Instead, Amancio Jose de Souza embraced his family’s strongly held conviction that one must contribute to society and bring others along with you. He chose to dedicate himself to agronomic engineering and today studies the structure and metabolism of plant cell walls, seeking to provide the knowledge that someday will enable the genetic engineering of plants tailored for biofuel production.
“If you compare me to the average grad student, I’m a little older because I took a different route to get here,” says Souza, tall and boyish-looking at 32.
His path may have been unusual, but for Souza, born and raised in Brazil’s northeastern coastal city of Salvador, it enabled him to collect a wealth of real-life and scientific experience that he sees as valuable to his work and reflective of the outcome he hopesfor his research and his own future.
“I really believe that the future of agriculture and agronomy lies in the ability to engineer better plants,” Souza says. “The challenges of population growth, the need to be more efficient in our use of resources, the ability to control pests and disease – I think we’ll find answers to all this through the use of genetically modified crops. We’re at the very beginning of this era.”
Souza, who earned his master’s degree in agronomy from the University of São Paulo,joined the Energy Biosciences Institute in Berkeley in December 2009 as a graduate student pursuing his Ph.D. Within weeks, he and his wife, Tais, were celebrating the birth of their first child, a boy named Gonçalo. Previously, Souza had been a visiting scholar at Michigan State University, working with Markus Pauly, now an EBI principal investigator and UC Berkeley associate professor of plant and microbial biology.
“Amancio firmly believes that he will make a difference in moving his country into the next generation of biofuels,” Pauly says. “Such conviction is quite impressive and deserves the best education possible.”
At his research bench in the open, circular setting of UC Berkeley’s historic Calvin Laboratory, Souza reflects on that “different route” of his and what may come next.
Bilingual owing to his education at an English-speaking grammar school in urban Salvador, he treasured the time spent on his family’s cattle ranch 600 miles inland. He herded cattle and “played cowboy,” he says, calling horseback riding “one of my favorite things.”
“Since I was a kid I’ve been attracted to the land, animals, and nature. My grandfather planted all kinds of fruit trees—coconut, mango, tamarind, cashew, jackfruit, papaya. My best memories as a kid are being around trees and having a different fruit every m o n t h .”
Surfing is another pleasant memory. Souza did lots of it, and it led to another passion, beekeeping. A surfing buddy’s father kept bees, as did a family friend. As a teenager Souza learned from them and later started the first large-scale beekeeping business in the rural area surrounding his family’s ranch.
“It’s a region of hardship and poverty,” Souzaexplains. “I showed people how to keep bees, trained them. Now beekeeping is in greater use there. People are selling honey and wax; it’s seen as an area of economic growth.”
He also had a role in economic growth as an agribusiness technician for the Brazilian government, a position he received after completing his bachelor’s degree, and as a forage management consultant. Traveling the countryside on horseback, he advised farmers and ranchers on strategies to increase productivity and economic competitiveness.
“At the time,” Souza says, “I wasn’t thinking about biofuels, but all of these things, like growing grasses and working with cows, are related to what people are doing today in biofuel research and production.”
Looking ahead, Souza says he wants to contribute through biotechnology to Brazil’s economy and his country’s position in the global economy—and he has his sights on a way to reach that goal: “I hope to be part of a research institution dealing with the production of liquid fuels from plants. Something like EBI is today, but back home.