When Cinzia Casiraghi applied for the Sofja Kovalevskaja Award , she didn't think she'd win. The €1.65 million grants, administered by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation  and endowed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research , are awarded to top-rank junior researchers from abroad. Applicants must have completed their doctorates recently "with distinction" and have published work in "prestigious international journals." Casiraghi didn't think her curriculum vitae was up to snuff.
"She assumed the award went to superstars," says Stephanie Reich, a physics professor at Freie Universitt Berlin  and Casiraghi's postdoc supervisor. "She didn't believe that she fit that description." But Reich pushed Casiraghi to write a proposal. Two weeks before Christmas 2007, with Reich's help and a few all nighters, Casiraghi got her application in on time.
In early July, a Humboldt representative sent her an e-mail with the good news. Casiraghi and the seven other recipients  were honored at an award ceremony 25 November in Berlin. "I had to read [the e-mail], like, five times to really understand that I had won," she recalls. "I felt shocked and then happy and also a bit scared because it also meant that I had to get serious."
The Sofja Kovalevskaja Award is one of the most well-financed scientific prizes in Germany. It's intended to recognize and support promising young scientists from abroad. Winners spend up to 5 years working at a German host institution of their choice and can spend the award money with minimal constraints. The idea is to provide junior scientists with the opportunity to become independent and the capital to pursue risky research, says Georg Scholl, head of communications at the Humboldt Foundation. These young foreign scientists also serve as "scientific ambassadors" for German science, he adds.
A petite, somewhat shy 32-year-old, Casiraghi earned her 6-year degree (the equivalent of a master's degree) in nuclear engineering at the Politecnico di Milano  in Italy in 2001. She had no intention at the time of branching out into other areas, such as experimental physics, or going on to earn a Ph.D. "It's mostly chance that I'm here," she says.
At the Politecnico, her supervisor was conducting research on diamond-like carbons (DLCs). As part of her master's research, Casiraghi grew DLC films and characterized their structure. Her supervisor was collaborating with a former Politecnico student, Andrea Ferrari, who was also studying DLCs at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. He was interested in Casiraghi's work and tried to coax her to Cambridge to work toward a Ph.D.
"I told him no. I didn't want to work in academia," she recalls. But later, after considering her options, she decided to give Cambridge a try--but only for 1 year. The decision was made harder, she says, because Italians don't typically work or study abroad and her family is quite conservative. But she wasn't sure she'd get a job in Italy right away, and the idea of going abroad seemed more intriguing than staying home. "I could improve my English language skills and get some experience ... doing something that I enjoy," she says.
During her first year at Cambridge, Casiraghi continued to study DLC growth and structure. At the end of her first year, she published her first research article in Physical Review Letters  (PRL), a top physics journal. In her letter, Casiraghi showed that DLC films, which were known to be very smooth, remain smooth down to one or two atomic layers. "That was really exciting," Casiraghi says. "It was something really new." Smitten by the joy of discovery, Casiraghi stayed on as a Ph.D. student. Her thesis continued her focus on DLC films and extended her analysis to other types of carbon such as graphene and carbon nanotubes.
After Casiraghi finished her Ph.D. in 2005, she remained at Cambridge as an Oppenheimer Research Fellow for 2 years, continuing to characterize various forms of carbon. At Cambridge, she met Reich, her current supervisor, whose Oppenheimer fellowship had ended just the year before.
When her own fellowship ended, Casiraghi was ready to move on. "I wanted to learn something new. I wanted to be excited again," she says. At about that same time, Reich had accepted a tenured professorship at Freie Universität Berlin and needed a postdoc, so Casiraghi headed to Berlin.
Casiraghi's willingness to move around is a huge asset, says John Robertson, her Ph.D. supervisor at Cambridge. "Some people never break away from their home base and stay where they are comfortable. But Cinzia bounced around to different labs and picked up different techniques along the way."
Supervisors and colleagues took note of Casiraghi's curiosity. "Most of the students' attitudes were like, 'My goal is to improve these materials, and if I can do that, it doesn't really matter why,' " Reich recalls. "Cinzia was different. She wanted to understand what was going on and why." In her PRL paper, Cinzia and her collaborators proposed a theory to explain why DLCs grow so smoothly. Their theory turned out to be wrong, "but the point is that she was trying," Reich says.
With the new award, Casiraghi will hold the position of a Sofja Kovalevskaja small group leader at the Freie Universität Berlin for the next 5 years. Although the position isn't permanent, the award gives her all the rights of a full professor: She will set up her own lab space--right next to Reich's--and pursue the research outlined in her proposal. Under the terms of the award, she is free to spend the funds on anything she needs to conduct her research--including equipment, travel expenses, her own living expenses, and hiring her own Ph.D. students or postdocs--which is a huge deal, Reich says, because young investigators in Germany generally don't have the right to supervise people.
As she sets up her own lab, Casiraghi's focus will shift from DLC films to carbon nanotubes. Like DLCs, carbon nanotubes are of industrial interest because they are lightweight and strong. Nanotubes are also excellent heat conductors and in some configurations are semiconductors.
"Imagine rolling up a piece of paper," Casiraghi explains. "Depending on how it was rolled, you can get nanotubes with different atomic arrangements and consequently different properties." Casiraghi wants to know how the properties of graphene, a form of carbon, differ from the properties of carbon nanotubes, and she wants to figure out how to manipulate the growth of nanotubes to favor the semiconducting kind.
Although Casiraghi is excited about the ability to start her own lab, she's also nervous. "People think that since I have this big grant for 5 years, I can relax now. But I can't relax because people are expecting something from me. I want to show that I really deserved this prize."
Gunjan Sinha is a freelance science writer living in Berlin.