Professor Marialuisa Aliotta
Professor of Experimental Nuclear Astrophysics, University of Edinburgh
Tell us about your background and your journey to your current role
I did my PhD in Physics at the University of Catania, Sicily [founded in 1434]. I went on to a von Humboldt research fellowship in Germany and then I got a lectureship position here at the University of Edinburgh. I’ve been here since 2001 and have been through a journey of promotion from lecturer, to senior lecturer, to reader, and then in 2016 I got my professorship. I am obviously, very proud of this.
My research area is nuclear astrophysics – so I study the nuclear reactions that take place in stars, understanding how stars are formed and die. This is important because it helps us understand where all chemical elements come from. In fact, apart from hydrogen and some helium, which were formed shortly after the big bang everything else was born from the stars.
It’s interesting to know how, where and when these elements are formed because many of them are essential to the existence of all life.
What is the genesis of this interest, did it start as a child?
Not at all (laughs)! When I was a child, I thought I wanted to become a ballerina. I did in fact train to become a ballerina and studied ballet for many years.
However, I had an older brother who was fascinated by science, particularly chemistry. He loved to know how things functioned and worked. So since an early age, I was exposed to and curious about science – I suppose because I’m competitive in nature I couldn’t stand that my brother knew things that I didn’t!
In school, I was good at Maths and Physics. A friend said ‘why don’t you do this as a job?’ and that’s when my brain started ticking around pursuing it as a career.
My specific interest, what I work in now, I came across accidentally. Initially, I was studying astrophysics (at undergraduate level) and thinking about doing a solar physics thesis. Then I attended a talk within my department, which opened my eyes to nuclear astrophysics, this emerging new field that brought together astrophysics and nuclear physics. I thought ‘THIS is what I want to do!’ I then went and convinced two professors in the different disciplines to work with me on a research project together. I was the first person in my university to study this area. It was challenging but fantastic – it felt ambitious and great to start up something new in the institution I was in. That’s what I did. That’s how it all began.
What an incredible journey! What would you say is your passion in your work?
Wow, I find the whole field extremely interesting – the field of nuclear astrophysics is perfect for stimulating your curiosity and it is connected to the fundamental, big questions that humankind has always asked – where do we come from, why are we here, are we alone in the universe, where do the building blocks of life come from?
I am also passionate about the international side of things. My job allows me to travel, do experiments abroad and attend international conferences. The opportunity to work with younger generations, new PhDs coming in to the department every year, it’s wonderful to keep up with developments in technology. I know nowhere near as much as my PhD students when it comes to the latest technologies and computational packages and they stimulate me to stay informed. I learn so much from my students. Working with young people inspires me.
Can you tell us about what a typical day looks like in your work?
There isn’t such a thing as a typical day – my job involves so many different aspects and this is something I cherish. Being an academic, I have admin, teaching, research and travel. If you look across the year, my work patterns are seasonal. Semester two is when my most of my teaching takes place and I treasure this; I love passing on my knowledge and experience to other people and watching them grow.
In the first semester, I am focused more on research. This is when I get to go away! I get to put my hands on things in the laboratory, so it’s rewarding.
Of course, I have to keep up with academic expectations and write papers and supervise. I immensely enjoy supervision for obvious reasons.
I would die if I had a 9-5 job doing the same thing everyday! (laughs)
So do you work with any interesting data sets or technologies?
Not raw data or methods, not anymore. That’s normal as you progress in academia, you move away from ‘front-line’ stuff. I don’t have the time and perhaps the skills anymore. This is for my PhDs and post-docs, who possess the practical skills and time for complex data analysis.
However, my supervision keeps one foot in the door. I meet with my students every week to discuss how they’re progressing with data analysis. The kind of data we deal with is experimental, hard data – we use particle accelerators that accelerate ions (typically protons or nuclei of helium). We hurtle them towards targets of a given chemical species and then study the nuclear reactions that take place using sophisticated detectors.
I don’t use telescopes because I deal with the nuclear reaction side of things rather than observational astronomy. My discipline uses the accelerators that I mentioned. The experiments I work at are done deep underground – there’s a small underground accelerator in central Italy under the Grans Sasso mountain – because we need to shield our experiments from cosmic rays from outer space. Essentially, we are after very rare phenomena: the signals that occur in these reactions. Therefore, we need to minimise interferences, and cosmic rays typically provide a lot of background.
The accelerator laboratory in Italy is called ‘LUNA’, which funnily enough in Italian means ‘moon’ but in this instance it stands for Laboratory for Underground Nuclear Astrophysics (laughs).
Over the next year or so we are going to get a bigger accelerator which will allow us to cover wider energy ranges and allow us to do experiments also with carbon ions. This will allow us to study the fusion between carbon nuclei, which is a key process in the life of massive stars as it determined which stars will explode as supernovae and which will die away as white dwarfs. We currently don’t know how these reactions take place in stars so the new accelerator will help us investigate things further.
Moving things on to gender equality, how do you find your work as a woman?
Things are improving for sure. When I came to Edinburgh in 2001, I was the first and only woman in the department. Of course there were female secretaries and IT people but I was the only female academic, and for some years.
I remember when I moved I decided to attend a Spanish class to learn a new language and during a coffee break someone asked me what I did – I said I work in the physics department at the University of Edinburgh. They said, “oh, I heard they hired a woman? Wait, that must be you!” (laughs) Can you believe that? I thought that it was hilarious that someone from the other side of town had heard that ‘ooh, there was a woman in physics!’ Just a funny anecdote for you.
There are more of us women about, which is very good. I would now like to see faster progress across the board and more women in leadership positions.
Do you find your workplace supportive of women?
Hmm. Some people are more supportive than others. I don’t want to generalise, however the sector as a whole is very male-dominated, so that’s obviously the context in which I’m operating in. It’s very competitive and the university is famous worldwide so there’s a lot of pressure on people and this can be hard for early career academics, particularly female. I would like to see more interventionist measures in place. But let’s keep moving in the right direction.
Do you have a fun fact or a hero/heroine?
Wanting to be a ballerina, isn’t that so funny the way my life turned out?
In terms of my heroine, I had a fantastic English teacher in Italy and my English skills now, every bit of them, is down to her. I started doing private English tuition whilst at university – I realised then that if I wanted to get far, I needed to improve my English. Mrs Buday her name was. She was the best teacher I ever had and I carry everything she taught me to the classes I teach now. Her teachings, together with those of my first supervisor, inspired my book ‘Mastering Academic Writing in the Sciences’ – it’s funny how I sometimes teach native speakers how to improve their writing.
I love passing on my knowledge and experience to other people and watching them grow