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Profile: Alberto Saal

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1284
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1284

Country: Argentina

Field: Geochemistry

Workplace: Brown University

CREDIT: CAROLYN SHERMAN/BROWN UNIVERSITY

As a young academic in his native Argentina, geochemist Alberto Saal had trouble finding current issues of journals. Often, it was because his university library couldn't afford them. But sometimes colleagues hoarded the most recent issue to get a leg up on competitors. “After 50 years of mostly military rule, the academic system was virtually bankrupt,” he says. “I realized I had no future there.”

So despite holding a Ph.D. from the National University of Córdoba, Saal enrolled in a master's degree program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Four years ago, at the age of 39, he earned his second Ph.D. (in oceanography) from a joint program run by MIT and the nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Last year, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, hired him as an assistant professor in a tenure-track job.

Coming to the United States “was like being a kid thrown into a candy store,” says Saal. In particular, he reveled in the freedom to pursue his boundless curiosity and the sometimes edgy give-and-take between students and mentors. “Here, if you challenge a professor, they say: ‘Hey, what's your name and would you like to work for me?’ At home, the professor was always right,” he says.

Now, with students of his own, Saal is trying to create a similarly freewheeling intellectual climate as he pursues his studies of the composition of volcanic islands and the continental crust. And he admits that he “tries not to go completely bananas” when he encounters the same petty academic bickering that drove him from Argentina. Still, his decision to restart his professional life has paid off, he says, with “some of the happiest moments of my life.”

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