The two cultures of Cristóbal Olivares

The two cultures of Cristóbal Olivares

By Eduardo Kessi C.

Cristóbal Olivares Vargas recently received his Biochemist degree from the University of Chile. To this end, he developed a work of Title Report very unusual in the scientific field, in which he reviewed the contribution of three outstanding Chilean scientists to the institutionality of science in our country. We think that Cristóbal's work constitutes a milestone whose effects will have to be observed in the future, which is why we invite you to know his work.

Cristóbal completed his basic education at the Angel's School and the Liceo Juan Pablo Duarte, while his secondary education was at the Pedro de Valdivia school in Providencia. He initially began his studies in Biochemistry at the University of Concepción where he completed two years. From that time he remembers with affection and emotion that his father studied there and also the beautiful friendships he forged in the time he was in that house of studies; in turn, it highlights having been able to share and discuss with students from other careers on the same campus. Later he moved to the University of Chile where he received his professional degree. He is currently doing postgraduate studies in Public Policy at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Chile.

Cristobal's varied interests are expressed when asked about his interest in studying Biochemistry. Such interest comes, in his words, from "the love for knowledge and example of my parents as health professionals, from knowing every functional aspect of life. In turn, throughout high school I had excellent science teachers, especially Biology and we always studied hard with my classmates and friends on topics in the biological area, which made me more passionate. Thus, I found Biochemistry as the most complete discipline to know several edges of the natural sciences. I should also add that that 'love of knowledge' also led me to love philosophy and the humanities, and I always wanted to look for the point of convergence between the sciences and other knowledge."

It was not easy for this young and restless student then, to find his way. "Personally, it was difficult for me to express my exclusive taste for the natural sciences since I had to stay in a single framework of knowledge (ironic since biochemistry intimately unites chemistry with biology). At first, he even wanted to study neurodegenerative diseases since they integrated psychology and biochemistry. In 2018 I participated in the elective course "Classic Articles of Chilean and World Biochemistry", whose final activity was to present on a classic article of biochemistry, complementing it as much as possible with an interview with the author of said article. I was fortunate enough to interview Ramón Latorre in valparaiso in person in relation to an article in which he investigated the movement of individual molecules through an artificial membrane. The journey, the communication, the story of his article was something really fascinating, which made me see his research with a more complete and human understanding."

Later, with the support of Professor Christian Wilson, and then the professor and historian of science Bárbara Silva and the researcher in social issues of science and technology, Martín Pérez, Cristóbal developed his project of Memory of Title in history of sciences. In his words "my specific interest in the history of Biochemistry originates from my fascination in discovering that the politics of science and research in Chile had an important influence on the part of the biological sciences. From there I wondered how that relationship began, and I realized that this was answered from a historical perspective."

It was not easy to convince biochemists that the work Cristóbal proposed was acceptable to obtain his professional degree in Biochemistry. While some had no problem, others considered that "here there is not much Biochemistry, there is a lot of History and Social Sciences, but Biochemistry is missing". Finally, after arduous "negotiations" – title change included – our interviewee managed to get his proposal, after an initial rejection, finally accepted. Cristóbal emphasizes here that the fact that Professor Bárbara Silva invited him to participate in her Fondecyt project was decisive.

Regarding what Cristóbal considers to be the contribution of his work, he distinguishes two different lines. In the first place, "the disciplinary understanding of the configuration of Chilean scientific institutions and their way of thinking about scientific public policy. In short, to put biochemistry as a prism to understand how current scientific policies are thought." Secondly, but not least, "the opening to another type of Title Report that can be done in history, philosophy and politics of the sciences with a biochemical look. From our disciplines it is very common for teachers and students to be interested in topics such as politics, social role, philosophy and science education. It is even common for them to participate in instances that promote or seek to strengthen all the previous ones. Even so, the fact of actually investigating these phenomena and seeking to generate knowledge of these areas of science is less common. I am even fortunate to know some who are dedicated to that and have shared with me that they could hardly have done it since undergraduate. My work shows that this is possible and there are many fears to be deciphered."

