Here at We the Italians we’ve been thinking that science and research are two fundamental and very delicate aspects of our lives way before the covid-19 virus hit the whole world: here at We the Italians we believe that science and research are extremely serious and complicated things, that require studies, talent and sweat, and we are therefore grateful to scientists and researchers all over the world who must be protected, well paid and listened to, because there is no improvisation in their field.
In this field, Italy excels and has always stood out: in the Italian DNA there is genius and talent, innovation and curiosity, resilience and stubborness. These qualities are recognized everywhere, and particularly in the United States: that's why ISSNAF, the Italian Scientist and Scholars in North America Foundation, is so important. We welcome on We the Italians the new president of this magnificent institution, Cinzia Zuffada.
President Zuffada, first of all, I would ask you to tell us a little bit about yourself: from Italy to the United States, what is your story?
I was born and grew up in Broni, a small town in the Oltrepo’ area in Lombardy to which I am very attached and that gave me a lot. I credit very much that environment for stimulating my early interest in science; my current research interest has to do with water, and the wet areas in the countryside are perfect for curiosity and experimentation, that gave freedom to my childhood; the environment gave me the opportunity for daily discoveries and inventions.
Regarding my student career, I was attracted to a large number of subjects and I certainly wanted to have the opportunity to get an education that was forward-looking, even if the world was a lot smaller than today. I saw education as an opportunity to socially elevate myself. I thought that with the engineering degree, I would have many paths open to me. I went to the University of Pavia and then was a researcher at Caltech, in California, for one year. My transition from Pavia to California was very shocking because I wasn’t prepared at all, at the time there were very few collaborations and certainly no institutional ones, so it was like jumping in the water without knowing how to swim.
I gradually built my experience, I grew from a professional point of view, then I ended up marrying and I settled into an environment that gave me many more opportunities than the place where I grew up. Since 1992, I have been with JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), a federally-funded research and development laboratory in Los Angeles financed by NASA, whose mandate is to lead the robotic exploration of the solar system, including our planet, from space. We make measurements (and use sources) from space to study the earth through remote sensing, with a number of systems based on different technologies.
You are the new President of ISSNAF. We ask you to describe briefly the history, mission, and activities of this very important institution
ISSNAF, the Italian Scientist and Scholars in North America Foundation was founded in 2007, by a body of very distinguished Italians including Noble Prize winners. At the time, it was the only network of researchers covering of all North America. It gathered many of the most important Italian researchers in North America, spanning various generations, who wanted to come together and celebrate their Italian identity. Specifically, people born and educated in Italy, operating in the US and Canada, professionally established, wanting to maintain a sense of Italian identity alongside their transformed identity that the experience abroad had given them, and help the newcomers get established.
Over time, the leadership became disconnected from the membership, we experienced a decline of resources and the loss of our executive-Director Monica Veronesi; she was a great person who passed away prematurely.
So, a group of us who had joined ISSNAF leadership relatively recently, in the past two years worked very actively to relaunch and renew the foundation; today ISSNAF is a younger organization, with a new cadre of leaders and extension of its charter. We want to emphasize the identity through the empowerment of the community and the celebration of talent, not only of those who have done extremely well professionally, but also the talent of the new generation that has come to North America more recently than I in a completely different situation, providing more structured services and benefits to help them integrate into this new reality of work and life. Nowadays ISSNAF is no longer focused only on science and medicine, but it’s broader, open to more people from all disciplines, including social sciences, arts and economics.
You also have chapters, right?
Several Local and Thematic Chapters were founded in prior years but today most of them are not active anymore because the older generation didn’t do succession planning. We didn’t put in place a structure to cultivate the newer generations and entrain them, so in some cases the interest waned when specific people moved on. So, it’s our job now in this administration to restart those efforts and structure them, introducing a process to rotate the cadre periodically. The way we see is that the turnover in the leadership must be high by design, to improve the rotation: a little bit like what happens in professional societies. The terms should be very well defined, two or three years and then there is a rotation and rejuvenation. That’s exactly how I would like to see the network of chapters evolve in the future.
Every year in November ISSNAF awards a series of prizes during a ceremony held at the Italian Embassy in Washington. In the hope that the ceremony can be organized again this year, can you tell us more about these awards?
ISSNAF has historically had programs for awards to young investigators, “the young ISSNAF awards”: they recognize research accomplishments in the early stage of their career. This year there are four awards, including a brand new one, the “Italian Embassy Award”, that will go in 2020 to an Italian researcher in the US whose research is showing potential for an impact on the fight and cure of COVID 19.
