three years, he returned to Italy because,
“I wanted to dedicate myself to research, something I could not do as director of the Laboratory – the position was administrative rather than scientific, and although there were many foreign scientists who came to do their experiments at the lab, I could not do any research myself.”
With regards to pursuing a career like his, Oscar advises that,
“You have to be very tenacious and absolutely convinced of what you want if you want to become a researcher, not only in physics, but in any field. When you’re young, it’s important to have a vision that you try to fulfill in spite of whatever difficulties you may have to overcome. This is how I’ve always lived my life.”
Nowadays, besides working on his research, Oscar organizes a biannual Latin American physics school (the School on Cosmic Rays and Astrophysics). The first edition of the school was held in La Paz in 2004, later editions took place in Mexico, Peru, and Brazil, and last year the school returned to La Paz, hosted by the Higher University of San Andrés (UMSA). The aim is to bring together researchers of all levels from all over Latin America.
“Most importantly, students have the chance to speak to the top exponents in the field, not just to discuss physics but also to ask about scholarships, grants, and opportunities which can enable them to continue their careers,” explains Oscar.
Sadly, physics is still far from being a popular subject in Bolivia, primarily because the money and resources just aren’t available. Also, things move very slowly.
“You can stay in Bolivia, but new technologies and research in other countries will continue to advance, leaving you behind,” he sighs.
Oscar knows six physics graduates, from La Paz and Cochabamba, who have completed their PhDs in Turin, with scholarships from Italy. The problem they now face is the following: if they want to continue with physics, they cannot return to Bolivia because there are no opportunities there for them. So they have to live and work elsewhere. Oscar is frustrated by the fact that so many talented Bolivians have to leave their country. He tells the story of a girl from La Paz, an exceptionally gifted scientist and researcher, who completed her PhD in Turin. She badly wanted to return to Bolivia, and did so. She desperately searched for a job in her field, but couldn’t find anything. In the end, she returned to Europe and took up a research position in Germany.
“It makes me sad that Bolivia loses so many talented people like these students,” concludes Oscar.
Do you know of any Bolivians who have achieved great success in a field that is little-known in the country? Please leave a reply below.
Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.
For your reference:
More information about Oscar’s work can be found on his homepage <http://personalpages.to.infn.it/~saavedra/> (activities until 2006).
Oscar’s published works are available here: <http://inspirehep.net/search?p=exactauthor%3AO.Saavedra.1+exactauthor%3A%22Saavedra%2C+O.%22>.
More Development Roast posts on the topic of science and development are:
Why Science Matters for Development <http://inesad.edu.bo/developmentroast/2013/01/why-science-matters-for-development/>
Fighting Poverty Effectively – Experiments Are Not Just For Scientists <http://inesad.edu.bo/developmentroast/2013/01/fighting-poverty-effectively-experiments-are-not-just-for-scientists/>.