Published 6 June 2017 by Ulrike Böhm
For Florencia Marchini, Being a Scientist Is Not a Job but a Way of Life
Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Florencia Marchini
This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Florencia and get inspired.
Florencia Marchini, 29, from Argentina is a PhD Student at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is part of the Electrochemistry group and the Surface Science group and her PhD thesis is focused on the development of an electrochemical method for lithium extraction from natural brines.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
Since I was a kid, I have continuously had questions about everything around me, and the experimentation in my attempts to answer those questions have been part of my life from very early on. Having this restless desire for knowledge might be pictured as “cute” or “adorable” qualities for a kid, but when I look back in time I realise that this has been more like a pain in the neck for my parents. Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about, I had two favourite hobbies: to disassemble toys in order to see how they were from the inside to get to understand their working principle, and to set on fire all kind of things merely to see how they burned. The later made my parents get angry very often, but they did not know that I was prematurely learning a lot about combustion and atomic emission! (And I didn’t know either.) But my weird hobbies were not the most annoying part of myself as a kid, since my extremely logical mentality has always needed solid evidence and convincing reasons for everything (when you are seven years old this means, for example, to seriously ask your father for precise arguments explaining why you are not allowed to have chocolate before dinner). It was by that time when my parents bought me the collection of books “50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth” and I began to transit a phase of intense environmental awareness: I wanted to recycle, to prevent my father from using the car, to create consciousness about global warming and greenhouse effect and even to adopt whales (!).
A bit later on, when I was 11 years old, I learned about the water scarcity for human consumption in a planet which is 75 percent made of water. It was then when the desalination of seawater became my obsession and I first felt that I wanted to become a scientist to do research in that field.
I firmly told him that no matter how close to academic research the project would be I did not want to do a PhD in the future.
As a teenager I was quite good student and my chemistry teacher encouraged me to attend the National Chemistry Olympiad, where not only I won a bronze medal but also I had the exciting experience to meet hundreds of young nerdy people as I was!
To cut this long story short, it was the combination of my personal qualities together with the strong support and encouragement from my family and teachers which have led the way for me to start a scientific career.
Who are your role models?
I would like to be daring and disruptive as Madonna was, to have the intelligence and commitment with science of Marie Skłodowska Curie and Mildred Dresselhaus and to fight inequalities with the word of Malala Yousafzai as a weapon, the strong hands of Juana Azurduy, the restless spirit of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, the peaceful heart of Rigoberta Menchú, the uncomfortable ideas of Frida Kalho and Simone de Beauvoir, the bravery of Diana Sacayán and the courage of the Emmeline Pankhurst.
All those empowered women who have swum against the current to do what they really wanted, despite the strict gender prototypes as well as all those women through history that either from politics, science or arts have peacefully fought for gender equality, social justice and human rights are my daily inspiration.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I attended a school strongly oriented toward natural sciences. When I was 16 years old my enthusiastic chemistry teacher Karina Insinger prompted me to participate in the National Chemistry Olympiad, which was the defining point in my life when I decided to study chemistry. From the many options I had I knew that I undoubtedly wanted to do my career at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) for it is public and of highest quality. However, the first years were truly tough: I used to live in a town 50 km away from Buenos Aires city and, therefore, far from the university, which implied an exhausting daily round trip of almost four hours. To make it worse, the career was truly heavy (MS. in Chemistry at UBA takes six years, while it takes four years in private universities in Argentina) with almost 30 hours a week between lessons and laboratory practices, making it impossible to be combined with a full time job to gather money required for renting an apartment closer to the University. So during the first years I had part time jobs (mostly teaching) just to cover the travel expenses. Towards the end of the third year, I finally managed to work full time in the Environmental Protection Agency of Buenos Aires city, and as soon as I could I rented an apartment in town. Now, the scenario was happier but not easier: I had to work from 9 am to 5 pm, to attend my classes from 6 pm to 10 pm and to do some magic every month to make ends meet.
