Nicola Cavallini, a Ph.D. student at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy, is the first winner of ChiMiCapisce, a newly founded communication competition of the Young Chemists of the Italian Chemical Society. One of the organizers, Dr. Elena Lenci, University of Florence, Italy, spoke for ChemViews Magazine with Nicola Cavallini about science communication, Monty Python, and chemometrics.
You are the winner of ChiMiCapisce. Congratulations!
What motivated you to participate in the contest?
Well, thank you a lot!
I can identify two “leading forces” that drove me to participate in the contest: shortly after I learned about it, one of my supervisors and another professor – the one who first pulled me into chemistry, when I had to decide which university to choose – warmly suggested that I to participate, so I felt very supported from the beginning.
Secondly, chemometrics, the subject I work with, is still a quite young and not-so-widespread field. It encompasses data analysis, statistics, analytical chemistry, and informatics, and usually from the moment you mention “statistics”, people start drifting off. I thought that it would be a great challenge to participate and hopefully win a competition with such a topic.
What was it like to present your work in front of the jury?
Giving the presentation was absolutely electrifying, especially because of the nice and engaged feedback I got from the audience, which was composed of a technical jury and a “popular” one made up of high school science students.
How did you prepare for this?
Due to this mixed audience, I had to prepare a well-calibrated talk. I tend to be a last-minute person, but I usually have the main ideas floating in my head from the beginning. When some parts or connections are not working, I rely on “shower epiphanies” and it actually works for me pretty well.
However, this time, I wanted to be well prepared in advance and have enough time to rehearse the presentation. The time constraint of three minutes was my main concern, so I decided to fix the general flow of the talk, taking advantage of the deadline to submit the slides, and then do “free-style rehearsing” on the slides. In the end, all the pieces came together, and I still had room for some change/improvisation, just in case it was needed, or I felt like doing it.
What fascinates you about the dissemination of science?
I don’t like all types of science dissemination, but that is just a matter of taste. I like contrasts and nonsense, the clever type: a parallel in humor may be drawn here with Woody Allen and Monty Python. There is always something underneath, and laughter is generated by stimulation on different levels. So, the type of science dissemination that I like most is the one that, for instance, starts with an odd question – “What color is a mirror?” or “If you could jump to lightspeed, would blueshift kill you?” –, but then grows into a more complex discourse.
Why do you think science communication is important?
Apart from taste and entertainment, I think that science communication has a fundamental role to play in society, and it should be pushed more to the wide audience. Science dissemination is not only about communicating facts and developments but above all, it must convey ideas and give perspectives. I tend to identify the lack of perspectives and culture as one of the main causes of current’ problems, from the waves of hate and violent nationalism to the seemingly unstoppable spread of populism. Under these conditions, the thinking goes down, quality disappears and quick short-term solutions are preferred. We also see trust in science very much in danger and this is the exact opposite of a healthy society, where ideas should connect and unifyr people and not be used as sledgehammers. Science development and dissemination should be part of the backbone of a healthy society.
What was most interesting for you?/ What was most challenging?
The most challenging part was getting the right balance of slides and words to be well understood by both the professor in the technical jury and the student in the popular jury. In a sort of minimalist approach, I carefully chose every word and every figure on the slides, to contain the right amount of information.
This was aimed at connecting and keeping this connection with the audience, which revealed itself to be the most interesting part of the whole experience. As I said before, the feedback I obtained from them was great and made the three minutes surprisingly enjoyable on my side.
Do you think the experience of the competition will help you in your career?
I certainly got a big self-confidence boost, not just for the result but also looking back at how I prepared the whole thing. I tested how efficient I can be in communicating complex things, and confirmed that hard work together with solid knowledge is fundamental. I think that using and adapting this approach will most likely give me an edge when competing for a position, for instance.
What advice would you give others who want to participate in such an event?
I would say that the audience always comes first and your ego should go second or, even better, third. There is quite a big difference between people listening to you because you have a microphone, and people listening to you because you say interesting things with a microphone. They must be able to follow and understand you and feel enriched when the talk ends. I read somewhere that a teacher – and I would say a good science disseminator as well – is someone who deeply understands that her/his role is to be at the service of the receiver.
