Silvia Giordani masterclass offers insights for young women researchers

13 Jun 2014

Prof Silvia Giordani, senior researcher in the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, Italy. Photo by Agnese Abrusci (IIT)

Last week, chemist Prof Silvia Giordani gave a masterclass at the Royal Irish Academy. Claire O’Connell was there as moderator.

Prof Silvia Giordani used to say she was lucky when she made a scientific discovery or when she won a major award. But then she got a pointed piece of advice from a female professor.

“She said, ‘stop saying you are lucky and start saying you are good’,” laughs Giordani as she kicks off her masterclass on women in science with around 20 female PhD students.

The masterclass is being hosted by the Royal Irish Academy and the surroundings are august, but the tone is informal and there’s already a feeling of camaraderie among the group. They are here to listen to and ask questions of Giordani, who has forged an impressive career in chemistry and nanomaterials.

“Often if we do something good we say we are lucky, and if an experiment doesn’t work, we are not good enough,” says Giordani. “But instead why not trust in ourselves? You can be grateful of course, but don’t think you achieve something because everything comes your way, you are lucky.”

Science speaks

Giordani’s track record shows just how good she is. A native of Bergamo in Italy, she loved chemistry in school (and credits her late organic chemistry teacher as a key mentor) and she studied at the University of Milan before embarking on a PhD at the University of Miami in Florida.

Initially, her stylish dress sense there raised some eyebrows in the academic corridors, she recalls with humour, but she soon dispelled any preconceptions when her methodical and rigorous work led to a major discovery in the lab. “I found ways to make molecules communicate using light, and I discovered the very first example of a three-state molecular switch in the literature,” she says. “Science speaks – work hard and once you have good results no one can argue with that.”

Keep it simple

Her successful PhD opened up doors to prestigious institutions in the US but Giordani felt her heart was in Europe so she took a Marie Curie post-doctoral fellowship at Trinity College Dublin, where she jumped from chemistry into physics.

Moving to a new academic field and being part of a large research group combined to create something of a culture shock for Giordani, who admits her confidence floundered a little at the start.

Her father offered her a nugget of advice that allowed her to focus – start with something simple, she recalls. So she did.

“I noticed that the physicists always used chloroform for dispersing nanotubes in experiments,” says Giordani. So her group looked at other options and discovered that the solvent NMP is particularly good for dispersing the tiny carbon tubes.

That finding led to her most-cited academic paper to date. “Sometimes simple things turn out to be really good discoveries,” she says.

Speak up and network

The relative lack of women physics was another change, but Giordani decided to bite the bullet and raise her voice. “When I went to the first physics conference I was looking around, hoping to find another woman, it was a bit intimidating,” she says. “Then I decided that I would speak up anyway.”

She also became active in networks of women in science and technology, and found them a huge source of support. “Talking to other women in science and realising we have things in common, common ways of thinking – I found it very important,” she says. “Admitting you need help or guidance is not a weakness, and having a structure that can give you advice and help you is useful.”

Awards aplenty

After a brief spell back in Italy, Giordani returned to Trinity and landed a prestigious President of Ireland Young Researcher Award (PIYRA) from Science Foundation Ireland that helped her build up her first independently led research team. Receiving the award was a day to savour, she recalls.

“I was there having tea and chatting with President Mary McAleese,” she says. “And I had to think – what a country this is where I can drink tea with the President! It was a really good day for me.”

Then in 2012, Giordani was honoured with a L’Oreal-UNESCO UK and Ireland for Women in Science Fellowship, which was perfect timing: “I was starting to lose faith a bit, there was an economic crisis, I thought I had invested so much, what am I going to do at the end of my PIYRA contract?” she says. “The L’Oreal award came at the best time – it boosted my confidence back up, it was just what I needed.”

The award also raised her public profile with media appearances and linked her into a network of other awardees, and Giordani believes she reaped many benefits from the recognition. She has now started an award and mentoring scheme in her former high school in Italy in the hope it will inspire young scholars. “Once you are appreciated you want to do better,” she says.

Shedding light on nanomaterials

The L’Oreal-UNSECO fellowship funded Giordani for a scientific visit to the European Joint Research Centre in Ispra near Milan, and this in turn paved the way to her current post, as a senior researcher in the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, where she is developing smart nanomaterials.

“We design a library of building blocks and learn how to assemble them in nanomaterials,” she explains. “The functionalisation of nanomaterials means that they can act as assembly points for the different chemical functions that will, in turn, provide means for applications in medical imaging and drug delivery in biological systems And we want sensors, so we design a particular molecule to respond to something in its environment and then give us an output like light, which can be picked up in imaging. We are also interesting in building molecular materials to report acidity, a low pH, which could be useful when you are monitoring in the body for disease. So in this case, the molecule switches on the light when the pH is low and you can see it.”

Travel and connect

Prompted by numerous questions from the PhD students at the masterclass, Giordani offered several pieces of advice, including to travel if at all possible – be that to take up post-doctoral posts or to work as visiting scientists – to do interviews whenever invited and to build up a network of peers that can offer support and encouragement.

Keeping sight of the impact of scientific research can also provide motivation, she adds. “With science we have this great opportunity for creativity and imagination,” she says. “But we can also work towards something that will change people’s lives.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication