In 2012, Maurício Lopes was appointed president of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Embrapa, capping a 23-year association with the organization.
This article is the seventh in a series highlighting the 2014 recipients of the Purdue University College of Agriculture’s Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award. The award honors mid-career alumni who have a record of outstanding accomplishments, have made significant contributions to their profession or society, and have exhibited high potential for professional growth.
The 11 honorees are John Becherer, Lynda M. Ciuffetti, Johann (Joe) R. Garwood, Anetra L. Harbor, Carl C. Kincaid, Donald J. Leopold, Maurício Antônio Lopes, Nicholas L. Rozzi, S. Richard Tolman, Geoffrey C. Waldbieser and Carla N. Yerkes. They will receive their awards Friday, March 7, during a public reception and convocation in the Purdue Memorial Union North Ballroom.
Maurício Antônio Lopes, MS ’89, is president of Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, with 9,342 employees, 2,282 researchers and an annual budget of $1.1 billion.
As research director, Lopes introduced a new management model for research projects, focusing on teams assembled around core themes. The success of the model resulted in Lopes being appointed head of research and development at Embrapa in 2000.
A plant geneticist by training, Lopes’ major scientific contributions include the development and release of new varieties and improved maize germplasm for tropical areas.
“The research he completed as a graduate student at Purdue made important contributions to our knowledge of how different storage proteins are synthesized and packaged in the maize kernel, a critical source of protein for both humans and animals,” said his nominator, Peter Goldsbrough, head of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue.
Lopes has held various positions of increasing responsibility at Embrapa since he joined the organization in 1989. He was appointed president of the organization in 2012.
Which Purdue faculty member had the most profound impact on your professional career? Meeting and working with Prof. Brian Larkins, my adviser. His clarity of thought, firm guidance and genuine interest in my personal development made all the difference to me. He provided significant contributions to my intellectual development, helping me to consolidate my interest to science as a means of producing concrete impacts for society. Prof. Larkins has devoted most of his professional life to research on the nutritional quality of corn and other cereals, and his work has led to a broader understanding of the molecular mechanisms that regulate nutritional quality of grains that have great importance to feed millions of people around the world.
What part of your visit back to campus in March are you most looking forward to? I am very curious to see all the changes and improvements that have occurred around the campus. Also, the opportunity to be in touch with old friends, faculty and students will be fun.
Why did you select Purdue as the place to continue your education? I had received my bachelor’s degree in agronomy from a Brazilian university that has very close ties to Purdue. Many of its professors and administrators received their degrees from Purdue. Also, the founder and former president of my organization, Embrapa, received his PhD from Purdue, as did many colleagues I met during the early phases of my career in Brazil. All of them spoke very proudly of their experience attending graduate school at Purdue. Their admiration was decisive in guiding me to choose Purdue to continue my education.
Where was your favorite place on campus to study? I liked to study at the Humanities, Social Sciences and Education Library in Stewart Center. It was not far from my department and had many individual, quiet study areas. I also liked the library in Lilly Hall.
What do you miss most about your college days at Purdue? Graduate school is about taking a deep dive into something. Having a chance to choose an interesting problem, to perform research and to critically analyze the different dimensions of that problem and implement successful courses of action was something special at that early stage of my graduate training. I also had the opportunity to experience a healthy research group environment and an effective relationship with my adviser. That experience had an impact on my training and in my professional life. Learning to work in a large research group with several graduate students and post-docs — all of whom are extremely talented, motivated and highly competitive — was a big challenge and also a very rewarding experience.
Were you a good student when you were at Purdue? I think so. My education was paid for by my government and by an international organization that provided a scholarship. Both had strict rules about performance. Considering how fortunate I was being accepted at a university of the caliber of Purdue, I set myself a standard of no grade below B and total dedication to my research. I was fortunate to have an adviser who always reminded me how much he believed in my ability to succeed. His encouragement and support were major driving forces that helped me focus and give my best in my coursework and my research project.
What was the most difficult course you took at Purdue? What made it so difficult for you? Biology 520. Complex reasoning and interpretation were valued in that class — not so much black-and-white-type answers. Being a foreigner, the language barrier had me at a disadvantage when elaborate arguments and answers were required in quizzes and tests. I studied very hard and even entertained an illusion of getting an A. I admit I was hugely disappointed when I learned that I had received a B in that course.
What is the best advice you got while you were at Purdue? Who gave you the advice? Confidence is a key to success in whatever we undertake. Prof. Larkins always tried to make us feel confident, energized and excited about the work we had to do. He never stated it as advice, but I interpret his attitude, support and encouragement as the best “advice” I received in grad school: “Trust yourself, be creative and follow your impulses.”
What is the best advice you have ever given? To whom did you give the advice? When facing a difficult situation, stop, breathe, think, and only then act. I try to live by this rule and have shared it many times with my wife, my son and many close friends.
Coming next: Nicholas Rozzi, BS '97, PhD '01
Read about other 2014 Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award winners.