[Image above] José Varela (right) discusses an issue with Mike Murray (Morgan Advanced Materials) at the first meeting of the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation in April 2015. Credit: ACerS

The global ceramic science community lost a beloved member last week. José Arana Varela, professor of physics at the University of São Paulo State and CEO of the São Paulo State Research Funding Agency (FAPESP), both in São Paulo, Brazil, died May 17 after battling liver cancer. He had turned 72 years old in April.

Mrityunjay Singh, ACerS president, captured the sentiments of those who knew him: “José was a real gentleman, an excellent scientist, an outstanding teacher and mentor, and one of the finest people I have ever known.”

Varela was a Fellow of The American Ceramic Society and 2014 recipient of ACerS Engineering Ceramics Division Bridge Building Award. The Bridge Building award recognizes someone from outside the United States who has expanded the knowledge base in the field of engineering ceramics or has contributed to the visibility of the field and international advocacy.


José Varela (left) receives ACerS Engineering Ceramics Division Bridge Building Award from Sujanto Widjaja at the 2014 International Conference on Advanced Ceramics and Composites. Credit: ACerS

Varela qualified easily on both criteria.

Varela began his lengthy and productive career by earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics in his homeland Brazil. His conversion from physics to materials science began while researching the physical chemistry of thermal decomposition of talcum for his masters thesis. During that time, Professor O.J. “Whit” Whittemore from the University of Washington in Seattle—who was enjoying a sabbatical year at the Universidade Federal de São Carlos—and the young Varela found common interest in ceramic processing. Two years later, Varela joined Whittemore’s research group, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1981, working out sintering models under variable conditions for magnesium oxide.

His subsequent research career centered on synthesis and processing of nanostructured functional materials in bulk, thin, and thick films for applications such as varistors, gas sensors, photoluminescence, ferroelectrics, and multiferroics. 

Varela’s career, which began as an international collaboration, was notable for its international character. He worked with researchers at Pennsylvania State University, USA; Universidade de Aveiro, Portugal; Institute of Ceramics and Glass in Madrid, Spain; University of Rennes, France; University of Genoa, Italy; Josef Stephan Institute, Slovenia; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA; Lehigh University, USA; Nagoya University, Japan—and probably many others.

These collaborations led to more than 650 publications, and his work has been cited more than 12,000 times—a stunning testimony to the quality and relevance of his work.

Varela saw his career as his service to the world during his tenure upon it.  “Science of materials is fundamental to developing new useful technologies that will resolve society’s greatest problems,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Brazilian Materials Research Society. (He had served as president of the organization from 2010 to 2011.)

This motivation to serve led Varela to accept an invitation to serve on the inaugural Board of Trustees of the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation (CGIF). The CGIF is the philanthropic arm of The American Ceramic Society, dedicated to developing a knowledgeable workforce for the global ceramic and glass industry. Sadly, he died only halfway through his three-year term on the board.


Inaugural Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation Board of Trustees at their first meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, in April 2015. Varela is the first person on the left. Credit: ACerS

Marcus Fish, CGIF development director, says, “José was an important contributor to the CGIF as it began taking its first steps. He provided perspective and passion that will have lasting impact on our field and the young people that will carry it forward.”

“He will truly be missed by the global ceramics community,” says Singh.