Water for cleaner energy

Passionate about physics from an early age, Brazilian scientist Marcia Barbosa has dedicated her career to water. She is best known for discovering a peculiarity of water which may lead to better understanding of how earthquakes occur and how proteins fold, and may play an important role in generating cleaner energy and treating diseases.

On the microscopic level, water can behave in unusual and unexpected ways—scientists call these strange behaviors, "anomalies". As water covers nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and makes up over half of the human body, when it does the unexpected, pinpointing exactly what happens and why is key to advancing knowledge in nearly every field of science.

Professor Marcia Barbosa, from the Physics Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre (Brazil) discovered one of these anomalies. Her findings could have an enormous impact on our understanding of a host of natural phenomena, from earthquakes to human proteins.

Water is Life

Identifying the anomalous behavior of water under different pressures and temperatures is a fundamental step toward understanding how biological systems work – in other words, understanding life itself. Proteins are the building blocks of all living things and the way they are shaped is determined by the behavior of the water that surrounds them. Learning more about this protein-shaping process is essential to knowing how to manipulate them – for example, with medicine to cure disease.

More Energy, Cleaner Energy

Among an extremely wide range of other potential applications, the work being done in Professor Barbosa’s group could also help solve what she considers the world’s most pressing problem: energy. “The increasing numbers of people with access to industrial products and technologies will lead to vastly greater energy consumption. New resources for energy and new ways to obtain traditional forms of energy are urgent,” she says. In particular, the study of water anomalies could lead to advances in the production of biofuels, particularly from crops.

An Activist for Gender Equality

Passionate about the need for more women in science, Professor Barbosa has been involved with gender issues for nearly twenty years. “As a minority in science, we have to make ourselves visible, identify obstacles, and work together to overcome them,” she notes. She served as the chairperson of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics Working Group on Women in Physics, and in 2009 she was awarded the American Physical Society’s Nicholson Medal for her work on behalf of women in science.

Regarding whether women bring something different to her profession, Marcia Barbosa says with a smile: “One characteristic that I do appreciate while working with other female scientists is the ease of contact – the fact that sometimes by working together to explore a wide range of possibilities it is easier to identify the solution to a problem.”

More about Professor Marcia Barbosa:

For Women in Science

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