Rosaria Lena

See Yourself in STEM - Rosaria Lena

Tell us a little bit about you:

I’m a theoretical physicist from Italy. After spending some months in Belfast for my master’s thesis, I moved to Scotland in 2016 to do my PhD, and now I am working as a postdoc. My interests and hobbies changed a bit in the last year. I love live music (and music in general). Before the pandemic, I used to go to a lot of concerts, jam nights and acoustic sessions. Glasgow was the perfect city from this point of view, so many incredible artists. I played taiko (Japanese drums) for 3 years and I love it because it combines playing music with choreography and movement, in addition to being a social activity played in group. Now I mainly listen to recorded music while I still try to learn to properly play the guitar. I like cycling and going for long walks while I listen to audiobooks, music or podcasts, and I enjoy gardening despite not having a garden (I try to grow vegetables indoors, though not always successfully). I love baking and cooking, but also eating. And last but not least, naturally I like science, especially physics.

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

My area of research is quantum physics. I am a theorist, so no lab work for me, but I (try to) model in general the behaviour of quantum systems interacting with their surroundings (there is a whole field about it called “open quantum systems”). My research in this field also overlaps with another field I love, which involves ultracold atoms and Bose-Einstein condensates, literally the coolest stuff on Earth!

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

I have always been into science, and I cannot think about any other reasons other than curiosity and finding nature fascinating. I desperately wanted to have a microscope when I was 8 years old and eventually my parents got me (a very basic) one for Christmas. After one week one lens was already detached and I waited for someone to fix it for some years, until I gave up. That was probably a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be an experimentalist! This trend of wanting science related games, tools and books as presents lasted for some years.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

I always knew I wanted to do science, but what influenced my decision to pursue a career in physics were the books I read when I was in high school. For that I am very grateful to my science teacher, who used to feed my curiosity, recommending and lending me books that sparked my interest, especially in physics, after I bumped into topics such as relativity and quantum physics. George Gamow’s book on Mr Tompkins’ adventures, as well as Robert Gilmore’s Alice in Quantumland really pushed me to wanting to know more about a hidden world that seemed so wonderfully odd and counterintuitive! These were followed by many more popular science physics books, and eventually academic books.

What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?

I have been lucky enough so far, as I always worked with very inclusive and respectful people, but I am aware that there are still too many situations where people are penalised or treated differently because of their gender or ethnicity. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in this direction, and it is very important to talk about it. Even though the number of women in science has increased compared to a few decades ago, I still feel that many people are biased and think that women who can do science are exceptions. This kind of mentality is still too rooted in society, and, sadly, in women it can reinforce negative thinking and internalised stereotypes, leading to thinking things like “I will do this despite the fact that I am a woman” or “this is beyond my capability because I am a woman”. I think the presence of women in science still needs to be normalised, but it is strictly related to how women are seen in general, beyond science, and it’s unfortunately still a serious problem. Besides that, I think that overall the STEM community needs to emphasise the human side of workers, which are people before being workers, and therefore should be expected to have a private life and to take care of that and of themselves. What I notice is that, in some working environments, competition can be so extreme that to keep up with people who “live to work”, you need to sacrifice your personal life, and the “being successful” bar keeps being raised, leading to unhealthy standards.

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

Maybe if I hadn’t written and defended my PhD thesis during a pandemic when I wasn’t at my best and was really struggling to stay motivated, I would say that seeing the results of 4 years of work made me the proudest. Instead, what I think made me proudest was the time I spent teaching, supervising and mentoring students.

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

I was lucky and have always been supported by the people around me, starting from my family, to my school teachers and university professors. I am glad I had them along my way.

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

I met the most fantastic people I have ever met in my group at the University of Strathclyde, and since I started my PhD they have been like family to me. My supervisor and my colleagues have always encouraged and supported me, and I really consider myself lucky, because working in a positive and friendly environment makes all the difference.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

Even in the darkest times, I have never regretted pursuing this career, and if I could go back I would always choose to do it. If you are curious and like learning new things, this is a good starting point, science is fun. It can also be frustrating at times, but that’s part of the learning process, because at some point you start realising that the more you know, the more you don’t know. However, academia is not the only possible environment – there are so many options! The advice I would give, in general, is don’t be afraid to ask questions since there are no stupid questions and speak up when you think something is unfair.

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) I name spiders to try to face my arachnophobia and befriend them. b) I swam in a frozen loch in Scotland. c) I fell on a cactus with a bike when I was a child.