When did your interest in science begin?
I can’t actually remember when I became interested in science: I feel like it has just always been there. I grew up in a family with the motto “there will always be money for books” – until they realized how much I could read in a few days, and quickly took me to the public library. Access to TV was rather regulated. My favorite TV program soon became SuperQuark, an Italian show about basically everything in science, history, economy, and society. I easily recognize this as the root of my interest in science dissemination.
And how did you decide to become a chemist?
Chemistry came into play when I had to choose which university to go to. My father is also a chemist, but he didn’t actively push me into that. However, he facilitated it by providing a meeting with an old friend of his, a professor of analytical chemistry at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Professor Tassi was so nice to have a long chat with me, explaining what chemistry was in practice, how it was taught at the university and he also showed me the labs. His passion about “proudly waving the flag of chemistry” finally made me take the leap.
Can you say something about your research, please?
My field of research is chemometrics, and I work as a double-degree Ph.D. student with Professor Marina Cocchi at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia and Professor Rasmus Bro at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. We are working on many topics, but they can be divided into two groups.
In the theoretical part, we focus on the development of methods to analyze patterns and similarities in data. In particular, we deal with “unsupervised methods”, which means that if the data contain information we want to extract it without using any a priori knowledge. This concept may be summarized as: “let the data speak for itself”.
Then in the second part, we want to test these methods on real chemical data. These are mainly obtained by using spectroscopic (visible-near infrared, nuclear magnetic resonance) and chromatographic techniques (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) to analyze foodstuffs. In this second part, together with choosing the appropriate way of processing the data, a chemical link for interpreting the results is needed. This is the reason why the large majority of chemometricians come from a chemistry background because chemometrics was born and still serves as a smart and efficient approach for dealing with large amounts of multivariate data.
What would you like to be doing ten years from now?
That is a tricky question … I would say somewhere in between academia and industry since I would like to keep on doing research in chemometrics and keep updated but I would also like to face and solve “real” problems close to applications.
Moreover, I think that at this stage the chemometrics field already has a solid theoretical base, but still is lacking penetration into industry and mixing with other fields in science, which would largely benefit from using chemometric tools and knowledge. The young generation of chemometricians should probably take responsibility for developing this situation, and I would love to contribute to it.
What do you do in your spare time?/What are your other interests?
I clearly remember one of my supervisors saying to me, laughing: “you’re a Ph.D. student, you don’t have spare time”. And she was quite right.
I do not read so regularly, but when I do I tend to binge-read until late at night. Lately, I have been reading again Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I completed reading Asimov’s Foundation series, surprisingly enough finding clues about chemometrics there, too.
I tend to avoid TV and series, with some exceptions for shows like Doctor Who. I’m interested in politics and society, and sometimes in psychology. I see a clear link with my Italian provenience here.
Musically speaking, I am now a former keyboard player and a current bass-guitar beginner. I like more to listen to whole albums than to single songs. That’s probably why I have a love-and-hate relationship with Spotify. I still buy CDs, import them onto a computer and transfer them onto my iPod.
Beer is another one of my interests, and I think that it tastes much better if there is someone to share the moment with. Finally, I like to document my trips and moments of my daily life on Instagram through a sort of avatar, Wampaolo. He is a small toy of the yeti-like monster from Star Wars—Episode V.
What else would you like readers of ChemViews Magazine to know about you, or your experiences?
Actually, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the organizers of the contest, the “Gruppo Giovani della Società Chimica Italiana”. I was following them “from a distance”, mostly because I was living abroad, but I think that their effort and energy are easily recognizable. I particularly appreciated that the contest was promoted by the Young Chemists from within the Italian Society of Chemistry, and I think that this was a great move to state that the young generation is here, alive and very willing to get busy. So, having said this, I would like to proudly wave once again the flag of chemistry, and also invite you all to come and visit chemometrics. We have cookies and beer!
That’s good to know. Thank you very much for the interview.
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Elena Lenci, Federico Bella, Lorenzo Botta, Stefano Cinti, Raffaele Cucciniello, Alessandro D’Urso, Samuele Staderini, Sara Tortorella, Leonardo Triggiani,