Ennio Tasciotti (Italian scientist in Houston, TX)

La scienza italiana in America è ... cool!

Mar 06, 2017 2782 ITA ENG

I've done almost 160 interviews in this exciting adventure discovering wonderful people who have described us so many different aspects of how Italy and the United States perfectly match together. I am always happy and glad when I meet young Italians born in Italy who had their success in the United States. They are the proof that Italy needs more America, and that America needs more Italy too: they really have two flags and one heart. 

Ennio Tasciotti is one of them: I met him in Houston and I was fascinated by this nice, brilliant, cool Italian … scientist. Wait, what? A cool scientist? Not a four-eye nerdy scientist? Nope. Let's meet him, I'm sure you'll fall in love with him too. Thanks Ennio, for being how you are, We the Italians is proud of what you do

Ennio, you left Latina and arrived to Houston … it's quite the trip! Please, tell us something about this

Well, it was a little bit longer trip than just Latina-Houston, over the course of like twenty-some years!

I did my studies in Latina, and then I started a very long journey with many stops: the first stop was at Scuola Normale di Pisa, where I got my degree in Molecular Biology. After Pisa, I did a PhD at the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, ICGEB, in Trieste: it was an Institute of the United Nations, so that allowed me to broaden my experience and I started traveling around the globe and participating to many meetings.

In one of these meetings I met the person that eventually became my boss, Dr. Mauro Ferrari, who is considered as one of the Founding Fathers of Nanomedicine, being one of the biggest experts in Nanotechnology applied to medicine. I met him at a conference in San Francisco and I spoke to him for literally ten minutes, walking from the conference room to his car. In those ten minutes he described me how my life would have been in the next ten years if I decided to move from Italy and to join his lab in the United States ... and that's what I did: I accepted the position he offered me, even if I had never been in Texas before.

He was working with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda and he was about to relocate his lab to the Biomedical Engineering Department at the University of Texas, so he had to build up from scratch all the new operations. He invited me to join his lab: I moved from a lab where we were all biologists, to a lab where I was the only one.

When I moved to Houston I realized from the very first day that not only I was the only biologist, but that I also was the first biologist that particular group had ever had. The others were physicists, mathematicians, engineers, chemists. That is how Nanotechnology started, 11 years ago: it was a field mainly in the hands of “material scientists”, there were little contributions from the “life scientists” at that time. So I was lucky enough to be a part of this first group of people that from biology started to work in Nanotechnology.

What's your job in Houston, today?

I am no longer the prototypical scientist that everybody imagines, like wearing a lab coat, pipetting substances or looking at pins on the microscope. What I do now is to coordinate the researches in my lab: over the years I progressively reduced my "in zone" experience and worked more and more, let's say, behind the trenches. I contact other scientista, I coordinate teams, I read all the latest news in science, I go to conferences, I give talks. I try to understand where Science is going, where the fields of interest, for my researches, are directed; and I try to anticipate my moves so that they will be in line with where Science is going in the long run.

It is a weird situation for me because I live in the present and I have to be sure that the daily activity in the lab goes on, everything needs to be done, the deadlines need to be met. But at the same time, I have to make some decisions that will affect where we will be five years from now.

I have a very large lab, about 30 people, and I make sure that the activities move on: if we hit a roadblock, which often happens in science, we still need to be able to move on, to solve the problem, to overcome the obstacles. My goal is to guarantee to my team freedom of operation, meaning they need to have the resources, I mean the money: because Science Research, and in particular Nanotechnology, requires a lot of money, it is a very expensive type of research. The 30 people working in my lab are not payed by my hospital: they are payed by contracts and grants that I bring in through proposals and projects that I write either for the Government, the Department of Defense, or for Private Foundations. This is pretty much the essence of my job now. I call myself "a kind of beggar in a suit": I am always begging for money, but wearing a very nice suit ... an Italian suit, of course!

I am no expert at all: so please, bear with my ignorance and explain us in a simple way what you are doing regarding how to cure cancer …

There is an advantage in being an outsider, like me, a biologist in a lab of engineers: I see the world from a different point of view. And the way I saw the world of Nanotechnology was from the point of view of the body, while engineers look at it from the point of view of the material scientist. This is to to tell you that when I started to work in Nanotechnology I realized that the biggest problem for all the nanomaterials is that our body recognizes these materials and gets rid of them, so when you inject nanoparticles the immune system immediately recognizes them as intruders and removes them to guarantee safety.

After I realized that, I had the idea that probably the best way to make these particles "disappear" was to dress them as the cells that were looking for them. So what I do is to camouflage my particles with the membrane of the cells that are looking, the "police", the cells of the immune system. Doing so I guarantee to those particles a long life inside the body, so that I can inject them and they will not be removed in a matter of minutes by the immune system: they will stay for days.

