Giovanna Lani

Giovanna Lani is originally from the north-west of Italy and did her undergraduate studies in Physics at the University of Torino followed by her master’s thesis in the U.S. at the University of California, Berkeley. She quite liked the environment and really enjoyed her time there, leading her to pursue a PhD and an academic career. She applied to graduate school in different places, ending up in Paris, at Ecole Polytechnique. Since then, she has continued her academic career with a number of short postdocs: she has been a Marie Curie Fellow in the Netherlands, at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; she then moved to Paris for a year-long teaching and research position, which she particularly enjoyed because of the teachingand, after a stay at the Max Planck Institute in Halle, Germany, she joined Prof. Nicola Marzari’s group at EPFL. These travels left her fluent in English and French in addition to her native Italian, with an intermediate command of German, a smattering of Dutch and even a touch of Finnish after a short stay as a Marie Curie fellow. She was a competitive fencer, but now focuses on hobbies including climbing, mountaineering, reading and writing.

Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL, November 2021

What is the biggest challenge that woman scientists face? Is it any different from the biggest challenges faced by male scientists? 

In my case, I don’t feel that I’ve experienced a specific challenge because I am a woman actively pursuing an academic career in science. I’ve talked to a lot of female colleagues though who have had a different experience and of course I can’t deny what they have been through. I guess that there are a number of factors. The first is that I’ve probably been lucky and it’s as simple as that. I hope that I’m not just being blind to something that might be obvious though. There are a lot challenges that I’ve heard of from people who have children, and I don’t have any. It’s obvious that there can be some there, but that’s true for in general for women pursing any career that is very demanding. The more demanding the job is, the harder it is for the mother. I can see how that is really specific to women, but I haven’t experienced it.

For the biggest challenges specific to a scientific career in general, one would be mobility. I have been around quite a bit and I enjoyed it, but it’s difficult. Your social networks are being created and then destroyed one or two years later and they’re hard to maintain at a distance. This applies to anything, from friendships to romantic relationships... so I think this is the hardest. There is some degree of flexibility to the job, but it’s not enough for the degree of mobility that is necessary, I think. Mobility is really sort of extreme.

And then there’s the competition, which seems to have increased over the years. There are many more researchers than permanent jobs. The exact numbers are field dependent, but that's the overall trend. On top of this, while the competition - say in sport - has well-established rules which do not change over time, competition in academia is way more complex than that. This has several implications. For example, I would say that to survive healthily, you need a certain type of personality. This doesn’t necessarily go with skills or talent, you just have to be a certain way if you want to make it. You have to be good *and* be a certain type of person. It’s just what it is. I guess though it would just be better to make PhD students aware of it early on so they can see if they are cut out for it or not: a career in science requires more than scientific skills. If you don’t want to develop them or don’t have them, maybe look around, look outside an academic career. Now and then I have these moments, especially when changing contracts, where I think “what if I do something else?,” but I haven’t done it yet.

Why did you choose a scientific career? 

While I was writing up my applications to grad school, I realized that I really liked the idea of starting from something existing, an existing piece of knowledge and then expanding on it in some way. This is something that I already had as an undergrad. In some courses, we were allowed to start our own small research projects. We didn’t have a lot of knowledge at that time, but I really liked the way that you were so free to explore. Maybe that’s it.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?   

I guess there are several options, but two come to mind. One could be a researcher in another field. In the end, I have plenty of other interests and I’m convinced that lots of topics are interesting, I think it just depends on the way you look at them. It could be really anything, from another field of science to humanities. There are just so many fascinating topics: I could go on enumerating them forever.

The other would be a professional sports person/coach. I have practiced several sports over time and was also competing at quite a high level but then of course at some point I started a real job and couldn’t continue. You don’t have enough time to train. 

What is your most exciting MARVEL discovery to date?

None so far! I joined MARVEL just a year ago and I’m trying to resume a topic in many-body physics. There was quite a lot of research about it around 15 years ago, but then it was kind of forgotten. It’s not so clear why this was the case: sometimes it’s just by accident. I like to see whether there’s a chance to resume other people’s work and use it—to start from there and go somewhere else and see if really has potential or could work. 

The topic is many-body functionals for total energy calculations. This is something that’s interesting for a number of materials, especially for the class of so-called strongly correlated ones, where it’s not so easy to get good numbers. I’m trying to attack this problem from a slightly different angle.

Why was this topic abandoned?

I have spoken to some of the people that worked on this. It’s just that sometimes you start getting interested in something else, you start pursuing another topic and you put this in a drawer thinking “I’m going to get back to it at some point” and then you don’t. There’s no reason really, you still kind of believe in it, but you just don’t have enough time. Sometimes it's also because it's an ambitious project, with an unsure outcome, and you don't want to take too many risks. Then it’s up to people who come later to try to figure out what really happened—was it a failure? It’s the human side of science. Many things happen and some are not rational at all.

What are your top two papers?

The first one is a paper that I worked on when I was in Amsterdam: 

It’s about strongly correlated materials and uses a newly developed approach. It was my supervisor at the time who had originally worked on that. We extended to the time domain the existing formalism and what I really liked was that it was a super original approach. We wanted to see if it could work or if it just remained a nice, elegant formalism, which is not so powerful in the end. This was the case, but I am still very fond of it. 

The second paper is now in the form of a draft, and I’m actually sending it out for comment to some philosophers of science. This is a philosophy of physics paper about Feynman diagrams, which is a tool used in many fields of physics. Lately there has been a lot of interest in the philosophy of mathematics on the topic of visualization, in proofs, for example, and this is a little bit the same. They’re diagrams, you draw them, they’re very visual and they contain a lot of information. As physicists we always use the tool, but never really think about why it’s there or what it means. Why does it work so well? What did Feynman have in mind? He wanted to carry out complex calculations, but he also wanted to understand physical processes, so maybe there’s some deep cognitive aspect to them.