If you enter office 7.11 you will immediately see Filomena Viegas sitting in front of the window, surrounded by flowers. “I love orchids. They take a lot of care and attention. Each type has different needs and you need to think of a lot of factors to make them bloom”

Filomena started working at Instituto Superior Técnico in 1987. She previously had been working at Centro de Informática (CIIST) in the operations team. “At the time the schedule was in shifts and I lived far in Setubal. Without a car the transportation to go back home at such late hours, it became undoable. It was a pity because my goal was to follow a career in informatics, but I came to know that IST needed someone to administrate a European project that had recently been approved called AIMBURN.”

Filomena started working on the Center for Analysis and Signal Processing  (CAPS) on the 2nd of May 1989. Between Directors, secretaries, Professors and PhD students, the team was only comprised of 13 people. “We were a small group that was almost like a family.” She shared a room, that barely had enough space for all the tables, with Professor Isabel Ribeiro and Professor João Sentieiro. There was a single Macintosh SE30 for the whole team of three secretaries to use in turns. “If one of us wanted to write a letter or a document we had to wait until the computer was free. And to make things worse one of the colleagues was addicted to Tetris and would play it there.”

In 1992 the Institute for Systems and Robotics was born from a team derived from CAPS, by merging the work of Professors from the area of Telecommunications with people from Systems and Control. Filomena was present during the whole process, which was an ordeal by itself. “It was very different at that time. There weren’t many projects like today. Usually, there was one big project and the application process was a particularly complicated ordeal that involved a lot of meetings and nights without sleeping.” The means to transmit information were much more reduced, which usually resulted in the work having to be done when there wasn’t much time left. “The number of computers was limited, the process was usually undergone in the nick of time and we had to work together, taking turns and until the last hours. We would find people sleeping on the floor, with a couple of books as pillows because they were so tired they couldn’t keep going. I also remember that for the proposal of a project called MAST /Visão – at a time that everyone but one Professor smoked – how everyone together in a room working for hours would result in this huge smoke cloud. So the one Professor who didn’t smoke had to lay on the floor to write so that he could breathe a little better.”


At those beginning stages, funding came mostly from Fundo Social Europeu and was much more reduced, due also to the lesser number of researchers. There were barely any people doing a PhD outside of Portugal so the funding came mostly from national projects and had to be justified in a very weighted way. Currently, the dynamic of the projects and the sources of funding has changed and the difficulties are very different. “At that time even simple things like copies had to be controlled, otherwise, we would run out of money. If there was a conference there would only be enough means for one researcher to go and they were the ones who would present the papers of the other colleagues. When a floor at a building in Alameda was lended by IST to be used for the research, it was the team at the time that decided to improve it and together on a weekend they bought paint to work on the walls of their floor. “It was like a second home and certainly a second family. I had some other work opportunities come up, but I could never take any of them because of how I felt with that group.”

As the time went by the Institute for Systems and Robotics grew and nowadays the number of people working is in the hundreds. “When everyone is on the same floor and working together people interact more often and at least know each other’s faces. But the groups grow and the dynamics change and working on different floors makes it very hard to know everyone. Still, having a commonplace that is used during meal time is something that helps to keep that spirit of connection more alive.”

Filomena oversees almost big decisions and coordinates the projects in terms of execution. Being the operational person in charge of the financial execution of the FCT Pluriannual Program, that funds on-going research activities in all the different groups, makes her a sort of guardian at ISR. She’s the person worried about keeping everything in order so that the projects can go on, who has a global vision of all the finances and needs to keep up with the ever-changing bureaucracies from the overhead Institutions. She’s the bridge between the researchers and the managing of the project goals and financing, which makes the science possible. But current times have difficulties too. “Sometimes it’s absurdly complicated to justify an expense. If it’s something like a toy, for instance, that’s out of context and you can’t explain face to face that it’s for work on a humanoid robot, because everything is automatic and categorized. So it becomes a complicated “game” between the bureaucratic justifications and the real-life work, especially because the ‘rules’ change very often.”


During the more than two decades Filomena has worked at ISR she has been a confident and cornerstone for the people of ISR. “It’s almost like I married the Institute. You end up spending more time here than anywhere else. I really embraced my decision of working for this house and I’ve always given it my all. But also because we started as a very cohesive team and the environment was of a great bond. There were even occasions when a few of us ended up taking holidays trips together, which worried Professor Sentieiro because if there was a problem almost half the team would be gone!”

Her time was comprised of bigger and smaller conquests but she often remembers those days in the beginning when everything was done with a lot of effort. “It’s easy to forget that at a certain time things were very different and we didn’t even have elevators and had to take the stairs to the seventh floor. Events like the CIÊNCIA project, that allowed us to grow and build the space we currently work on, were tremendous goals at a certain point. A lot of things were conquered with a great deal of effort and many nights without sleep.”