Scientia

PhD Café

PhDcaféScientific community is well aware of the importance of divulgation in society for human progress, and many scientists, all over the world, are committed to spread science trhough conferences, television, social network and so on. Great public attention, for example, was recently given to the wonderful results of ESA and NASA with Rosetta and New Horizon projects.

Despite all these efforts and encouraging results, however, looks like Science is struggling in communicating the scientific “forma mentis”. A critical approach and common sense. Since the publication of the  “The Sceptical Chymist” of Boyle, we would  expect a society less superstitious, more equal and definetely more engaged. We are a technological society but not yet scientific, this is a fact.

To overcome this problem will not be easy and multiple strategies must be applied. However I see a main way to follow, which is: We need to make Science POP. Simply popular! We speak and do a lot, in the scientific community,on how to promote Science between youngs and women, but we  speak less about how to improve our imagine on the public eyes. Let’s just think at how many villains, in comics series and movies, have an academic title: Dr. Doom, Dr Octopus, Dr. Claw, Dr. Evil and so on… Even in classic literature, our reputation doesn’t go better, just think to Dr. Jeckyll and Dr. Frankenstein.  Excellents minds, basically good… but totally deconnected from Society! Unable to distiguish good from evil, because too busy in their specific and complicated studies.

We know this is not true! We know that generally  Scientists are well open to Society and live in Society, taking care of the others and following many other passions. We know that Science is funny, that we are curious, that we are not emotionless but full of enthusiasm. How to communicate this to people? How to make Science Pop?

One main issue is language… I already wrote about this in a post called “Why Science shouldn’t speak only English and why native english speakers should care about it“. I’ll repeat again: I don’t mean we should stop writing articles in english!! I just mean we should start to divulgate Science in all the possible languages we know! Divulgation in Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Chinese, Ostrogoths…  When all the languages of the planet will lose the scientific vocabulary, it will be difficult to make Science popular!

The other issue is the subject who leads the message! A young inspired scientist, like a PhD student, is the most enthusiast about his research. He/She is much more connected to the world of youngs and easily taken as an example to follow. There are PhD students of all nationalities, all over the world, and we have the most powerful tool of mass-communication of all the time.

A youtube video, where in an guided interview, PhD students explain their research, in any language (with subtitles also).  Through successive simplification, deconstruct their research until the minimal comprehensible terms by everybody. To then rebuild all the meaning and understand the impact on society of their work.

Imagine now a common hashtag for that, like #PhDcafe, becoming viral on the web, with hundreds of interviews structurated in this way. From any part of the world, in any languages! It could even become the beginning of a community. Everybody could use the hashtag, with the only restriction of course, to respect scientific ethic and integrity.

So, here the Episode-0 of this PhD café, where I interview a French PhD-student. The video start with an introduction in Italian to explain the principle and it continues in English with subtitle in Italian. This video is addressed to an italian audience, because italian is my mother tongue. But if you want to do the same in Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Chinese, Ostrogoths… etc. Just DO IT and use the hashtag #PhDcafe

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Marie Curie individual fellowship applications can be offered as a Job?

What if “Nature Jobs” or “Euraxess” would publish this Job offer from an academic institution: “Hey, I need help moving to my new apartment! Well, I don’t have the apartment yet… but if you could find the apartment and rent the moving truck… that would be great. And.. by the way, you should be really qualified, interested, and with at least 3 references“.

Apparently this is happening with “Marie Curie Individual Fellowships“, and it’s a higly diffused habit. Just go on Nature Jobs and search marie curie, you will see what I mean.

Marie Curie fellowships (IF) are European actions which aim to promote innovation and research in different research fields. The IF support individual researchers at postdoctoral level and beyond to work on a research project OF THEIR OWN DESIGN.

The individual researcher has to take contact with the hosting institution and together with the supervisor decide the best strategy to write the proposal. In the creative process of a new project, it’s of course difficult to establish the paternity of ideas, as they naturally come from the positive interactions between people.

In this case, research groups looking for funding are saying: “Hey We Already have the Project! We just need to select the right candidate“.

Am I wrong in saying: “This is against the European Commision ideas behind IF-Marie Curie“?

The contact between the individual researcher and the hosting group needs to run on different channels, like: dedicated websites, common research interests, conferences and so on.

Nature Jobs” and “Jobs Euraxess” cannot publish these offers like “Job Offers“, because they are indeed “Collaboration Request

A research institute should be able to attract scientists to apply for this kind of funding and not offer “Jobs“, which are not yet there.

