Why research and science matter more than ever today?

Dr. Giuliana Galati is an experimental physicist hunting for neutrinos with a passion for science communication and conveying complex scientific topics easily. Our founder, Sartaj Anand, sat down with Giuliana to learn more about her story and how science helps her make sense of the world we inhabit today.

Here is an excerpt of their conversation —

Who are you?

I would say I’m just a very ordinary 27 years old girl, but defining myself is restricting.

What do you do? Do you love it?

I’m a physicist: I have a PhD in Experimental and Applied Physics. I am involved in big experiments that try to find the answers to some of the Universe’s mysteries. And I really love it, even if sometimes it is not all fun and games.

What’s special about the work you do?

We look at things, such as particles, that are impossible to see, but that are everywhere. It’s like hunting little ghosts! During my PhD I studied neutrinos, the tiniest known particles, even much much smaller than an atom or an electron. Maybe you’ve never heard of them, but billions of them are passing through you right now. Working on this subject is very challenging. Moreover, there is also another aspect of my job that I find special: the collaboration between hundreds of people from all over the world, who despite the different cultures, backgrounds, political wars and opposite time zones work together to exchange ideas, knowledge and experiences.

Why did you choose to become a scientist or a researcher?

Since I was a child I’ve been always fascinated by magic and mysteries. When I finished high school I didn’t have any clear project in my mind, but then I read about Einstein’s theory of relativity and the distortion of space and time. It was like magic but it was real; it was not just an illusion or a deception! So, I decided that I would devote my work-life to discover the magic of physics.

Why do you think science communication matters today?

Sometimes scientists assume that everyone should be fascinated by the hunger of knowledge as much as they are. Instead, the majority of the public thinks that spending money to discover the Higgs Boson, for example, is just a worthless waste of resources. They confuse science with technology and they don’t see any benefit for their daily lives. Science communication should accomplish the difficult task of presenting the beauty of scientific discoveries, engaging people and making them feel curious about the puzzling mysteries of the Universe. It is important to convey the message that every kind of scientific research, even those that apparently have nothing to do with their daily routine, has many beneficial side effects. Furthermore, a science communicator should explain how science works without hiding its limitations, so that people could more easily distinguish between science and pseudoscience when they need to take decisions.

What’s the secret to conveying complex science topics in a way that’s accessible to all?

There’s no recipe suitable for everyone and every occasion. Usually, when I have to explain a complex topic, I think about my audience and I imagine which experiences they can be familiar with. Then I try to develop some analogies that can help them to mentally visualize the concepts. I also try to make them feel emotions. It’s very important to be passionate when we speak to the public. In my personal opinion, animals can feel fear as much as audience members can feel the passion of the speaker.

How did you end up co-founding a science podcast and blog?

Six years ago, a close friend of mine involved me at the very beginning of this ‘adventure’. My first contribution was for episode #3 (now we have recorded about 180!) and I had no experience at all. When they told me the number of downloads per episode I panicked!

At the beginning it was just a podcast every fortnight, and then we decided to also write blog articles between each episode. Now we produce a podcast every week and we reach approximately 8000 downloads per episode. We also won twice a prize as Best Italian Podcast and this, together with the comments of the public, is the only reward we have for all the work we do, since we are a nonprofit organization and everyone is a volunteer.

What’s been the response to Scientificast? Do you think it’s serving a real need?

As I said, we have a lot of followers and surprisingly they’re not all nerd people! People are curious and want to know about science, but they also want to chill out after a tiring work day. We speak about all subjects: physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, astronomy, math, engineering, technology… We present what is new or we discuss other interesting topics. We try to make it understandable for everyone and funny and spontaneous. We also say terrible jokes.

How can we get more representation in STEM fields from women and other under-represented communities? Why is this important?

This is a big problem. Science had been a male-only subject for many years and women could not even access lessons until the end of 1800. Today it’s different and there are many women scientists, even if the equation that science is for men is still deeply-rooted and it’s important to cancel it to give everyone the freedom to choose a scientific career without any cultural imposition.

Another objective problem is that in our society women are still perceived as restricted to family care, and even if they have a job, they are still the ones that have to take care of the house, the children and so on, while men can work more hours per day, without all these ‘distractions’. In a job where you don’t really have office hours and theoretically the more you work the more you publish, it’s difficult to compete fairly. There are already some actions in plan, such as conference discounts for women or giving extra points to projects that include women in the proponents. I personally find these actions unfair, because they mark that men and women are still different, but they are necessary to get the ball rolling.

Have you personally faced any sexism or racism in academia? If so, how did you tackle it?

Fortunately not (yet).

What are your professional plans for the next 5, 10 and 20 years?

Try to take over the world!

What’s the one scientific theory you’re hoping gets proved in the next few years?

I hope we’ll understand what dark matter is made of and indeed… I’m just working on that now!

What are your thoughts on quantum computing?

This is something that could change our lives and revolutionize many technologies. Some of my colleagues are working in this field, but I think that we are still far from having quantum computers.

If you had infinite funding what would be your dream research project?

Nowadays researchers struggle to have the necessary financial support and scientists are not well paid in consideration of the amount of hours they spend working, often also during the night and weekends. Moreover, due to the lack of funding, many very good scientists are forced to move abroad, or to leave their researches after many years and accept (if they find one) other positions, sometimes even not related to their studies. And this implies frustration for abandoning what they love and what they’ve devoted their lives to. If I had infinite funding I would use it to solve this situation and enhance what we already have.

What does a normal day of work look like for you?

I’m usually at university at 8 am, and after breakfast with some colleagues I spend almost all day analyzing, with very powerful microscopes, special photographic plates that contain traces of the particles I’m studying. Other times I write codes to analyze the data and I fight against code errors (that’s the part I really hate!). Then there is the most challenging part: interpreting and communicating the results, and this is sometimes done with colleagues that work in other countries.

How important are characteristics like creativity and passion in your profession? How can you cultivate them further?

They’re both essential. Without passion it’s hard to dedicate your life to research and research is one of those jobs that absorbs all your time and energy. Creativity is necessary to analyze data and understand what it hides. In my opinion, both these characteristics can be cultivated. New challenges and results can motivate and increase passion, while creativity can be trained working with someone that is more experienced: as in art, where, for example, you need to know the techniques to paint before you can deeply express your creativity; in physics you need to not only master the techniques for statistical analysis, programming and so on, but also how to approach, creatively and with meaning, your data.

If you could give one piece of advice to emerging scientists and researchers what would it be?

Let passion drive your choices and fight to do what you like, but never forget that there’s life beyond research.

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