10 Questions with Erica Zeglio
Erica from Italy is a postdoctoral fellow at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden.
Her research is about organic bioelectronics. In few words, it aims to use organic conductors to facilitate the communication between biology and technology. With her work, she aims to advance current materials used for bioelectronic devices, leading to better performance, advanced functionalities for bio-interfacing, and stability. The long-term goal is to develop devices that can seemingly interface with cells and tissues to sense and stimulate biological functions.
Erica will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Erica and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
Since high school, I have enjoyed studying chemistry and biology, but I never planned to conduct polymers or organic bioelectronics research. During my undergraduate studies at Pavia University, I took as many interdisciplinary courses as possible, but none of them was on “conducting polymers.” I did not even know that the field existed until 2012.
After my master’s, I was looking for a Ph.D. position, and I found an opening in the “biomolecular and organic electronics” group at Linköping University. Though my knowledge of conducting polymers was nonexistent at the time, the group’s name sounded promising: a discipline where I can combine knowledge from chemistry, physics, and biology to create electronic devices that interface with biological systems. In my mind, existed no better match.
- Who are your role models?
A role model is a person who inspires and motivates the people around them.
In my career and life, I have met several people who inspired and motivated me. Some were scientists and some not, but all of them have one thing in common: a positive mindset. People that are passionate about what they do and that can transmit their enthusiasm to others. They also realize that failure is part of the process, and through our failures, we learn and progress in our work.
One of these people is my Ph.D. supervisor (Em. Prof. Inganäs). He would get inspired by simple natural phenomena and inspire others to push the boundaries of knowledge further than what they could have possibly imagined themself. This is a perfect example of the kind of researcher that I aim to become – one that, through his work, motivates and inspires fellow scientists and students.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I can think of three key moments that brought me where I am:
(I) My first encounter with chemistry (in my second year of high school at IS Sobrero in Italy) was quite disastrous. My first evaluation was a solid 3 out of 10, and I finished the school year with a 5 to 6, where 5 would have meant fail, and 6 was a pass – I almost failed. I basically begged the teacher (Prof. Pasini) to give me a 6 with the promise that I would catch up over the summer to get back on track at the start of the following year. She gave me a 6, and I kept my promise: from then on, not only did my grades improve, but I developed a passion for the subject. Without that 6, I would not be where I am today.
(II) During my master’s, I have decided to do my thesis overseas under the ERASMUS program. I thought that it would have been an excellent opportunity to increase my career prospects and, well, learn English as well. I am very thankful to Prof. Casella (Pavia University) and Prof. Nordlander (Lund University) for giving me the chance to do my thesis in Sweden despite my poor English skills. It was life-changing.
(III) After finishing my Ph.D., I decided that it was time to do a postdoc overseas, and I followed my husband to Sydney in Australia despite having an offered position for three years in Sweden and no job waiting for me in Australia: for some, a crazy move! Eventually, it was the best move I could have done because it gave me the push I needed to learn how to write and win my first grant applications.
This is also an excellent example that research is not a solo journey. I am very thankful to Dr. Mawad (UNSW, Sydney) and Prof. Herland (KTH, Stockholm), who mentored me and supported me during these challenging times. I am also very thankful to Prof. Micolich (UNSW, Sydney): after a few rejections (tough to swallow), I was desperate to know what I was doing wrong. I needed someone who would read through my proposal and give me a harsh critique: he was that person.
Here, last but not least, I need to thank my husband (Dr. Das, Stockholm University) for the moral support; he is the one person behind the scenes that would always tell me that I can do it.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
It was definitely the electronic biomembrane project from my Ph.D. In that project, we combined an electronic conductor with a biological membrane. This is very cool because while cells rely mainly on ionic currents as a conduction mechanism between cells, electronic currents mainly belong to man-made technology. In the long run, such efforts might give us the unexempted opportunity to use electronics to communicate precisely with electrogenic cells (neural and cardiac) at the molecular scale.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
During my Ph.D. dissertation party -That was also my last day at work before moving to Australia. Most of my family, friends, and colleagues, who supported me and worked with me towards the goal of my Ph.D., were all there. Hearing their kind words and sharing with them that moment was priceless.
- What is a “day in the life” of Erica like?
I like to take it slow in the morning and to have a nice breakfast (cappuccino is a must). I like to go to work by bicycle – it is an excellent exercise and sometimes it is faster than the bus.
Doing interdisciplinary research means that I often need facilities scattered over the whole campus, so you can see me walking around a lot. Having access to different labs also means meeting many people with different skills and backgrounds, so I am always up for a research discussion or an informal chat. If the weather is good, I like to have lunch outside and enjoy the sun – you never know how many hours you will have to spend in a lab without windows, so better not to miss the chance.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
In my career, I seek to find a space where I can continue working on creative projects and establish a good collaborative network with other researchers both in and outside my field. I also aim to improve myself both as a scientist and as a person to become a good mentor for the new generation of students who want to embark in this field.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I have many interests outside research. I like to walk/cycle in nature and swim a lot, and I like to travel too: the world is so amazing, and there are so many places to visit. Furthermore, I like good food and cooking as well. I also like to read. Usually, I am immersing myself in the story and forget about everyday problems.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
Go for it! My advice for students (irrespective of gender) considering starting a career in science is: the most important thing is that you enjoy your work because you will spend much time doing it.
The second most important thing is that you should surround yourself with people that support you. The path towards your Ph.D. or the end of your project will not be a straight line; it will have a lot of ups and downs. There will be some bad days where nothing will work. In those days, you will need support, not only from your academic network but from your friends and family. Make sure not to isolate yourself.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
We are in desperate need of finding sustainable solutions for the future. In my discipline and electronics in general, at a certain point, we will need to move towards devices that can biodegrade to mitigate the impact of electronic waste. We need materials that have a stable performance to guarantee device function while in use and can be controllably degraded/reused when they are not needed anymore.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I feel that this is not the right question that should be asked. “Increase the number” sounds like implementing policies to push girls into science for the goal of achieving a number. What we should be asking is: “what should be done towards an academic system where gender does not matter, but only our skills and merits – regardless of gender and ethnicity?” One of the reasons I have chosen to live and do research in Sweden is because of its genderless policies. Here, I feel that I will not have to struggle as much with my career if I want to have a family. Policies that allow conciliating career and family are crucial to retaining women in academia. For example, parental leave for both the parents.
The educational system is also essential. For example, I believe that schools should not be gender-based but mixed. In life, we need to interact and behave well with everyone, regardless of gender, and school is the best place to learn it.
Photo Credits: (1) Dr. Biswanath Das (Erica traveling from Australia to conferences in Europe and USA), (2) Dr. Donatella Puglisi (Erica with the members of her PhD thesis committee (Linköping University)), (3) Jeremy Platt (Erica in the lab during a work experience for talented students (UNSW, Sydney)).
The interview was conducted in June 2020.