The Embassy will be involved obviously with the selection process. It adds to other awards that we have, named for our sponsors, such as the Paola Campese Award for research in leukemia, the Franco Strazzabosco Award for research in engineering, and the Mario Gerla Award for research in computer science. These are Italian families who named an award in memory of their loved ones: it’s a tradition that we want to grow, so we are looking to increase this type of awards that underline the involvement of very specific people, whose memories are kept alive by recognizing the younger generation in one or more field of research.
There has been a call which came out at the beginning of May end ended a few days ago. There will be a rigorous selection based on materials in their application; this year we also require two references who can speak about the contributions of the candidate to their field.
It’s not clear whether this year we will have an event at the Embassy; it’s too early to tell, but we are studying something that would be equally exciting. It’s possible that once we down select the finalists, we can have webinar sessions with the candidates giving their presentations to a remote jury. We may have the Italian Consulates of the winners join us to present the award, maybe with a meeting that can be arranged more simply and more compatibly with the in-person interaction requirements that we could have at that time. This could be even more important for the profile of the people awarded, because the local Consulates would be able to appreciate who they have in their community. They would become better known in their local reality, which is a good thing: that doesn’t mean that the Embassy will not participate, of course they will continue to work very closely with ISSNAF, like we did for example in the GoFundMe fundraising campaign. But this could be an additional example on how we want to connect more closely with the local environments also.
Please tell us more about the fundraising
The Embassy wanted to organize a fundraising activity that involved the entire US territory, to shine a light on the dramatic situation of COVID 19 in Italy. The funds were destined to three Italian hospitals at the forefront of the fight. In this fight there is of course the action of stopping the disease and helping the people who are infected, but there’s also the need to do research to prevent or reduce infections. That’s why we chose these institutions: the Spallanzani Hospital in Rome, the Sacco Hospital in Milan, and the Cotugno Hospital in Naples. There are high profile researchers that work in Italy at these institutions, and the Embassy was gracious to select us as their partner.
We were honored to support the Embassy and help promote this initiative, through our contacts and our channels, with the research communities that we can reach. The fundraising turned out to be successful, also raising the visibility of research communities, in both continents, who might be already working together. We have examples of people joining studies, or working on research together. That’s the nature of research. It was already happening even before COVID 19.
Obviously, the coronavirus has brought radical changes in this as well: what is your goal for your term as President of ISSNAF?
I think that the first goal is to get us on more solid ground in terms of the infrastructure, in particular IT infrastructure to communicate to our membership and to our network of volunteers and people that work for the organization. This has been a problem in the past. We just launched our new website https://www.issnaf.org.
We had an Executive Director when the funds allowed it. We need to put in play a layer of people who can support us operationally. Eventually we will have more resources to allow us to hire people to work for us, as a non profit corporation. At the moment we are not there yet. So, I thank We the Italians for this opportunity you are giving me to make a call to volunteer for ISSNAF. It’s a way to connect, it’s also a way to gain experience. For example, we need to build and support an IT infrastructure that allows us to gather information, organize data, cultivate and monitor membership, so there is an opportunity for somebody who has these interests and time to work with us on this topic, or with our social media.
Another component is the cultivation of donors, which needs to be strengthened to allow revenues to keep coming. At present we run the organization solely with a few of us, working a lot outside business hours, also at nights, based on our limited funds. So, we rely on donations from our board members and individual supporters, and right now these are our sources of revenues. We need to extend our pool of donors to include industry and other organizations to survive.
Is there a complete database of Italian researchers in North America?
We don’t have a complete list of researchers, because our lists haven’t been updated in the last few years. We have over three thousand people in our current list, but we probably have very easily in North America a factor of ten as many people who are part of the intellectual diaspora that ISSNAF looks to connect. The potentials are very high, it depends on whether they are interested in being connected with us, because we go beyond the connections of other professional societies, that typically focus on one discipline. In our case, we want to be connected with other Italians of similar background and experience, to provide a way of highlighting and sharing, outside of our single disciplines, the work that this community has been doing.
The pandemic has highlighted even more the fundamental importance of research and science, which are the very subjects that link together the members of ISSNAF. Among the many Italian researchers and scientists who are part of the institution that you lead, is there any story that you would like to tell our readers?