The second step was another observation from biology, the fact that T-cells or the macrophages have the ability of finding cancer and they do that by using some receptors on their membrane. So when I moved the membrane of a cell on a particle to camouflage it, I also transferred the ability to that particle to recognize the right cells of the body, just like the cells do. An immune cell travels in the body, finds out the tumor, sticks to the surface of the tumor and it stays there. In the same way if I take the membrane of that cell and put it around a nanoparticle, that nanoparticle will go around the body until it finds the cancer and, just like the cell would, it will stick to the surface of the cancer and will release a drug that we had loaded inside. This increases the specificity of delivering a drug because these nanoparticles go only where there is the problem and not in the rest of the tissues.

It was an incredible discovery; I published two papers in "Nature", which is one of the best scientific journal, about this technology. This has been identified also by other scientists as one of the most promising ideas of Nanotechnology.

Is it true that Houston hosts a lively community of young brilliant Italian scientists and researchers?

Houston is a city mostly known for oil and gas, which is probably the main industry of the area that generates tremendous amounts of wealth for the city: but at the same time, Houston is hosting the largest Medical Center in world. There are more than 50 institutions, including academies, hospitals, research centers and private hospitals that employ more than 120,000 people. And a quite good portion of them comes from Italy!

Yes, here we have a very vibrant community of young Italian scientists that comes from Italy. Some of them just are here for a training period, one or two years; some others to do a PhD, which is for four or five years; but some Italians eventually stay even after the training, so that there are also seniors. Now I am one of them, I have been here for almost 11 years and there are many other people, not just at my level, but even at higher level than me. Among them I can mention the CEO of my Research Institute, Mauro Ferrari, from Veneto; Giuseppe Colasurdo, the former Dean of the Medical Sciences of The University of Texas Medical School, from Abruzzo; and Fabio Triolo, Director of the Human Cell Processing cGMP Facilities in the Program of Regenerative Medicine at the University of Texas, from Sicilia.

There are a lot of other Italians employed in very high positions among the American scientists. One contribution that the community of the Italians in Houston is making to support Science in Italy, because the condition of the research in Italy is not as optimal as it could be, is to try to bring here to work the scientists, the researchers and the students that cannot find a real job in Italy. We established a very good communication between Houston and a lot of Italian Universities: I have a special relationship with the Federico II University in Naples so I get always people from there, but there is also a big community of Sicilians here in Houston, a very active community that maintain ties with their own institutions. We also have people from the University of Magna Grecia in Calabria, from the Politecnico of Turin and from Milan, both from the Politecnico and from the Bicocca University, especially chemists!

According to the last "Rapporto sugli Italiani nel mondo", 107,000 Italians left the country in 2015 looking for a better future. Some people call this "the brain drain", some people has not used very positive words towards them. We think that they deserve respect. What is your idea about this?

Unfortunately, I think that this is the normal outcome of the very poor Italian policy towards the young people. I see what happens in the US and all the efforts that Universities do to help their graduates to find a job: they have agreements with big companies, they have very active Alumni Associations and all of these allow current graduates and new students to find a job in an easier way.

I know University of Texas, because I have been there for 5 years: they have a very powerful Alumni Association. If you graduate from the University of Texas, Chemistry Department, maybe the CEO of a chemical implant here in Houston is an ex Alumni of the University of Texas; they create a natural bridge for the new graduates to intern and eventually to be enrolled in the work force of that particular place. This is just an example of how Americans help their young people.

We do not have that in Italy. I graduated from probably one of the best and powerful Italian University, The Scuola Normale of Pisa. Among those who graduated there, you can find many very important people: but they do not even have an Alumni program. This shows a complete lack of culture of helping the younger generations to acquire expertise and professional figure.

I think that young Italians are doing the right thing getting out of a system that does not work to find better conditions: it is inevitable and unfortunately, I don't see what Italy is doing to stop this hemorrhage. And it's kind of ironic and partly Italian-like, the reaction against these young Italians, even a Minister has recently used bad words about people who decided to leave Italy. I think it is the sign of this time, and we are going to keep seeing that, unless Italy does something else but the usual dialectic exchange of ideas and the fight between parties. This is happening because Italy is not offering any alternative to these kids. I think it is a very painful and dangerous event, because it's probably draining some of the most creative minds from Italy. Usually those who decide to leave are the ones that have more initiatives, and the guts to do it! Probably these are among the most talented people Italy gave birth to, and Italy should try to regain them!

The work forces formed abroad have now elevated their standards. They expect more than the small types of deals offered in Italy, so would they ever be able to go back to Italy? I think that the real problem is not that Italy is losing them now: if they will go back, maybe in 5 years, with a lot more expertise and skills they have learned abroad, it would be a great investment! But the conditions in Italy to call them back are not advantageous for them, so I doubt that these people will go back and this is more worrisome than losing them now, I'm scared they could be lost forever.

Did you ever think about coming back?

Yes, after ten years in the US I tried to consider going back to Italy. I have built my professional identity, I've learnt a lot, I've acquired unimaginable skills for the Italian standards. Over 2016 I had a lot of conversations, I talked to people, directors of institutes and, sadly, I realized that in Italy there is neither the intention nor the desire to develop scientific research in the proper way.

