Postdoc Perspectives: Q&A with Clarissa Machado Pinto Leite

POSTED 20/01/2022

How did you get interested in science in general and in your area of expertise specifically?

I think my choice to be a biologist came from positive experiences I had in nature. I had the privilege of growing up in a city where the natural environment, despite already being quite devastated by years of exploration, was still very present. Nature - through the explorations I made in Atlantic forest fragments, dunes and coral reefs in my hometown - undoubtedly influenced my professional choice. I wanted to protect these places and places like these and the living beings that inhabited them. So if I try to recall in my memory the reasons why I chose to be a biologist, I can say that yes, it was not surprising that had to do with my love for nature and for the animals of my country.

At the beginning of my academic life, around 2005, the economic situation in my country was getting better and started to inspire and encourage more people to choose less conventional careers, such as a scientific career.

The choice to pursue a scientific career didn't come from my interest in dinosaurs (even though I found them super interesting) or wasn’t promoted by experiments with animals in childhood, as I've seen some researchers report in presentations. For me, it came later, when I experienced other privileges like seeing the expansion of federal universities in my country and increasing resources for scientific research.

At the same time, I had started a conversation with my master's advisor, one of the scientists that make up the group of scientists who serve as my inspiration. My university had hired him a few years ago, and he was one of the principal professors of the graduate program in ecology to which I was determined to apply to for a position. In the early days of my graduate degree, he approached everyone in the classroom in a quite blunt way (and unfortunately devastating for some of them), asking questions that we all thought we had already answered but had not, such as “What is science anyway?” and “What is the relevance of your studies that justify the orientation of public resources towards them?”

This scientist (healthily for me!) questioned my interests and gave me the first tools to understand science as a social and historical product and the implications that this fundamental aspect of science circumscribes.

And last, but not least, my interest in being a researcher came from a woman, a mother of four, a researcher and writer - my mother, Dalila Machado. For part of my childhood, I lived with her master's degree as if it were her fifth child. When I was starting my master’s degree, she was completing her Ph.D. In my Ph.D., she continued her research with local poets in her post-doctoral research. The richness of the silence and tranquility in our home (such a special environment for concentration), and the love between us, and for books, were perhaps the main values and practices left by her.


What have you studied and where have you worked?

The Biology Institute of the Federal University of Bahia housed a huge part of my academic scientific training. My main interest in undergraduate research was in arachnology. In 2002, after going through a selection process, I got an internship at the Venomous Animal Laboratory at my university. I was able to develop the first steps of a scientific career performing experiments in this laboratory and having my first contact with a research team. In 2006, I traveled to another state to do another internship in the Arachnology Laboratory of the Butantan Institute, a reference center for studies with venomous animals. Since 2003, I was writing abstracts, designing posters and preparing oral presentations for national and international congresses of arachnology. I published my final study in a specialized journal, but I was already interested in studying two other areas of biology - conservation and ecology.

In my master’s degree in ecology, I was encouraged to think about research questions with social and environmental relevance rather than research questions related to a particular taxonomic group. My early scientific experiments were not completely centered on the "plush" taxon. I was already interested in questions that related forest fragmentation and spiders. During this period, I continued to conduct studies with spiders while becoming deeply interested in forest fragmentation and in the philosophy of science and epistemology of ecology.

Fortunately, I was able to participate in a transdisciplinary initiative that brought together academic and non-academic researchers to produce texts about criteria to judge formal requests of forest suppression and ecological restoration for national environmental agencies. I also joined with other ecology students to write about the importance of history and philosophy of science classes for ecology students. Both initiatives were published in national journals and they were, much more than my two previously published studies, a fundamental process for my professional and academic formation.

Despite having already initiated contact with researchers from other areas, until 2009 I had not participated in a large research project as I would during the transition from my master’s degree to my Ph. D. At this stage, I had the opportunity to be part of a large team of scientists supported by a public grant for the promotion of excellence in research centers.

In this context, my doctoral thesis had as its central theme the occurrence of biodiversity thresholds in the Atlantic Forest and was associated with the subproject "Effect of the reduction of vegetation cover and the biogeographic history on extinction thresholds." This was one of the subprojects that made up the core of the research program “Integrating Levels of Organization in Predictive Ecological Models: Contributions of Epistemology, Modeling and Empirical Research - Program for Cores of Excellence.”

This was the first opportunity I had to interact with scientists from diverse areas, not only through workshops and reading and writing groups, but also in courses and disciplines promoted with this initiative. At that moment, the network that I would be part of, later in my post-doctorate, began to form, the INCT In-TREE.

A network of 240 researchers and 39 laboratories distributed across 10 institutions forms the National Institute of Science and Technology in Interdisciplinary and Transdiciplinary Studies in Ecology and Evolution (INCT In-TREE). The INCT In-TREE is made possible by national funding that represents one of the highest levels of support within the research funding hierarchy in Brazil. The organization’s objective is not to promote a project but to encourage the formation of a network, the establishment of more intense relationships between laboratories and their research teams, involved by themes of common interest and that are associated not only on the academic side, but also through societal interactions.

I have been conducting my postdoctoral research as a junior scientist at INCT In-TREE since 2017. I have been investigating the research practices conducted by In-TREE teams, especially on how researchers from different knowledge systems conceive their practices and trust each other during transdisciplinary practice.


Who has inspired you over the years and why?

The authors of the books I read when I was a teenager were inspirations to me for their writing skills as authors of fiction. Among them are the eccentricity and creativity in the writing of Machado de Assis, a Brazilian novelist related to my mother's readings; the short stories and essays my mother herself wrote; author Rachel Carson; and my master's advisor, Pedro Luís Bernardo da Rocha, a scientist of many abilities, zoologist, ecologist, action research researcher and a challenging pragmatist.

