What do you do?
I study the effect of the space conditions, in particular microgravity (also known as "weightless"), on microorganisms such as bacteria and unicellular fungi. In particular, I was lucky enough to lead, together with my supervisor, a space experiment named BioRock, that was launched on the International Space Station last year. The experiment had the aim to study how some bacterial species interacts with rocks in microgravity and Mars gravity. To do that, I analyzed the samples that came back from space with a microscope, in order to assess where they preferred to settle and grow on the rock samples. I also measured their growth, and the amount of chemical elements that they extracted from the rock (a process called bioleaching).
The results are useful not only for the future of human space exploration, but also to better understand microbial behavior on Earth.
Why did you choose this field?
Since I was a child, I was always fascinated by science. In Italy we have an excellent science communicator, the journalist Piero Angela, which I reckon is the "scientific father" of all the Italian scientists of my generation. When I was 8, an astronomer came to my class for a lecture, and built a little portable planetarium in the classroom. I was amazed! At that time, I actually wanted to became an astronaut. I knew it would have been unlikely, hence I decided that studying the cosmos would have been good enough. Later in high school, I understood that the scientific topic I was more interested in was actually biology. The funny part is that my biology teacher could not believe I was so interested, therefore she mistook my dreamy eyes during the lecture for a mockery! It was around that time that I first heard about astrobiology. It sounded like my dreams come true, the perfect link between my main two scientific interests.
When I came to the university choice, it was not easy. I struggled between my first dream as a child (being an astrophysicist), and my new, more mature love (biology). Eventually, the last won, and I never regretted my choice. During my master and my PhD I specialized in microbiology (the study of microbes, or microorganisms), with particular interest toward the study of their metabolism in low oxygen, a condition that can be considered quite extreme. When I finished my PhD, I decided to give a chance to my old interest in space and I applied for a position as a postdoc in astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh. Luckily, my current supervisor was impressed by my enthusiasm, and gave me an opportunity. This is how I got here.
I need to thank my family that was very supportive since I was a child toward my interest in science, even when I struggled in taking decisions. I think it made a huge difference.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
As a person that often though she was not good enough, I wish I could come back time and tell me to believe in myself, because one day I would have handled my own samples coming back from space!
Why do you love working in STEM?
I was always passionate about science. I am fascinated by the possibility to try and explain the world around us, included ourselves. I also think we will never be able to explain everything, but this is part of the game and the excitement.
Best advice for next generation?
It can sound trivial, but just believe in yourselves. Accept that the path is not straight forward, neither outside not inside ourselves, and it is ok. It does not make them any less worthy or smart.
Also, to be brave enough to look inside themselves and understand what they really want to pursue, despite the pressures (also from themselves), and to change idea at any time.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"Everybody is a genius. But If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." it is attributed to Albert Einstein, but it is not sure he said that.
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” Carl Sagan