I was very interested into a quote from one of your speeches: "Being a scientist is beautiful. In America it is a very cool thing, while in Italy we maybe lost a bit of this: even if it was an Italian, Galileo Galilei, who invented the scientific method"

Thank you for this question, this is really one of my obsession: the fact that we have to remove from the general opinion the stereotype of the scientist as the nerdy guy with a hunchback, buried in a lab, not talking to anybody, completely detached from society. This is not what I see now. Science has changed: from a profession that could require isolation, like "The Thinkers" who used to isolate themselves and think about their stuff, being the only ones that know about a particular project or problem, it has evolved into a very interactive workspace. All by myself, I could not do anything of what I do in my lab today: it always requires a collaboration, an expert in another field.

It is important to create a bridge between your knowledge and the knowledge of another group of scientists: it is a job that requires many personal interactions, and I really like this, because it allows people to grow, to develop interpersonal skills.

It also opens your mind because you have to deal with people from all over the world. Science has probably one of the most differentiated work forces, there are scientists from all over the world. In my lab we have 15 different nationalities, and that opens your mind and allows you to better understand the world, so this goes beyond just what you do as a job. The fact that you spend 10 hours a day with somebody from Bangladesh, from Indonesia, from Sweden, from Greece and from Iran makes you learning a lot about these people, their society, their background, how they think.

Scientists are starting to understand that in order for their researches and their discoveries to really have an impact on patients' life, they have to become also entrepreneurs. As a scientist, if I publish a paper or a book where I describe my discovery and I stop my journey there, nothing will happen and that incredible discovery will never affect anybody's life. But whatever I discover can be patented, protected and licensed to a company interested in developing that idea, that concept, that discovery from a commercial standpoint, in order to develop a product that can be sold to a hospital, that can be bought by a patient. This way I have done much more than just pushing knowledge forward: I have actually changed the life of a patient, because now he can be cured and diagnosed better, or better recover from surgery. So, this is the third aspect of being a scientist that I think is now very cool and most of the people don't understand yet.

We live in a world of very fast innovation, now driven by scientists: the pace at which science moves and progresses is so fast that only scientists can now develop companies. Scientists are now called to become CEOs of companies or members of scientific advisory board consultants of large enterprises. This is another area that I believe most of the people are unaware of. This is another reason why I think being a scientist is a great opportunity: if you are a successful scientist and you have a project that gives you a high visibility, then you become a very important component of the community, you are held in very high consideration in the society.

I always had the feeling that in Italy scientists are a little bit considered as "parasites" of the society, thinking that they use resources but they do not create any richness, anything out of the resources that they use. Yes, the Minister of Education puts the money out to support the research, but then what comes out of that? Most of the times: nothing, so almost always in Italy there is not the luxury of telling stories of success. But here in the United States, where scientists are very often successful with incredible projects, the society looks at them as very successful people: and success, regardless of the area in which you have it, is considered one of the highest accomplishment by the American society.

The meeting between the Italian creativity and the American business friendly environment is a perfect storm …

Yes, I really believe so. You know, in genetics there is this little sentence that says, "What nature does not do, nurture does". Nature is the genetics, the DNA that we inherit, we cannot escape that. But at the same time we can nurture ourselves according with the lifestyle that we have: so the way we look, we think, we live certainly depends on our genes, but at some level it also depends on how much we build on those foundations, and that completely depends on the environment that surrounds us.

As much as the Italians have always been a creative people and our genes may have something special, I think that what makes us Italians truly exceptional is the environment that surrounds us throughout our life during the educational period. I believe that if you take an Italian child out of Italy at the age of 6 and you make him grow in the United States' school system, he does have Italian genes but he will never have the same amount of creativity and resourcefulness.

We, as Italians, are used to solve problems throughout our lives because we live in a little bit of a broken inefficient system, which requires constant ideas to solve problems: a very valuable skill when you walk through the doors of a lab. This is what to me the special recipe is. Genetics, for sure: because we come from generations of inventors, artists, poets, the most creative people around the world. But at the same time I think that the Italian way of living gives us something exceptional that I don't find in any other people from other countries, and this is one of the reason why I like so much to hire Italians in my team so much. I really think they are among the best employees so far!

So, in the end, as seen from Texas in 2017, what's the most positive thing about Italy, this our wonderful beloved country which usually complains way too much?

Complaining is one of the trait that I recognize in the Italian people. It's quite annoying, actually, for somebody who moved many years ago like me, to see that the first answer you get when you ask a question about how's life, generally is "well, you know, this is what happens, nothing's gonna ever change, there is no hope...". This is maybe the saddest effect to the youngest generations: they seem to have a complete reluctance in taking initiatives because they know the system will kill them. But at the same time you guys don't realize that you live one of the best lifestyles in the world!

This is one thing I am still very jealous of. I come back and, yes, my friends complain about their jobs, their careers, but at the same time, they live a much richer social life than I do. They might have less money than me, but they have a richer personal life, human interactions, the sense of family, the closeness with friends ... these are values very well established in Italy but not well regarded in the USA, and I always miss that aspect!

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