It’s difficult to choose, because there are lots of stories. For example, there are several people who have been honored with our ISSNAF awards at the stage when they were assistant professors, at the beginning of their academic career. Getting an ISSNAF award has helped them acquire more prominence.
I remember the story of Simona Bordoni who got an ISSNAF award in 2014. At that time she was starting as a professor at Caltech, California Institute of Technology. So, Simona got this award in Environmental Sciences, and Caltech university had the news of her award on their webpage. Simona went on to become a tenured faculty. Now she has left Caltech and returned to Italy, so that’s a great story in itself because she was successful, did well, then later on for whatever reasons she ended up having an academic position at the University of Trento.
That’s just one example, but there are others: Marco Pavone used to be at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in robotics and he is now a professor at Stanford University. He also won the ISSNAF award, and two years ago he subsequently won the “Young Investigator Presidential Award”.
We also have success stories coming from the people who come to us looking for a mentor. One that I have become very recently aware of is somebody who reached out and was mentored by one of the members of our Scientific Council, which is made of highly accomplished researchers. Our Council member is Filippo Mancia, a professor at Columbia University. He mentored a young researcher, Pietro Stroppia, who wanted to become an academic in the US; through mentorship over time, he was able to submit progressively stronger applications, and now he has got an assistant professorship. In that case, the mentoring was very helpful: it allowed the young researcher to learn the nuances and navigate an environment that for him was rather difficult to understand at first.
The new emigration from Italy to the United States is very different from that of more than 100 years ago. Many students, researchers, and professionals in different fields of science spend a period in the United States, and some of them end up staying there. What do they bring that is different, typically "Italian", compared to their colleagues from all over the world they meet in America?
First, for people who come at the early stage of their career, there is their forma mentis due to the Italian education, which provides a very good foundation, recognized not just in North America, but also in Europe. More and more Italian students are spending time abroad, during their education, and this is a very good set up: their identity becomes an important component of this multifaceted and multicultural world that we are living in. We are an important component because our culture is very strong, thinking about the many things we have provided to the rest of the world. In a sense, being Italian is an attractant for people who want to penetrate our culture; lots of people from any other place want to mingle with Italian people, because they are fascinated with Italy and Italian things that they know. This is possibly a quite important component that young Italians can immediately bring to their new environment.
I also want to say that, unlike in my generation or earlier, we see now much more collaboration between Italian and American universities. We were much more isolated: now we have interactions, shared programs, there is a pattern of bringing Italian know-how to North America. It goes beyond the individual, today.
How is the state of scientific collaboration between Italy and the United States? And what can Italy do to improve it?
I cannot speak for all fields: in my field, from the standpoint of scientific collaboration, at the institutional level the collaboration is very strong. For example, Italy has had a strong presence in space for a very long time; so the Italian Space Agency has a strong role in Europe and as a partner to the US, in the relationship with NASA.
Unfortunately, Italy has so far done very little to encourage Italian scientists and researchers to return to work in Italy. Do you have any advice in this sense to forward to Italian institutions?
My advice would be to create opportunities for people to return, and I mean very flexible things because it might not necessarily be that somebody returns permanently for work. It’s possible that people from North America might be able to go back to Italy and maintain a situation where they work in both parts of the world. Certain universities ought to be able to operate like this, but they need to give up the rigidity they sometimes show: introducing some flexibility might be advantageous.
You were recently the protagonist of a webinar entitled "Reflections on the earth as seen from space". We ask you to tell our readers, instead, what Italy is like as seen from the United States
It’s a very broad question and there are many views. I don’t want to talk about stereotypes because I’m sure that’s not what you’re asking me. In terms of looking at Italy as a partner, as a source of intellectual wealth, I think we all recognize that there are lots of Italian people who are very good. I guess we all would like for the system, as I said before, to be more flexible: there is a sort of an impenetrable layer, so that’s probably the type of change that one would like to see first. It’s very difficult, for example, for entrepreneurs to be able to come to Italy and start activities. I think that the true desire on the part of all communities, not just the Italians in North America, is that they would all love to be able to engage more with Italy, and it’s just not easy. I hope that by developing generations of Italian people who know what things are like outside of Italy, and have learned of possible different approaches, Italy might be able eventually to create and evolve also a generation of people in power that can make changes. This generation needs to be allowed to walk the corridors of power, needs to be able to have a voice: so I hope that these times of crisis can also be times of opportunity, for these voices to be heard. That would be a starting point.
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