Other questions arise from the work this new biochemist has done. Cristóbal mentions, for example, How other schools of Biochemistry were developed in regions?, he adds that "Biochemistry as a career is not only founded first at the University of Chile, but also at the University of Concepción. It strikes me that there is no information as elementary there as the foundation of our career in the south by the hand of professors Luciano Chiang and Leticia Sánchez with the school of enzymology. Given that today Biochemistry in Concepción is so well known for having a solid clinical background, how would that school have been thought given that its promoters came from basic science? Another question to investigate, she says, is about the historical role of women biochemists in Chile. "In particular, the role played by two people who were foundational for the studies of biochemistry and molecular biology, Aida Traverso and Catherine Connelly. I mention them quite a bit in my work, but I couldn't delve as deeply as I would have liked into them. I leave those questions to other students of the career in any part of Chile, so that the bug of curiosity that I know we all have, convinces them to embark on this beautiful path of the history of sciences and biochemistry. " Obviously, "if Biochemistry is a prism to observe the development of the sciences, it is also important that other areas of knowledge relieve their side of the prism, as astronomy has done, for example," adds our new biochemist.

When asked who he considers his mentor, Cristóbal has no doubts: "of the several professors I had, I highlight Professor Christian Wilson for introducing me to the love and passion for the history of science. Moreover, my first class in Chile was the unit of "Milestones of Biochemistry in Chile" in the course of Reasoning and Scientific Communication with Professor Wilson. It was fascinating because, for me, it was a humanization of the natural sciences. While it is true that he did not work directly in science history, he used historical data to contextualize his classes and make them more immersive. With Professor Wilson I learned to find that middle ground between science and history (and so the humanities), always trying to highlight scientific discoveries not only for what they are, but for their context. In addition, the fact that he is one of the pioneers in the use of optical tweezers in Chile and Latin America, inspired me courage to continue in the area of the history of science despite the scarce niche that existed in our country. "

His opinion regarding the present of scientific activity in Chile is clear. "There is enormous human capital, but very little strategy and planning. Today we are dominated by very superficial meters that have diminished the quality of what it is to do scientific work. Publishing to survive was never part of the researchers' idiosyncrasies until very recently, especially seeking to reach the "high-impact journal." The scientific task is much more complex than that, and justice is not being done to it either from the workplace, in the laboratory, to the occupational in general. The competitive funds, which I honestly find a good incentive bet, have become the spinal cord of Chilean science and research, which generates instability and uncertainty in the medium and long term. Our mistake was to admit the competitive funds within our main medula and leave the strategy for the annual applicants of these". He adds that "For two years I was an assistant and professor of some of the units of the courses "Scientific Culture" and "Workshop of Scientific Culture" in the Faculty of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Chile. These courses sought to educate students in topics related to philosophy of science, education, politics and the social role we have as future researchers. There I witnessed, together with the impeccable teaching group with which we developed the course, that science students from a very young age have social, political and educational concerns regarding science. With this in mind, I am sure that every scientist has a pretty strong potential to do important things not only inside the laboratory, but also outside it. With this in mind, I hope that there will be a change in what we understand as a scientific activity, and that it will not be summarized only to publications and competitive funds."

Finally, in relation to his future plans, Cristóbal tells us that after completing his work of Title Memory he has embarked on a path to the world of Social Sciences. After having investigated the configuration of institutions and working cultures of Biochemistry in the second half of the twentieth century, he has set his sights on the social sciences and public policy. Specifically, "to see and study how science, research and knowledge can really have a better space in Chile. From working cultures I learned the fact that scientists work in a kind of "poor circus", with a lot of courage and love for what we do, but with scarce resources and forced to do many things at the same time. In the current context, while the enrollment of scientists is growing and resources and planning remain the same, doing science and generating knowledge is no longer a healthy activity for many. Therefore, with the tools and knowledge of public policy, I believe that there is room for real change, with interdiscipline and rigorous planning."

Finally, for those who are interested in consulting the work of Cristóbal Olivares, we leave available a copy of his Report to apply for the professional title of Biochemist. Contact

See title report Cristóbal Olivares