I think that most of my inspirations, most of the time, come from my circle of personal and professional relationships, like the scientists I met in this network, such as Renata Pardini, an ecologist at the University of São Paulo; Viviane Martins, an ethnoecologist in our group; Luana Poliseli, the philosopher who studies scientific explanations; my new postdoctoral advisor, Charbel El-Hani, educator and scholar in the field of history and philosophy of science; and, of course, other people in my personal life who surprise me until today. All these people inspire me.


What excites you about science?

What excites me about science is the possibility of walking through landscapes of theories and models idealized in each area (and between areas that interact), the hypotheses that I (or anyone) as a scientist can derive by experiencing this landscape, the practice of exercising methodological rigor and critical reasoning, and the opportunity to know and be aligned with current trends of greater openness and cooperation with other knowledge systems.


Why would you recommend it as an area of study / professional path?

I would recommend it as it is an area/profession that requires a lot of dedication to study, and the effort required is proportional to the satisfaction and excitement of completing an investigation.


What questions do you get asked the most about your work as a researcher?

As much of my research was in forest fragments, sometimes at night or in very isolated places, I think the question I was asked the most was whether I would be afraid of being attacked by a jaguar or a snake. I could say that, unfortunately, I have never encountered a jaguar, despite having heard some of them during their reproduction phase in the Amazon rainforest, which brings me fantastic memories.

As for snakes, I've walked over and stepped (not on purpose) on some. None of them attacked me.


How did you get involved in the Purpose Project?

I became involved with the Purpose Project following discussions I had with my postdoctoral advisor about the next direction of my academic career. I came into contact with the idea that he and Nei Nunes Neto developed about the concept of function in Ecology at the end of my Ph.D, through Nei's presentations at the University and later, reading the articles they published. However, it was during the course "Fundamentals of Biology" offered in the Postgraduate Program in Teaching, Philosophy and History of Sciences by my advisor that I had more in-depth contact with the theory of biological autonomy. The experience of this learning was decisive for my decision to participate in the project.


What aspects of the “Toward a Science of Intrinsic Purposiveness” project will you be working on?

The main aspects of the “Toward a Science of Intrinsic Purposiveness” project I'm working on are related to higher-level agency and directionality in ecology, particularly related to the attribution of functions to ecosystems or to parts of them. My research, in particular, will be related to the development of a theoretical approach that will be applied to important ecological research questions conditioned to the individuation (or delimitation) of ecological systems.


How would you describe the Purpose Project generally, and your project specifically, to someone without a science background?

I must say that I still don't find it easy to describe our specific project and the general project to a person who doesn't have a background in science. Even for biologists, there is a requirement to understand new models and arguments based on the proposal's central theory. But I will try.

I would say that the Purpose Project is a large-scale interdisciplinary project, which will unite researchers from different areas (such as philosophy of science, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists, medical researchers, among others) in articulating more precise concepts used widely by scientists (such as the concepts of function and purpose) in order to develop formal models, methods and measurements that are also more accurate.

For example, in our project, we are focused on the concept of the function attributed to ecosystems or components of them. Saying that an ecosystem (for example, a forest) has the function of producing biomass has conceptual and theoretical implications that are not so evident, as it also means saying that this system has a normativity, the activity of these systems is directed, in a fundamental sense, towards an end, and without it, the system will not maintain itself.

We ecologists can mistakenly assign function to components in our models, and this has practical implications for ecosystem management, such as evaluating the replacement of these objects in the wrong way. Furthermore, this functional discourse in ecology unfolds in claims about ecosystem health and derived ideas, as an intrinsic value of ecological systems, which can be further enriched if they conform to an ecocentric ethics. These are the main objectives of the specific project I'm involved in.


How does your work fit in with and support your colleagues’ work? How does their work support yours?

Our goals are conceptually interconnected and must interact for their theoretical development. For example, in order to assert that an ecosystem (or a component of it) has a certain function, we will need to individuate an ecosystem if we want to attribute a function according to the theory on which we are based.

Another ecologist and I are primarily responsible for the activities that represent the development of the first goal of our project (developing theoretical work leading to a future empirical project testing the existence of closure of constraints in these ecological systems, through interventions on laboratory colonies).

Relatedly, the development of this approach will support important explanations for the discussion about ecosystem health (our project’s second goal) - in particular about "malfunction" and regulation in ecological systems. A philosopher of science will lead this.

As for the third objective, I doubt if I know how to articulate it well, but I think that to investigate whether the organizational theory of ecological functions can support, or not, the attribution of intrinsic value to ecological systems (according to an ecocentric ethics and teleological perspective intrinsic to such systems), we will first need to individuate them according to theory in order to properly justify their intrinsic teleology and purposiveness.

Furthermore, our project has a methodological approach that will feature researchers divided into two layers. In the first tier, we have the project team itself, which will directly develop goals one to three. The second layer consists of a team of project consultants, who will be involved in the critical review and development of the products generated by the project team (articles, books, etc.). We will hold regular meetings and the products will be evaluated and discussed in both layers. This will certainly facilitate the connection between the studies already planned and those that may arise.


What do you think about the collaborative / interdisciplinary aspects of this project?

I think it's promising, considering that collaboration and interdisciplinary working is a trend in contemporary scientific practices that can bring excellent results by combining knowledge, practices and values from different academic areas and professionals. But I also think it is a challenge, as uniting different expertise in a knowledge production process also involves overcoming disciplinary language barriers and tensions, e.g. how to resolve instances of disagreement, the difficulties to account with a robust quality control process, aspects of accountability that must be discussed, distrust and promotion of trust between collaborators, unequal power relations and other aspects related to knowledge integration attempts, that should be reflected and dialogued throughout the project.


Photo: Iridopelma seladonium spider photographed by Tiago Porto