The waste of a conference

borsseIn my personal experience, a conference was never a waste, I was really lucky because I had the chance to travel a bit, to meet really smart and nice people, eat good food (not always), exchange ideas and occasionally even be interested by the topic (just kidding), I am never… (I am kidding now).

Anyway I believe to be this kind of person that in conference could be defined a “collector”…. I was really used to get crazy for collecting all the possible useless gadgets, pens, books, and of course “The Bag of the conference”!! But I am now a “Regretful collector”… I realized how many useless plastic / PVC / acrylic bags I collected…. and they are all broken… They broke just after the first or second week…. Useless plastic things made in china…  And I found particularly incoherent the use of those bags in conferences dedicated to “sustainability” and “green chemistry”, considering that for 200 or 300 participants, you realease in the environment such a potential waste.

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I instead particularly appreciated the initiative of 2 Universities, the University of Salerno (Italy) and the University of Freiburg (Germany), that while hosting a conference, provided to their guests, bags completely made of cotton (or some mixed fiber). These bags (miracle of modern technology) not only didn’t break, but they are still of use for shopping. If one day they should break, it will be possible to repair, and if one day I’ll decide to throw them away, I’ll not feel so guilty, after all it’s not such a waste.

Chemistry, one way direction?

sentiero“How harmful overspecialization is. It cuts knowledge at a million points and leaves it bleeding.” said Hari Seldon, my favourite fictional character.  In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, he developed “Psychohistory”  which combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people. What we would call today a real multidisciplinary approach!

We are still far from the too optimistic (and quite naive) sentence of Dirac: “The fundamental laws necessary for the mathematical treatment of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known, and the difficulty lies only in the fact that application of these laws leads to equations that are too complex to be solved.” However we should seriously consider that in many aspect of science, in particular chemistry, fundamental research should focus more on new properties and applications, rather than new reactions.

Many chemists, foresee a return to the research of fundamental chemistry in some decades, when humanity will need chemical building blocks and energy from different source than Oil. This will be probably a pioneer era for chemistry, but it doesn’t mean that today chemistry is confined to a role of “technical support” of other sciences. I strongly believe that a real border between Physics-Chemistry-Biology doesn’t exist, and that more applicative reasearch can lead to fundamental discoveries.

As chemist, I should go out more often from  my comfort-zone of expertise. Don’t be scared of  not understanding. Go to other scientists. To biologists, physicists, engineers, physician, astronomers, geologists and ask: “What are you working on? What are your problems? May I help you?“.  Even further! Chemistry is the most multidisciplinare and ecumenical science, let’s goo to historians, literates, artists and ask the same questions. We could be really surprised!

Nepotismo e Corruzione divorano Innovazione e Progresso

nepoismo e corruzioneUn interessantissimo articolo sulla rivista Nature,  mostra lo studio statistico, nei vari paesi europei, della relazione fra il livello di corruzione e innovazione, ricerca, sviluppo e fughe di cervelli.

Questo il link:  http://www.nature.com/news/corruption-good-governance-powers-innovation-1.16927?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews

Potete immaginare la magra figura del nostro bel paese, che come al solito, in compagnia di Grecia, Bulgaria e Romania, copre gli ultimi posti di una indecorosa classifica. Potremmo stare ore a discutere di come, nepotismo e corruzione, siano endemiche in Italia, accusare gerarchie e politici; e poi tornare alla nostra vita, evitando di rilasciare scontrini ed evadendo le tasse. Ma qui stiamo parlando di qualcosa di specifico, di ricerca e sviluppo, di innovazione. E allora da cosa nasce questa piaga purulenta e come estirparla?

Non voglio pensare che tutto sia corruzione in Italia. Che le cariche universitarie si passino di padre in figlio. Non mi piace pensare che per vincere un concorso pubblico si debba lavorare nello stesso posto per dieci anni e riceverlo poi per concessione. Ma se i risultati sono quelli mostrati nelle statistiche di Nature, è evidente che ci sono almeno due problemi. Il primo a livello deontologico, cioè una larga fetta dell’accademia italiana non ritiene la meritocrazia una virtu’! O meglio… ritiene che lavorare sottopagato nello stesso gruppo di ricerca per  anni sia piu’ meritevole di aver conseguito grandi risultati altrove. Il secondo problema è di tipo tecnico, la modalità con cui si svolge un concorso pubblico.

