Nanomaterials and Chocolate – Interview with Luisa De Cola

Nanomaterials and Chocolate – Interview with Luisa De Cola

Author: Vera Köster

Professor Luisa De Cola did post-doctoral research in the USA, has held positions at universities in Italy, The Netherlands, Germany, and France, as well as having guest professorships in Switzerland, Belgium, and Spain, and she has been a visiting scientist in Japan.

She talks in an interview for ChemViews magazine to Dr. Vera Koester about teaching in these varied countries and the increasing role of the internet in teaching, how she chose the interdisciplinary area of nanomaterials as her research field, and a topic close to her heart: chocolate.

You have a truly international biography and have now moved from the University of Münster, Germany, to the ISIS in Strasbourg, France. Which languages do you speak?

I speak a little bit of German; I speak Italian, English, and a little bit of Spanish.

What does your research focus on?

My research deals with different types of nanomaterials. In particular we are interested in porous materials that could be rigid or soft, crystalline or amorphous, and in materials able to emit light under different stimuli.

We are interested in the interactions of nanosystems with living cells. In particular we are interested in their toxicity, and in their potential use for imaging and therapy.

Also, we are interested in soft self-assembly systems and, especially, in the luminescence of assembled molecules. Soft scaffolds, in which the emission can be modulated upon the assembly process, are in my opinion a very interesting class of systems and their use can be extended from biology to optoelectronics.

How did you become interested in Chemistry?

This is indeed a very interesting story, because first I did not want to study chemistry. I started my career studying biology. And then during my first year in biology, I got very interested in chemistry, so I switched faculty. It was a difficult choice, because I liked almost any science. I also was interested in physics. But another love is cinema and I wanted to become a film director. – My niece is an actress, so somehow it is in the blood of the family.

So you often go to the cinema?

Yes, I do, I love movies.

How did you find your research topic?

I was trained as a physical chemist. I studied in Messina, Italy. Then I went to the US where I started to do synthesis. I was a Postdoc funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), so I started to be interested in molecules that could be functional, and we were using phosphorescent molecules. In particular we were using luminescent lanthanide compounds. And because I started with luminescent molecules, I got in contact with Professor Balzani, University of Bologna, Italy. After I finished my Postdoc, I went back to Italy to his lab. I stayed in Bologna for twelve years and really enjoyed my time there, because I learned the photophysics of metal complexes, but also how to run a group. I consider Professor Balzani to be my scientific father.

From there I went on to more applied research. So at least something that could be used, though doing new science. And I started to work on the creation of molecules to be used as materials for optoelectronics, in particular for organic light emitting diodes for TV screens or computers. This was a very successful part of my research. I was in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, at the time and had a wonderful collaboration with Philips.

And from there, of course, we started to look at the properties of materials and realized that with some modification these metal complexes could also be used for diagnostics. And this is how I started this bio- and biomedical area, which is now an important part of my research area. Also, because I received the ERC advanced grant in 2010, this area is at the moment very much at the forefront of my research group.

From simple molecules we progressed to work with the scaffold-like silica or alumina silicate, but we are also looking at soft molecular containers and at hybrid systems. The dynamic behavior of molecules versus rigid scaffold could lead to properties which can be switched on and off, such as emission or toxicity and, of course, this could open interesting approaches for the design of labels or multifuntional systems.

You received the 2011 Distinguished Woman in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering award. Are differences between women and men in sciences a big topic for you?

This depends a little bit on the country. In places like Italy and France there are many women in sciences and the society somehow is structured so that women can work until late in the afternoon, for instance. In Germany to be a woman scientist is more problematic, because the society is not organized to have women working full time. This is the reason why not so many women in Germany hold high level positions in the universities and also in industry. This is true also in the Netherlands or in Switzerland.

I do not think that there is a real discrimination. I mean I don’t think that the men discriminate against women for positions or important tasks. It is just a matter of being good. If a man is better, then they should take the man, not a woman just because she is a woman. However, the fact that the woman can become a mother, and therefore be less present at work, is a factor of discrimination. Combining family and profession is not easy …

I strongly believe women should be encouraged to do science, because it is important for society and also because I feel that women are very much into sciences. I notice very often, even with my students, that women often have the possibility to look for a different strategy. While men maybe stick to a single approach or a single vision, women are more open to a new way of thinking and able to connect things. In my experience, women are very successful when they are really committed.

