Sara Fiore

Sara Fiore was born and grew up in Naples, Italy, studying physics through the master’s degree at the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II before leaving to start her PhD at ETH in 2018. She attended a science high school, choosing to present her final project on how science is fascinating because progress is always linked to someone who admitted to being wrong. Science and other fields such as literature progress because people are willing to change their minds, even to admit that they’re wrong—not something that most people are willing to do, she said. She admits that this is also the case in academia, and that it’s an idealistic view of science. She nonetheless thinks people should aim to have elastic enough minds to be willing to admit being wrong. “Nobody likes it, nobody likes that feeling. The moment you say that you’re wrong, it hits you emotionally, and it can be very bad for the individual—imagine a scientist who has spent all his life on a topic and has to admit that he was wrong…this can destroy you—but it’s very good for society in general.”

In her free time, she enjoys drawing, especially cartoons, and loves to bake sweets and desserts, though she has also recently started branching out into savory foods as well, especially those from her region of Italy.  She has also practiced aerial silks, aerial acrobatics performed on fabric hung to the ceiling, since 2013. What she particularly likes about it, she says, is how the artists are actually in full control of their bodies, from head to toe, even though they appear to be in precarious positions.  You can explore more of her hobbies and interests here.

Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL

How did you wind up in Switzerland?

After I finished my master’s project— on ab initio computation applied to super conductivity in hydrogen-based materials at high pressure—I started to look around. To be very honest, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do. I was going between doing a PhD, going to industry, exploring something new…I like to explore. At some point I found this project at ETH that was pretty close to what I did in my master’s thesis and I was quite confident that I could approach it, but at the same time it was quite different. I’m a physicist, but the department I’m in now is electrical engineering. Maybe that sounds like I didn’t change that much, but I felt like I actually changed a lot. Sometimes it’s the way you approach problems or the terminology that you use.

What I also liked about the project was that it was associated with EPFL, where there are a lot of people whose papers I read during my master’s.  I used Quantum Espresso in my master’s thesis and my supervisor had told me a lot about this group and all the amazing things that they were doing.   

Why did you choose to pursue science?

This was actually a tough question for me when I was enrolling in university and I wasn’t sure what I should do because I like so many things. I think at the end I picked science because it was the most international one. Don’t get me wrong, literature and philosophy can be read by people all over the world, but science, again in an idealistic view, is a community that has no country, also because we all use the same language. What appealed to me a lot about science was the possibility to travel around the world. Science is also a tool. To me, it is like a hammer…you can use it in many, many applications.  I like the power of having this tool. 

The biggest challenge scientists/women scientists face is…

I think there are challenges in being a scientist, period, and challenges in being a woman, period, but not in being a woman scientist. I think the problem doesn’t lie in academia. I think the challenge of being a scientist in academia, especially nowadays is that you always have to be up to date. To me, it looks like you cannot miss a day. If you go on holiday for only two weeks, there are 10,000 things that happened while you were away ad when you come back, you’re overwhelmed.

Sometimes people don’t really realize that there are working hours and personal hours. It’s amazing to see people who really love science and are involved totally, but a little bit of distinction wouldn’t be so bad. For instance, I’m 28 and I could imagine having kids relatively soon. It’s obvious you have to stop for a couple of months.  

I’m not referring to that just because I’m a woman—kids are made by more than one person. I think it’s fair that the other person should also spend time, but he will probably feel like “I do not have to stop, so I will not stop. There are so many things going on that I’ll be left behind.” And that’s one of the things that can create the biggest gap between men and women.  At a certain age, some of us want to have kids and women, and due to some obvious practical reasons, are forced to stop and so will be left behind. If you’re a man, you can choose to stop or not. And I don’t actually think it’s so insane if a man doesn’t choose to be left behind. I understand how academia works and four months is an eternity.  I think that this tight schedule of everything in academia is what makes it challenging.

Academia is also super competitive and I feel like it goes against my idealist view where we all work together to progress. Things like people not sharing their work, or people not helping you do things—it’s not what science is supposed to be. I really like that in MARVEL there are these projects like Materials Cloud, where you share your work. It’s important. I think of science as a chain, where you always have to add a new link. Most of the time you build your work on what people before you did. If they’re not sharing their work, you have to start from scratch. That’s another tough thing about being a researcher nowadays. I could understand that 200 years ago, you didn’t have the same possibilities, scientists had no way to communicate. There are so many tools now, it’s insane that we’re not using them at their full power. I’m a fan of open source. I would open source everything. I understand that that’s not always how it works and that sometimes you need to sell a product.

Another problem is that sometimes here’s not a lot of team playing. There are incredibly smart people but sometimes it’s really hard to collaborate, which I find depressing. I think ”you’re so brilliant, so smart, you should be happy to collaborate and share what you know,” but there’s a tendency to not share and not help the others. No one is going to steal your smartness by talking or collaborating—there are only good possible outcomes.

If I weren’t a scientist, I would be… 

I would probably be a pastry chef or a cartoonist, because I love to draw.  

Nonetheless, I think to have managed to make my current job coexists with my artistic side, as presenting your research would for sure profit from good graphical design.

What I like most about working with MARVEL is…

Before COVID, of course, I really loved all the events we were organizing. MARVEL is mostly at EPFL but there are some other, let’s say departments, with people at ETHZ, UZH, Empa and for those of us who are a bit dislocated, it’s a great opportunity to see all the others. Usually people at EPFL have way more events because they are there, it makes sense. One positive effect of COVID is the Junior Seminars. They were always held in Lausanne, because now that they’re online, last year I was asked to give a talk and this year I was asked to chair two talks. I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if things had been normal. I found it was amazing because we are a huge community and those seminars are a great way to get to know the others. I really like that they try always try to include, make events that include all of us, and bring all of us together. Otherwise, you tend to just stick to your laptop on your work.