Mi spiego meglio.  Negli altri Paesi, in generale (poi ovviamente ogni Paese ha le sue regole specifiche), per ottenere una posizione accademica,  si presenta un progetto personale. La commissione ti esamina, valuta il tuo curriculum, ti pone domande scottanti, ti mette in crisi.  Poi sceglieranno uno fra i vari candidati presenti.  I candidati interni, cioè quelli che hanno già studiato o lavorato nello stesso istituto, sono esclusi. La ragione è che si vuole favorire innovazione e progresso. Cosa puo’ portarti di nuovo qualcuno, che per anni, ha fatto le stesse cose, nello stesso posto?

In Italia il concorso pubblico si svolge per iscritto (anonimo), su di un argomento specifico, che non è il tuo progetto innovativo. Il tema è sul progetto di cui si occupa da dieci anni il candidato prescelto. Indovinate chi vincerà? Sostanzialmente l’esame viene ritagliato sul profilo del candidato vincente. E sembra anche giusto, perchè, sto povero cristo ha lavorato e sputato sangue per anni per avere quel posto. In fondo siamo tutti figli di mamma, vuoi davvero mandarlo in mezzo alla strada?

Peccato che quel posto, non è fatto per assumere un fornaio, un ciabattino, un operaio specializzato, che sono lavori stupendi ed onorevoli. Ma al ricercatore non sarà richiesta una pagnotta da un chilo, ma innovazione e progresso.  Il panettiere, il ciabattino e l’operaio, chiederanno al ricercatore  nuovi medicinali e tecnologie alternative. Ed è questo il suo dovere.

In sostanza la modalità dell’esame è corrotta dal principio, dallo stesso metodo.  Grande responsabilità è anche dovuta a coloro che assumono e illudono per anni Post-Doc e ricercatori e tempo determinato, con contratti annuali rinnovati di anno in anno, per anni, con la promessa che un giorno sarà il loro turno.

Along Came Marie… Curie!

marie-curieOnce passed the barrier of discouragement that plague any researcher-aspirant-academic which risk to become, the most educated fries-fryer of Mc Donald’s Restaurants; it is possible to reach the Nirvana, the Hakuna Matata status.

You don’t feel anymore anxious about the future, because future will come anyway… and It doesn’t worry about you. I decided to be happy in any case, whatever will be the turn of my career.  I am the luckyest man on earth! I am healthy, I have a wife (very soon),  a family, friends, and the most beautiful fluffy Cat.  I am going to work every day  happy, as a non-permanent, without perspective, Post-doc, because curiosity is driven me. I know, it will perhaps come the day, I will have to do a job which I don’t like, but this is not a reason to don’t appreciate today’s life.

Applying for many jobs, I finally realized that the most important thing is to understand  if the values of the company, of the project, of the job profile you are interested in, are in line with yours. If not, it’s not a good deal.

After all, I believe in Progress, in a borderless Europe, in fundamental research. So, with this spirit, I decided to write a project Marie Curie! For non-specialist,  Marie Curie fellowships (in my case an Individual Fellowship, IF) are European actions which aim to promote innovation and research in different research fields. The IF support individual researchers at postdoctoral level and beyond to work on a research project of their own design. Mobility between countries is required in order to acquire new skills and experience, as well as to enhance the employability of the supported researcher in the future.

Write the project it’s honestly not easy, but it was exciting. You feel the idea inside growing. It might not work, it might be a failure, but there is no innovation without risk… and the first task is to convince other people, supervisors, collaborators, university administrations, that the idea is good. It’s worth a try. I had to contact experts in different topics saying “Good morning, you don’t know me (basically nobody knows me), but I have this idea, are you interested for a collaboration?” I was really lucky because I met open-minded and really helpful people, which took their time and listened me, giving me plenty of good suggestions.

It was a lot of work and I was aware that the success rate for Marie-Curie actions are pretty low, but I started to like so much the idea, that I considered participate already a success.

I got finally a positive answer, and soon I’ll start a new adventure. The adventure of an Italian, working between France and Lithuania, exploring the edge between synthetic organic chemistry, thermodynamics and biology. Marie Curie actions, however, are not only about research, as I committed myself to Science divulgation, to implement my transferable skills (management, communication, intellectual properties… and of course french language!).

Therefore, from now on, in my blog, I’ll keep in the category “Scientia“, all my impressions,  my progress and failures, during the next 2-years of this Marie Curie Action.

