The story of how I entered the world of materials science is set in Trieste, a city in the northeast of Italy that I like to call Italy's "city of science." Many research institutions from all scientific fields have found a place in Trieste, and the AREA Scientific Park, which gathers 70 companies and research centres with more than 1600 employees, is a fine illustration of this diversity.
All of these companies, research centres, and scientists have provided an extremely dynamic, creative, and international scientific environment within which I have developed my career as a materials scientist. In particular, ELETTRA, a third generation synchrotron radiation facility dedicated to many aspects of materials science such as crystallography, spectroscopy, and lithography, has put me in touch with a very broad scientific community and allowed me to find opportunities.
The Path to Materials Science ...
It all started in the mid-1990s, when I was a pupil in the penultimate year at the Liceo Scientifico. I was 18 and won the first round of the local physics championship in the 17 to 19 age category. Things went quite well at the regional session, and I won the opportunity to visit the International Centre for Theoretical Physics and the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste. This was my first contact with the wonderful world of science, and I was hooked.
I decided to study physics at the Università degli Studi di Trieste toward a 4-year degree, which I was awarded in 2000. I did my final-year project in surface science at the INFM-TASC (Advanced Technologies and Nanoscience Laboratory of the Italian National Institute for Matter Physics) in the AREA Science Park, where I was introduced to the chemistry and physics of catalytic reactions on single-crystal surfaces. In particular, I got to study how ultrahigh-vacuum techniques could shed light on kinetic, structural, and electronic mechanisms that govern a catalytic reaction. I also became familiar with the use of synchrotron radiation light (soft x-rays) and related spectroscopic techniques.
... Is Not Always Straightforward.
I spent the following year as a postgraduate fellow under contract with the physics department of the local university, continuing my research project at INFM-TASC. I was really enjoying my work on surface catalytic reactions, and the next obvious step, if I was to keep on the academic track, was a Ph.D.
But in Italy, getting a Ph.D. means spending 3 years on a grant of about ?800 a month and lower chances of finding a job in industry if you decide this is the environment you want to work in. So I searched for an alternative, and in 2001, I obtained a grant in collaboration with a start-up company to work on the prototyping of microinstrumentation for surgical and implantation purposes in humans. The project involved carrying out deep x-ray lithography experiments at ELETTRA and focused on the advantages of this technique for the production of microcomponents for surgical tools. At the same time I got to witness surgical procedures to better understand the limitations of conventional devices.
Even though I found this project interesting, it turned out to be a dead end; the small start-up was not growing at all, mainly due to the fact that it was based on a partnership between the university and the company that proved too weak. So I finally decided to leave there and get a real job! I soon got a position in a company working on supply chain management models, where we elaborated algorithms and software to study the efficiency of industrial production processes and distribution phases. This had little to do with my previous experience, and that's why I got hired, paradoxically! They were looking for somebody with a scientific background to take a fresh look and contribute new ideas for the algorithms. This job offered an excellent salary and good career prospects; that should have been what I was looking for. But in less than a month I had realised that this role, which was closer to economics than science, did not suit me at all. I had opened the door into the world of academic science; now I learned that I could never forget it.
My Ph.D. Studies in Surface Science
That's how I eventually decided to enter the selections for a Ph.D. Here in Italy, universities run competitive exams, with both written and oral sessions, to select candidates for their Ph.D. programmes. Depending on your score, your application may be directly rejected, or you may be authorised to follow a Ph.D. programme but without getting paid; or if you are among the lucky few, you are given a grant by the university. On average, in physics, each year there are 5 to 10 grants available for 50 to 80 competitors.
I must admit I have been lucky. I did get a grant, and I found an excellent research group that supported me from the moment my Ph.D. started in early 2002: I simply went back to the same lab where I had worked the year before. Within the context of experimental ultrahigh-vacuum surface science, I am now studying the interaction of hydrogen with metal surfaces as well as the mechanisms of model hydrogenation reactions. Hydrogen seems to be an excellent and clean energy vector, and catalysis is expected to be at the core of the new developing technologies for the production, storage, and burning of hydrogen in fuel cells.
I have now been working on this project for almost 3 years, while gaining some experience in teaching. I also got to set up a lab where pupils come with their teachers to carry out experiments on fuel cells. My dream to contribute to the dissemination of the scientific culture on energy became reality in 2003 when I got financial support from the AREA Science Park.
No one can know for sure what the future may hold, but I feel the academic track is right for me. I am excited about what materials science can do for the development of future technologies, and as new experimental and theoretical methods are designed, we will have better tools to describe, predict, and eventually use the properties of materials. I also believe that great efforts have to be put into the communication of science to a broad audience, and I fully intend to keep doing so myself.