Barbara Capone is at present an APART (Austrian Programme for Advanced Research and Technology) Fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, at the Physics Department of the Vienna University. She is a young theoretical soft matter physicist, working on developing coarse graining models for soft matter systems to allow the design and simulation of novel materials in the nanoscale. Her work focuses primarily, but not only, on polymer science.
Below is an interview between Barbara [BC] and Lucia Di Ciaccio [LDC], Chair of the Equal Opportunity Committee of EPS.
LDC: In which projects are you involved?
BC: Over the last years, together with friends, mainly physicists and engineers, I decided to apply our know-how to a more applied field, and we opened an NGO, aiming at developing sustainable alternatives for assessing energy and water needs in emergency situations. We started working in Gaza and we built a Photovoltaic plant for a hospital that rendered it operational for 17 hours per day (versus the 4 hours per day prior to the plant) with a complete off-grid system that allowed an increase of 230% in the number of patients treated (with peaks of 500%). Then, I created a research line aimed at designing novel nanomaterials for water sanitation to be applied in emergency situations. I set up an international consortium of 10 universities, my NGO and two industrial partners and we are starting this new adventure.
LDC: Why did you choose to study physics?
BC: Both my parents are scientists, so I grew up in a scientific environment. I remember how fascinated I was as a child about the idea that one day it would be possible to design plants able to grow in a desert giving the possibility to feed those who did not have access to food or water. Then, I discovered how science, especially physics is everywhere around us. And curiosity did the rest.
LDC: Any worry to match your family life, your humanitarian engagement and a career in physics?
BM: Academic life is becoming more and more precarious. Long term positions are rare and we often end up jumping from one country to another, rebuilding our life from zero. This affects my private life. But I love science. At the same time I always felt the urge of doing something on a social scale. I think that somehow we won a lottery by being born in countries and social conditions where we do not have to worry about our own security. Having the chance of merging science and social engagement would make my dream come true.
LDC: What has been the most personally rewarding experience and also the biggest difficulty encountered so far?
BM: The most rewarding experience was the enthusiasm with which 10 different research groups joined the team that I set up (the water sanitation consortium). At the same time it was a difficult project for me, as it meant entering scientific fields only marginally connected to mine.
LDC: Did you encounter any difficulty in finding funding for PhD or a post-doc position related to the fact that you are a woman?
BM: No, being a woman did not really affect my career. Nevertheless I think that the work instability I mentioned above strongly disfavours women especially from 30 years old onwards.
LDC: Any particular advice for young aspiring researchers?
BM: It is essential to always feel what you are truly passionate about, also in science. Take the professional chance of learning from the work environment that surrounds you, listen, grasp, and then follow your own way.