How a photonics project helped this researcher see the light

6 Sep 2022

Image: Giovanna Ricchiuti

As part of her doctorate, Giovanna Ricchiuti is splitting her time between Vienna and Cork to work on a sensor that can detect water at trace level in organic solvents.

Giovanna Ricchiuti studied electronics and telecommunications engineering at the Polytechnic University of Bari in Italy and then completed a master’s in electronic engineering. She spent some time as a postgrad intern at CERN in Geneva and worked for a consulting company, before deciding to go back into the world of research.

Ricchiuti is now a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Early Stage Researcher in the Optaphi (Optical Sensing Using Advanced Photo-Induced Effects) double-degree PhD programme. Her project is developed at TU Wien in Austria as the recruiting host and at the Centre for Advanced Photonics & Process Analysis at Ireland’s Munster Technological University as co-host. Her research interests include laser dynamics, spectroscopy techniques and optoelectronics.

‘I was 100pc sure I didn’t want to continue with a doctorate … but I realised that I really missed the environment and dynamics of research’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

Optaphi is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie double doctorate programme mainly focused on the development of optical sensing schemes and laser sources that make use of advanced photo-induced effects. The project involves five different European universities: Munster Technological University (Ireland), Polytechnic University of Bari (Italy), University of Bari (Italy), University of Montpellier (France) and TU Wien (Austria).

It was by chance that a friend of mine shared the link of the project’s website. At that time, I was working as a consultant but I realised that was not my dream job. Out of curiosity, I read the various proposals, and indeed all the projects seemed very interesting and involved the use of cutting-edge technology. I had previous experience in optics and photonics, so I was tempted to apply even though the deadline was set for the following day. Nevertheless, here I am!

In particular, two different fields are mainly involved in my current research activities: analytical chemistry (at TU Wien) and physics (at Munster Technological University). The project foresees the development of a liquid-phase sample’s sensor based on an indirect spectroscopic technique that is named photothermal spectroscopy (PTS).

The project is designed in such a way that each of the 14 early-stage researchers spends half of their doctorate in one institution, half in the other and two months of secondment at a company. At both universities, I have found amazing colleagues who have become very good friends. They are professionals who love to share knowledge, are passionate about what they do and also like to enjoy moments together. I feel so lucky to be part of these two great families!

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Today, sensors are everywhere: in diagnostics, in environmental quality monitoring, in space, in health and safety, and so on. Sensors are the bridge between reality and science. We use sensors daily to monitor the real world and, in turn, to find a scientific solution to improve or change a specific condition.

Specifically, in my project, we propose to develop an in-line/on-line sensor to detect water at trace level in organic solvents. In many industrial processes, such as the pharmaceutical industry, water-free solvents are often required for synthetic organic chemistry. Also, in the aviation industry, moisture content contaminates aircraft fuels, causing system failures (safety problems, corrosion, etc).

We use PTS and new laser sources to work reagents-free, reducing waste production and sample consumption. In this sense, our research not only has an impact on industrial activities, but is not harmful to the environment too.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

It is always nice for me to tell people how I ended up doing what I am currently doing, and I hope to be a bit of an inspiration to all the young students who have just graduated.

After graduating with my master’s degree, I was 100pc sure I didn’t want to continue with a doctorate or research in general. Not because I didn’t like academic activities, just because I wanted to work in a company and finally have the feeling that I had discontinued my studies and could jump into the ‘adult world’.

I was immediately hired by a consulting company. But at some point, I found that occupation too static and, I might say, too obvious and mechanical for me. Spending eight hours in front of a PC, writing procedures and reports, became a nightmare. I realised that I really missed the environment and dynamics of research: learning new things every day, experimenting, gaining experience. What I love the most about being a researcher is the fact that even if you fail 100 times, when at the 101st you finally get a good result, it lifts your day and you are more motivated than before to reach the next goal.

When a friend shared the Optaphi application website, it was summer 2020 and I was working from home because of the pandemic. I tried to gather all the necessary documents as soon as possible and applied 15 minutes before the deadline. A few days after the interview, I received the answer that I had been taken and I was so excited because I could finally see a light at the end of the tunnel – speaking of photonics!

A double PhD abroad in two amazing countries, Austria and Ireland, new people, colleagues, friends, cultures, labs, skills, facilities, conferences, summer schools, presentations and, of course, beer! Each new day I am happier than the last that I chose this path. So, take-home message: never say never!

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher?

I must say that compared to other doctorate programmes, the fact that we need to move between two universities, changing cities, attitudes, friends, colleagues, supervisor, accommodation etc, represents an additional stress factor, a big challenge. When I had to move from Vienna to Cork, finding accommodation not being in the place was crazy, but luckily I had already my Optaphi’s colleagues located in Cork who helped me in this adventure.

Moreover, with a background in electrical engineering, it was a bit difficult at the beginning to become familiar with analytical chemistry procedures and techniques. My supervisor and my colleagues were always very nice and helpful. The funniest part was the sample preparation. I remember that I was so proud that I always took pictures of myself wearing lab coat and googles. 

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Research and science are a continuous flow; they never stop. I think some historical periods or some events may enhance one scientific field more than another because of necessity and urgency.

I always try to encourage students and graduates to approach science because it is so fascinating and amazing. It covers so many different shades of our world and contributing even the smallest piece to the great puzzle of science is truly fulfilling and a source of pride.

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