Interview with Silvia Marchesan, research “rising star” according to Nature
The Nature journal, in its annual supplement Nature Index, has announced the names of the eleven emerging researchers who are “making their mark in science” globally in various scientific areas. Among them is Silvia Marchesan, associate professor of Organic Chemistry of the University of Trieste and head of the Superstructures Lab. Her research focuses on the organization of molecules as “superstructures”, and has a potential impact in many areas, from pharmacology to the creation of new biomaterials.
A professor of chemistry among the eleven “rising stars” of international research. Did you expect such a great success?
Absolutely not, it has been a completely unexpected result and I still cannot believe it has happened. I was surprised by the fact that scientific recognitions are usually given to researchers who achieve important results in a given scientific area. In my case, the recognition went to a multidisciplinary work, ranging from organic chemistry, to biology, to the study of nanostructured materials.
What path has led you to such a “multidisciplinary” scientific career?
After obtaining a university degree in chemistry and pharmaceutical technologies at the University of Trieste, I was awarded a PhD in chemistry at the University of Edinburgh which had a strong component of molecular biology. Then, I spent two years in Helsinki, where I conducted research in biochemistry and biology, and two years in Australia − in a joint position between Monash University and CSIRO (the Australian CNR) – where I started to carry out research on nanostructured biomaterials. Then, for personal reasons, I decided to come back to Italy in a precarious researcher position, which however did not allow me to access research grants. At that time, I had almost decided to give up and dedicate myself to something else, including the project of having a baby.
What happened then?
Then, after a few months, I won a position of fixed-term researcher (Type B) at the University of Trieste and, even more importantly, I won an important grant by MIUR under the SIR-Scientific Independence of Young Researchers call. This helped me start an independent laboratory and set up a qualified and highly interdisciplinary research team, which has attracted self-funded researchers from abroad, and also obtained additional grants under the MIUR PRIN-Research Projects of National Interest call and the COST-European Cooperation in Science and Technology European project.
What research do you carry out at the Super Structures Lab of the University of Trieste?
Just like Lego bricks, individual molecules can organize in superstructures of different nature. In our lab, we study the way in which molecules, in this case very small protein fragments, assemble to form complex biodegradable structures that can have different features and functions as compared to the original molecules. When “assembled” or “disassembled”, these bricks can behave differently and being aware of these features has an important impact in many areas. For example, this is useful when we develop smart materials that degrade once they are released in the environment. One of our products is a particular hydrogel that carries drugs and has a (slight) antimicrobial activity only in the gel form and then degrades once its function is over. Moreover, we also carry out research on the creation of composite materials from carbon nanostructures: a research area that has several applications, from diagnostics to energy. The common theme is the use of a simple chemistry accessible to many people and the use of water-based systems instead of organic solvents.
How do you reconcile being a researcher of excellence and being a mother?
I must admit that it is not easy. I am lucky because many people help me both at work and at home. Unfortunately, in Italy, differently from some other countries, it is still difficult for a woman to do research of excellence and, to have more than a single child at the same time. This is mostly due to bureaucracy, which causes considerable waste of time. For example, when I was abroad, I would connect to the internet and purchase anything I needed for the lab just with a few clicks, while in Italy you need to follow a slow and complicated procedure which inevitably slows the work down and reduces the competitiveness of our research centres, and also takes valuable time away.