The World Academy of Sciences today awarded its prestigious TWAS-Abdus Salam Medal to Fernando Quevedo for his strong leadership of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) and his efforts to build science in the developing world.
Quevedo, a Guatemalan theoretical physicist and TWAS Fellow, has served as ICTP's director since 2009. He has credited Salam with being a role model and an inspiration, saying that he sought to emulate Salam's balanced commitment to scientific research and to building scientific institutions for developing countries.
"Professor Quevedo's leadership has had a profound impact on the field of physics in the developing world," said TWAS President Bai Chunli. "ICTP is a thriving institution, and in recent years it has helped to open important new research centres in developing countries. And he has been a very important friend to TWAS. In these ways and others, he embodies Abdus Salam's deep commitment to our shared mission."
Said Quevedo: "As I near the end of my term as ICTP director, I am pleased to be given such prestigious recognition by TWAS. For the past nine years, Abdus Salam's vision for ICTP has guided my efforts in building the centre to what it enjoys today: a vastly expanded presence throughout the developing world, strongly committed to a mission of promoting scientific excellence and opportunities for all. To be recognized for these efforts by an award named after ICTP's founder is a great honour for me."
Salam led efforts to found ICTP in 1964 and TWAS in 1983, and through much of his career he wrote prolifically and travelled the world to advocate the idea that science and technology are essential for bringing the poorest countries out of poverty. At the same time he continued his research, and won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979.
His vision is credited with helping to inspire an international science-for-development movement. In nations such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa, investments in research, technology and education have helped to drive historic advances in economic development and human well-being.
TWAS inaugurated The Abdus Salam Medal in 1995, a year before his death. The medal is awarded to highly distinguished scholars who have served the cause of science in the developing world.
Among past winners have been entomologist Thomas R. Odhiambo of Kenya, a giant of African science who was a founding Fellow of TWAS; Italian physicist Paolo Budinich, who was Salam's partner in founding ICTP and TWAS; and former TWAS Presidents José I. Vargas of Brazil, C.N.R. Rao of India, and Jacob Palis of Brazil.
An early inspiration
Quevedo was born in 1956 in Costa Rica and obtained early education in Guatemala. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 1986. His early career included research appointments at CERN in Switzerland; McGill University in Canada; Institut de Physique in Switzerland; and Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States.
In one sense, winning the Abdus Salam Medal brings Quevedo full circle to his days as a PhD student in Texas. He was studying there under Steven Weinberg, who had shared the Nobel Prize with Salam a few years earlier. Salam came to deliver a lecture; that was Quevedo's first in-person encounter with him.
"I didn't talk to him when he came, because he was such a big figure and I was just a student," Quevedo recalled in an interview. "But I had great admiration for him, especially after realising what ICTP was. My dream was to do something like that for Central America – but then I realised that he had already done something for the whole world, and much bigger."
Once his PhD studies were complete, Quevedo's first job offer came in a telegramme from Salam – a postdoctoral position at ICTP in Trieste. Quevedo also received an offer from CERN in Switzerland, and he decided to go there. But, he said, Salam invited him to spend three weeks in Trieste before starting his post at CERN.
Quevedo arrived and made an appointment with Salam. "He was very, very kind," he said. "We talked for at least an hour, just the two of us. We shared ideas and I told him my dreams – I was just a young person, talking to a senior person who had accomplished so much and who seemed to know everything."
ICTP's dynamic expansion
And then Salam did something that made a lasting impression: He had other appointments that afternoon, but he invited the young researcher to stay, to watch and listen. The other guests presented their ideas; Salam asked questions and offered smart, constructive feedback.
"It was very inspiring for me to see him in action," Quevedo remembers.
In the ensuing years, Quevedo built a high-impact career. In 1998, he was awarded the ICTP Prize for his important contributions to superstring theory. In 2009, he was appointed director of ICTP, succeeding Katepalli Sreenivasan. By that time Quevedo was a well-known theoretical particle physicist with wide-ranging research interests in string theory, phenomenology and cosmology. He has been a professor of theoretical physics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom since 2002. He was elected a TWAS Fellow in 2010.
Under Quevedo's leadership, ICTP has expanded dynamically, moving beyond theoretical science into areas such as energy, climate science and high-performance computing. But, he said, there is a consistent focus that cuts across all initiatives: advancing science in the developing world.
ICTP has increased the number of diploma, masters and PhD students, and has moved to promote the importance of women in physics and other areas of science. It has built new partnerships, both with local universities and research centres in developing countries.
Combining tradition and innovation
A new focus area – Quantitative Life Sciences – has brought in five scientists to work at ICTP in an emerging field that incorporates such disciplines as physics, biochemistry, statistics and game theory and applies them across the biological sciences. That is expected to produce new insights in medicine, genetics and environmental science. For ICTP, Quevedo says, that's "a major achievement".
ICTP also has started a master's degree programme in medical physics, teaming with the University of Trieste, the International Atomic Energy Agency and local hospitals. The field has enormous practical applications in areas such as medical imaging, microscopy, cancer treatment and protection against radiation. It's not a theoretical science, Quevedo said, but for many developing countries it’s an area of great potential value.
While building programmes in Trieste, ICTP in recent years also has worked with partners to open four international research centres in developing and emerging countries. All of them are, or soon will be, UNESCO Category 2 institutes:
- The ICTP South American Institute for Fundamental Research in Brazil, which opened in 2011;
- The Mesoamerican Centre for Theoretical Physics in the Mexican state of Chiapas, which opened in 2013. (Its designation as a UNESCO Category II centre is awaiting final approval);
- The East African Institute of Fundamental Research, based at the University of Rwanda's Kigali campus, which opened this year; and
- ICTP-Asia Pacific, a theoretical physics institute in Beijing, which also opened this year.
"Since the time of Abdus Salam,” Quevedo said, "ICTP has been playing this key role: showing that scientists from any country in the world have the potential to be successful and can contribute to the advancement of science....
"We have to respond to the needs of developing countries. So we have to be always updated with the latest discoveries and developments."