image of Brazilian historian Luis Ferla

Chance connections foster research collaborations

image of Luis Ferla

Connections can happen in the most circuitous ways. Brazilian historian Luis Ferla ran into Emory’s Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History Jeffrey Lesser in an elevator at the São Paulo Public Archives in 2015. Lesser was at the archives – and in Brazil in general – researching his latest history project. Ferla, whose work focuses on the use of new digital technologies, particularly Geographic Information Systems, in historical investigations, was headed to his onsite lab.

After learning more about Ferla’s area of expertise, Lesser connected the Brazilian professor with like-minded Emory colleagues, Tom Rogers, associate professor of modern Latin American history, who was studying rural-to-urban migration in São Paulo, and Michael Page, a lecturer on geospatial sciences and technology in the Department of Environmental Sciences and expert on digital atlas projects. Rogers and Page connected with Ferla and his colleagues in history at Universidade Federal de São Paulo, Maximiliano Menz, Fernando Atique, and Janes Jorge. Before long, the six faculty members, along with a pair of Emory students, had the genesis of a collaborative research project that would serve them all – a digital historical atlas of the city of São Paulo which would provide the geospatial foundation for a number of their broader projects, many of which were already underway.

When a chance connection aligns with plans long in the works, great things can happen. Around the time Rogers, Page, and Ferla were talking, a call went out for the first FAPESP-SPRINT grant, a joint effort between Emory and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) encouraging Emory faculty to partner with Brazilian colleagues and take projects from the idea stage through research design by removing the barrier of distance and facilitating face-to-face collaboration in the early stages. The team applied, and their project was one of two selected for funding. Ferla traveled to Emory for Brazil Week in September 2016, and the Emory group followed him back to Brazil a short time later to continue hammering out the details of the project with the full team. The team also won a second major grant from FAPESP called eScience, which supports unconventional approaches to world class multidisciplinary research involving joint collaboration of computer scientists and researchers in other fields of knowledge.

The subject of the second funded FAPESP project – the Zika virus – dominated news cycles worldwide in 2016. The initial connection again stemmed from having an Emory faculty member on the ground in Brazil who was aware of Emory colleagues’ areas of research interest and willing to make introductions when encountering a potential Brazilian collaborator. In this case, Uriel Kitron, Goodrich C. White Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences, who was working on mosquitos and migration in São Paulo, Ana Teixeira, director of Emory’s Portuguese Program and Summer Program in Brazilian Studies, who was interested in representation, Lincoln Suesdek, a research scientist studying mosquito vectors at Instituto Butantan, and Josiane Roza, director of Instituto Butantan’s Museum of Public Health, came together for a multidisciplinary effort to understand how people in different communities see disease in Brazil. In order to effectively fight Zika, they seek to understand the scope of the problem in a comprehensive way, including the Zika-mosquito relationship, as well as how people react to disease and deal with outbreak, and the historical perception of public health in São Paulo.

The FAPESP-SPRINT grant that enabled both these efforts is part of the implementation of Emory’s global strategies. One of the university’s strategies for continuing to lead and influence global scholarship, research, and teaching is to form strategic partnerships that encourage and enable faculty to collaborate with peers abroad. Brazil, the largest country in South America and one of the top destinations for Emory faculty work, is one of five priority countries identified in the strategies where this effort has already begun. The city of São Paulo also sees the benefit of international collaboration for research and discovery and developed the SPRINT grant as a way to encourage Brazilian scholars to reach out. It had already formed partnerships with University of Queensland in Australia and London School of Economics and Political Science, among others. The alignment of São Paulo's goals with Emory’s was clear, and a partnership was born.

Contact The Halle Institute to learn more about future opportunities for international research collaborations.