Did I already mention that I have the most beautifu fluffy Cat?

Remembering the Student Resistance in the Raid of November the 25th at the University of Clermont Ferrand

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I attended, one week ago, to the ceremony for the commemoration of the of the tragic Nazi Raid at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in 1943. It was probably the largest raid effectuated in a University. 500 people were arrested, 130 deported in concentration camps… students, professors, researchers and resistance members.

In 1943 Clermont-Ferrand was chosen to host the University of Strasbourg, that were moved in Auvergne during Nazi occupation of Alsace. A group of students guided by Jean-Paul Cauchi founded the resistant group “Combat Étudiant“.

I was always impressed by the courage and generosity that in any hard time, in any dictatorship and injustice, students were able to show. A mixture of naive irresponsibility and firm belif to change the world. It looks strange nowadays when I see students on the hallway of a campus, lost in their smartphones and evening parties, but yet… even today… considering what is happening in Hong Kong or other parts of the world.

After all, it’s not strange, where else can you meet smart people with the  desire to improve the world, the desire of knowledge and freedom combined with the unconsciousness of youth.

Students and Professors of Strasburg and Clermont-Ferrand met a tragic fate, they were betrayed by an infamous Judas, Georges Mathieu, former member of the academic resistance that became the head of the Sonder-kommando which organized the Raid.

The 25th of November 1943 the Gestapo broke in the hall of the University, killing Prof. Paul Collomp, professor of Egyptian history and regrouped 1200 people, arresting 500 of them. Members of the Resistance, suspected people and Jews were deported in concentration camps and only few of them came back at home after war.

Sexual and Racial Discrimination in Academia

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I am probably rediscovering the wheel but I was deeply  shocked when for the first time in my life I saw such a questionnarie in an application form for a job in academia. I specify that the website from which I dowloaded this form comes from the University of Southampton, but apparently (from what I could hear from other people) is a quite a common thing in UK to ask so private information to improve “Equal Opportunity“.

I sincerly don’t know where to start, because it looks me so wrong… everything…     A the beginning I thought that my complete bewilderment was due to the fact that in Italy, France and Switzerland (the only countries in which I lived for a long period) asking such questions is ILLEGAL, and even if, just for statistical reason or to improve equal opportunity, an employer should ask your sexual orientation, your family planning, your racial belonging… would go directly to a tribunale.

Even assuming that I am not open-minded, I don’t get how a compulsory form (to which I could answer “Prefer not to say” and which will not be used for recruitment decision), should help equal opportunity. First of all, I suppose that any hiring process should be  based on scientific skills, and that’s all. Second, I see only two ways in which a statistic like this could be used, both wrong, admitting that this doesn’t really influence the hiring process. The first way is to say, “Hey, last year we didn’t reach the fixed female-quota and we miss some asians, so let’s take this chinese girl“.  So we would have a reversed form of racism, and the girl would be anyway a victim, because she would feel to be hired not for her scientific skills but just because belonging to a minority. The second way, perhaps more noble in the intention, but still wrong, could be to understand how society is evolving in terms of diversity. Anyway it’s still wrong to ask your ethic origin or your cultural background in a job application.

I found then completely no-sense to ask about “Sexual Orientation“, because it would be like to ask about your favourite colors. There is no relation between this and your future job! Discrimination is not an option, it’s illegal and immoral anyway. And then… for Heaven sake… University of Southampton… if someone doens’t know the difference between Heterosexual and Homosexual and needs some specifications in brackets… probably University is not his place. Moreover even if I write in a poor english, I am not sure that “Straight” is a fair word to indicate “Heterosexual“.

I am asking myself if I am exaggerating and if the intention of this form is after all good, but I still have difficulties to comprehend why should be important to declare if I am a “White British”, a “White Other”, a “Black Caribbian” or a “Mixed White and Asian”. Am I wrong? Please I would like to know also your opinion. Leave a comment!

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Università Italiana: Diversità Internazionale o Corporativismo Regionale?

universitàIn un recente articolo apparso in “Scientific American” si sottolinea ancora una volta la potenza  e l’importanza della “diversità” in ambito accademico, di ricerca ed innovazione. Diversità intesa nel suo spettro piu’ ampio: Diversità etnica, di genere, di nazionalità, di religione. Se siete interessati all’articolo originale seguite il link: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

Le aziende piu’ innovative e di successo sanno bene che la diversità è una risorsa inestimabile di nuove idee e promuovono l’assunzione senza discriminazione del personale. Pensate solo alla follia di rinunciare all’assunzione di personale femminile, rinunciando cosi al 50% del potenziale cerebrale umano.