I was pretty sure that after getting my Master Degree I wanted to start working in a company instead of starting a PhD. So, in line with my plans to gain experience, I quit the job in the Environmental Protection Agency and started working in a R & D project of INQUIMAE-CONICET (INQUIMAE is the institute of research on physical chemistry, materials, environment and energy of CONICET, which is the main public research council in Argentina) and YPF (a public petrol company). Even though the project had an end date from the very beginning, I regarded this job as the entrance door to the labour market, but the project ended and it was really difficult to find another job at that moment. It was then when I met Prof. Ernesto Calvo, a researcher of CONICET, Professor at the University of Buenos Aires and the head of INQUIMAE. He offered me to start working as a technician in his group (of Molecular Electrochemistry) to start developing an electrochemical method for lithium extraction from natural brines. I really hadn’t much of an idea on electrochemistry, but the project sounded challenging and I really needed the job. In our first talk, I firmly told him that no matter how close to academic research the project would be I did not want to do a PhD in the future. I used to remind him of this from time to time until, one day, I just stopped with the reminders. Later on I also stopped thinking about that as the project was running great and there was a lot of cool work to be done. Once I got my Master degree in Chemistry, I started to think about a PhD as an option for my future and I finally told Ernesto. He gave me a response which I partly loved and which partly annoyed me a bit: “Excellent, Florencia. I have been waiting for this announcement of yours since you started working in the group. I knew it was just a matter of time.” And it was then when I began to learn one of the most important lessons of my PhD: no matter how sure I might be about something, with Ernesto it is pointless to be stubborn because he will always be right! By that time I have also met another hugely inspiring scientist and excellent person who became one of my thesis supervisors together with Ernesto, Prof. Federico Williams.
Thus, Ernesto is the electrochemist, Federico the surface scientist, and I am on my way to learn as much as I can from both to become sort of a hybrid. Currently, I am in the last year of my PhD thesis and starting to think about a postdoc.
I believe (and I hope) that improved systems for energy storage from renewable sources will be developed.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I might be falling in the most commonplace response, but definitely the coolest project I have ever worked on is the one I am working on right now: my PhD research project, which is basically the development of an electrochemical method for lithium extraction from natural brines. The project is not only interesting for the science involved, but also because it has a vast social impact. In the last 20 years, lithium has become increasingly valuable due to its several applications in many industries. In addition, the northwest of Argentina (together with the north of Chile and the south of Bolivia) is part of a region called “Lithium Triangle”, which concentrates 75 percent of the lithium worldwide, reserves in brines from altitude salt lakes (in fact, 20 percent of those global resources are in Argentina). Therefore, developing a national technology for lithium recovery from its natural sources is highly important, both for the growth of national economy and for the skilled labour required, which means a lot of investment in local human resources training. After a successful proof of concept in 2012, the method was patented (in the US, Argentina, Bolivia and China) and my PhD aims at gaining a deeper understanding of the basic chemistry and physical chemistry behind it. This means working in close contact with both engineers and companies, which is enormously enriching.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?
Definitely, the part of my work that makes me most proud is teaching. Every time a student lets me know that I was helpful for her or him I feel immense gratitude as if it was a personal achievement. It also makes me very proud of myself when I use science and the scientific method in my daily life, as to fix the vacuum cleaner at home or to prepare a delicious meal without recipes. Another moment of this kind was the first time I entered a kickboxing ring to fight in an amateur tournament, because I understood that it was not about defeating my opponent, but it was about defeating my fears and insecurities instead.
What is a “day in the life” of Florencia like?