During your career you have taught students from lots of different countries. Is studying chemistry getting more international or is it still that every country has its own way of teaching?

First of all, I like all my students no matter of skin or religion or habits or whatever.

Of course, there are schools that are better than others. And also some countries are more advanced in terms of the technology and techniques that the students learn compared with less rich or developed countries. It is obvious that a poor country cannot have the equipment and facilities that we have in Germany or the US, for example. But I think this will not hinder a brilliant student. An intelligent and creative student can catch up with technology much better than, let’s say, a not so bright or motivated student living in a highly technological country. So I think it is a matter of intelligence, motivation, interest, and curiosity. I consider these as very important ingredients for a student to be successful.

In general, I would say education is not so different anymore. I mean everybody studies from the same books and reads the same papers everywhere in the world. So I think they are exposed to the same type of science. It is more related maybe to the quality of teaching (labs and computers, facilities) which differs in different schools.

Do you see that students use the internet more to learn?

Yes, the students use the internet much more than before. And it is good because if you look at the internet, that means you are curious about things and this kind of curiosity is good to have.

I notice, for example, that my young nieces use the internet in a very smart way. As a scientist, looking at ChemistryViews or an interview or at recordings from conferences is very, very nice, because sometimes you cannot attend a conference and the students have no money to attend. The experience of viewing the speaker, the author of a paper we have read, is completely different to reading the paper. It is a much easier way of, let’s say, getting an overview and a first feeling if you like that field or research or not. Of course, to go deeper you have to read the papers, it is not enough to listen, and you have to digest the knowledge yourself.

However, sometimes people learn only from Wikipedia and this is not what is desirable. The students tend to accept everything they read without being critical, without recognizing mistakes. This is where, of course, the teachers and the professors have an important role in the student’s life. They should guide them, force them to read more widely, and also make them more critical towards what they are reading. So I don’t think the role of the professor will disappear. Wikipedia will not suppress our teaching system.

On the other hand, I find the videos and in general many of the tools from the internet very, very important for spreading the sciences. Especially I would say at school level this is very nice. I hope and I wish that the teachers of high and middle schools would use more of these tools than they do.

What else do you like besides sciences?

I have a big love that is chocolate.

Ah, so do I.

I give seminars on chocolate. I gave one in Strasbourg, France, recently for the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). So this is kind of another research topic for me. I am a pure experimentalist there. That means I try new chocolates all the time.

What kind of talk did you give?

I talked about the history of chocolate, how cocoa reached Europe, for instance, and then about the processes that transform the beans into the bar of chocolate you eat. The chemistry of some of the molecules contained in chocolate is fascinating and I try to discuss some of it.

I also showed the way you should eat chocolate. There is a special way – like for wine – to appreciate the taste, the smell, and the melting of the chocolate.

Can everybody attend these seminars?

Sure, these are open to the public. So in Strasbourg, for instance, there were tele videos in different rooms and they told me that more than 700 people listened to my talk! In the room there were about 200 people. And more than 100 were high school kids. So this was quite an experience.

This sounds very interesting! I would like to attend one of these.

I think there is one you can find on the internet. (

Now that you have moved to Strasbourg you are in the right town, because there is so much chocolate over here.

Yes. This will be a disaster for me in terms of diet …

The good thing in Germany is, of course, you can get any type of chocolate there, but the Germans are not really producing as much chocolate as the French or the Swiss.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Luisa De Cola studied chemistry at the University of Messina, Italy, graduating in 1983. She began a postdoctoral fellowship in the group of Professor Lidia Vallarino at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, USA, in 1984. She returned to Italy in 1986 to join the group of Professor Vincenzo Balzani, University of Bologna, as a Researcher of the Italian National Research Council (CNR). In 1990, De Cola was promoted to Assistant Professor at the same university. From 1998–2004, she was Full Professor at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In 2005, she joined the faculty at the University of Münster, Germany, and became a member of the board of the Center for Nanotechnology, Münster, Germany. 

De Cola recently accepted an offer at the University of Strasbourg/ISIS, France, as Chair in Supramolecular and Biomaterial Chemistry, which begins in September 2012. 

Luisa De Cola’s research focuses on luminescent and electro-luminescent materials for optical and electroluminescent devices and nanomaterials for imaging diagnostics and therapy.

She is a member of the editorial boards of ChemPhysChem and ChemPlusChem among others.

Selected Publications

Also of interest:

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