Lo stesso vale nelle Università o negli Enti di Ricerca dove i ricercatori dovrebbero essere selezionati per le loro capacità di apportare nuove idee. Di conseguenza, generalmente, i Ricercatori accumulano la maggiore esperienza possibile diversificando il proprio curriculum, studiando e lavorando in altri Paesi. Le Università invece dovrebbe cercare di assumere personale esterno, che non ha già lavorato al suo interno.

E’ davvero cosi in Italia? Non voglio cadere vittima di facili qualunquismi ne tanto meno riportare storie personali, quindi vi propongo un gioco molto interessante che potreste fare anche voi in un qualsiasi Dipartimento Italiano, un gioco di Statistica per capire in quale dipartimento la diversità è un valore. E’ molto facile al giorno d’oggi, visto che quasi tutti i dati soni disponibili in rete.

Ho scelto molto casualmente, basandomi semplicemente sui risultati che google mi donava. Bologna è un’università molto famosa, che ha anche donato il nome al nuovo sistema di valutazione universitario europeo “The Bologna System“. Fra le Scienze cosiddette dure ho sorteggiato “Matematica“. Ora una piccola precisazione…. Non me ne voglia nessuno. E’ un caso. Non conosco il livello di produzione scientifica del Dipartimento di Matematica dell’Università di Bologna, che sono certo è di livello straordinario e comunque non sarei in grado di valutarlo, poichè non sono un matematico. La statistica che seguirà è solo un esempio di come valutare la “Diversità” nelle Università Italiane.  Se siete curiosi cercate di fare lo stesso in altri dipartimenti italiani, sarebbe molto interessante confrontare i risultati.  Specifico inoltre che ho estrapolato i dati dal sito web ufficiale della stessa università e che non si tratta di dati sensibili ma aperti a chiunque. Se nel citare questi dati ho riportato degli errori saro’ felicissimo di rettificare. Ad ogni modo sono dati imprecisi poichè non tutti i professori e ricercatori hanno riportato il loro curriculum completo. Per esempio un numero considerevole non ha riportato dove hanno svolto l’attività di dottorato, quindi dovro’ basarmi di piu’ sulle loro tesi di laurea.Italiani Stranieri

Nei 6 Settori di Ricerca del Dipartimento di matematica sono impiegate 99 persone fra professori ordinari, associati e ricercatori. 96 sono italiani e 3 stranieri, quindi diciamo una diverUomini donnesità nazionale intorno al 3%.  Gli uomini sono 64 e le donne 35, per una percentuale femminile del 35% circa. 58 si sono laureati all’Università di Bologna, 8 in altre Università dell’Emilia Romagna, 24 in altre Università Italiane e 3 in Università straniere. Piu’ difficile è determinare l’Università che ha rilasciato laureati bologna 2il Dottorato di Ricerca per mancanza di dati, diciamo solo che a prima vista, ci sono casi di Dottorati, Post-Dottorati e Periodi di ricerca presi all’estero, ma anche altri casi di Lauree, Dottorati e Post-Dottorati trascorsi tutti nella stessa Università.

Ripeto ancora una volta che non sto dando giudizi sulla capacità produttiva e formativa di questa particolare Università, ma solo cercando di dare un criterio di valutazione del grado di “Diversità”. Non posso infatti esprimere un giudizio visto che non ho fatto lo stesso studio statistico per altri dipartimenti universitari italiani. Se avete tempo e voglia di fare lo stesso, sarà interessante fare dei confronti.

Parlando ora in generale, perchè facciamo cosi fatica a diversificarci? Per me sono due i problemi principali da affrontare. Il primo legato ad una certa chiusura mentale, al diffuso provincialismo e alla scarsa deontologia professionale (molto spesso quelli che dovrebbero essere concorsi pubblici sono concorsi pilotati). Il secondo è di tipo economico. Per essere in grado di attrarre ricercatori dall’estero bisogna pagarli quanto o meglio delle altre nazioni, dargli delle prospettive, fornirgli materiale, strumenti e laboratori all’avanguardia.

Voi cosa ne pensate? Siete curiosi di misurare  la Diversità nella vostra Università? Fatemi sapere, magari riusciamo a lanciare un messaggio positivo per il futuro!