A typical weekly day in my life starts at around 6.30/7 am when the three lovely living alarms I have at home (my girlfriend Ana and my two dogs Melba and Juana) start making noise. Once my girlfriend has left for work and after leaving the bed and taking a shower, I have breakfast and read emails, while I wait for my dogs to come back from their usual walk. Around 9 am I go to the lab, where every day is unique: some days I spend the entire day in the lab doing experiments, other days I just stick to the computer to do data analysis or to do some writing, and I frequently have scientific discussions with my group and my supervisors. In the afternoon, if I don’t have to teach I go straight back home to take my dogs for a walk, have coffee with my girlfriend and then attend my kickboxing training. I am finally back home at around 11 pm happily exhausted and super hungry, so I have dinner, watch one or two chapters of a TV series and then go to bed to start again in a couple of hours.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
Honestly, neither being awarded with a Nobel Prize nor developing a new scientific theory, are my goals. I seek to transcend in humbler ways, like being inspiring to someone or being helpful in other’s careers. I would also deeply like to give back to my country what it has given to me, as the college and graduate education I have received was not only of the highest quality but also public and for free.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
When I am not in the lab I enjoy very much taking my dogs to the park, training kickboxing, singing and (sort of) playing the guitar, writing, watching TV series, cooking for my family and friends.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?
My advice for women deeply interested in science or in anything else is to strongly believe in themselves to go for what they really want. There are neither schedules nor obligations a woman should follow in her life. There are no rules saying what it is supposed to be for a woman and what it is supposed to be for a man, as we both are equal with the same capabilities. There are no one’s expectations to fulfil, except our own ones.
I would also like to tell anyone interested in science (not only women) what science represents to me. I usually say that I am mostly a scientist in life than in the lab, and that means that science for me is not a job, but a way of living, a way of thinking, the way on how I perceive the world and interact with it. It is also the less monotonous way of doing something for a living that I can imagine: sometimes it is like playing a game but some other times it can be extremely frustrating and exhausting. You also have to be prepared for low budgets and low salaries compared to other jobs and sometimes for working extra hours (even on weekends), but I really believe that money is not the only valuable compensation you can receive when you are doing what truly makes you happy.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?
Based on the extensive scientific work that has been done in the field, I believe (and I hope) that improved systems for energy storage from renewable sources will be developed, aiming to gradually replace fossil fuels, which are both environmentally damaging and also the cause of serious war conflicts.
What must be transformed is the system which has been educating us (men and women) to believe we are different.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I would first rather reflect on the reason why the number of women in academia does not seem to be high enough. Patriarchy in occidental societies is paradigmatic; there are several tasks that culturally tend to fall mostly on women (such as raising children, housekeeping, cooking) while others (such as working to provide the family) are often done by men. This family pattern with fixed roles is very common in South America and this is not only in people’s mind-sets, but also in the media and in the system in which being a successful business woman and at the same time a great mother with enough for children is not possible. It is in this context that companies often hire exclusively men for certain positions or the salaries are higher for men than for women doing the same tasks and having identical responsibilities. Being in the twenty-first century, this sounds ridiculous but it’s the reality. I don’t think science would be the most male-dominated environment, even though it is also immerse in this patriarchal scheme and statistics are the reflection of that. Indeed, there are more male professors and male heads of research groups than female, despite the fact that the number of female students in science faculties is equal or larger than the number of male students. Thus, where do all those female students go when they finish their careers? Well, I think all are leaves of the same branch.
When wondering on how to boost the number of women in science I think the only increase that is worth looking forward to is the one which comes as a consequence of cultural changes from the root. Obviously, it will take time, but in the meantime institutions can do things to gradually revert the situation, such as promoting the presence of women in judging panels and governmental bodies or creating councils for detection and prevention of gender inequity situations. I have heard that longer maternity leaves, scholarships only for women or more facilities for women to combine their jobs with their ‘mother tasks’ are needed. I think that on the contrary, that makes the scheme of inequalities even deeper. Promoting both parents to be equally present in the raising of their children would be an innovative way of walking towards gender parity and therefore increasing the possibilities for women to develop professionally. Both women and men have the same capacities to achieve the same goals. What must be transformed is the system which has been educating us (men and women) to believe we are different. As a woman, I think the change should be internal in the first place, to be then further spread to the rest.