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5 minutes with Penne amiche della Scienza

5 minutes with Penne amiche della Scienza

Today we spent some time talking to Valentina Borghesani, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal and founder of “Penne Amiche della Scienza”.

As Valentina mentions in the project website, the goal of Penne Amiche della Scienza is “to encourage scientific thinking and promote scientific career through the demystification of the figure of the scientist. We believe that the elimination of stereotypes is achieved through the creation of a direct link, in this case between the scientists of today and those of tomorrow. Our desire is to help every student, regardless of gender, socio-economic situation, or ethnicity, on the path to a successful science education.”

Let’s find out more about the project from the founder herself!

Valentina Borghesani

Hi Valentina, thank you for the interview! Let’s start from the beginning: Who are you? What is your background and current occupation?

I’m a cognitive neuroscientist investigating the neuro-cognitive correlates of conceptual knowledge with behavioural and neuroimaging experiments in both healthy participants and neurodegenerative populations. I hold a bachelor in psychology (2010, University of Bologna), a master in neuropsychology (2012, University of Trento), and a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroimaging (2017, Université Pierre et Marie Curie).

Until March 2020, I conducted research at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, under the supervision of Dr. Gorno-Tempini, collaborating with Dr. Nagarajan and Dr. Houde at the UCSF Speech Neuroscience Laboratory. I then moved to the Université de Montreal to work within Dr. Bellec’s Courtois NeuroMod project, supported by a two-year fellowship from the Institute for Data Valorisation (IVADO).

You are quite the traveller, aren’t you. Have you always wanted to be a researcher?

Fundamentally, the only thing I’m really good at (and truly love) is learning: all I want to be doing is reading, listening, studying, and thinking. Growing up I was told I was good with words (alas, in Italian!), and I loved writing and debating. Thus I dreamt of becoming a journalist or a writer.

Sometimes, I fantasised about entering politics or studying law, but while I’m definitely an opinionated activist, I am not great at compromises. And I’m afraid there’s something about being able to apply the scientific method that I would have missed in those occupations.

I guess my current career path gets me as close as possible to my dreams: I can learn something new every day, I must read a lot, and…I should write more!

Reading, listening, studying and thinking: apparently these are all activities you could carry out from anywhere in the world; did you experience major disruptions to your day to day life during the lockdown?

Let me start by acknowledging how lucky I am, all considered. I’m grateful for everything I’ve got and will not complain of my privileged situation. Having said that, everything slowed down bureaucratically which means that I’ve been waiting for my work VISA for months. Hence I currently don’t have a proper work contract even though I won two scholarships to pursue my research.

The lockdown also brought drastic changes to the way neuroscience research is conducted worldwide: some of them have been positive (e.g., I can attend online meetings with colleagues all over the world), while others have been terribly disruptive. I have a very supportive and understanding partner, that’s how I keep afloat. 

In addition to the changes you have seen in your field, do you feel you have learnt something during lockdown?

Absolutely. First of all, I’ve revised my priorities in terms of quality of life, what is worth fighting for and working for. Then, I’ve picked up some old hobbies (e.g. playing music) and tried to work on some of my weak spots (e.g. French). But to be fully honest, these past months I’ve considered “not having a meltdown for two days in a row” a pretty big achievement that deserved celebrations.

Amidst your work and your hobbies, you also started “Penne Amiche della Scienza! How did you come up with the idea?

Back in California, I stumbled upon Letters to a Pre-scientist, and being a pen-pal with them was a great experience. I’ve also enjoyed participating in similar initiatives such as Skype a Scientist, and volunteered in STEM after school via the UCSF Science Education Program.

Given my long standing desire to give back to my country and contribute to its scientific development, I decided to export to Italy the original format of a correspondence between scientists and youth: Penne Amiche della Scienza was born. The immediate enthusiastic reaction of students, teachers and scientists was the signal, loud and clear, that time was ripe!  

You sound so enthusiastic about this project too! Can you tell us what you like particularly about your involvement in it?

I cannot stress enough how much I believe that our society is in need of both science humanization and scientists appreciation. We come in all sizes, colors, and shapes: anyone can be a scientist, and everyone should be given the option to become one. We have unique expertise and knowledge: we have to learn how to best share it, and we should to be listened to. I feel like Penne Amiche della Scienza is my drop in the wave of change that’s coming.

Has Covid-19 affected the project?

We had to stop the correspondence mid-spring as classrooms were forced to work remotely. We are hoping to restart in the fall, and are currently waiting to see how the situation evolves. While all the teachers see the value of adding this experience to their students curricula, they also cannot sacrifice formal didactics. We’ll do our very best to resume, one way or another, as soon as possible.

Penne Amiche della Scienza is clearly helping the younger generation to learn about science. Do you think the project also helped you develop/strengthen skills you are using in your job?

Yes, indeed! Science communication is harder than it seems! It requires understanding your audience’s needs and abilities, and learning how to share your passion and knowledge in an effective way.

Moreover, I’ve strengthened my management skills: it’s not easy to properly allocate time and (mental) resources when handling a project involving multiple schools, a large and diverse pool of volunteers, and generally speaking, many moving pieces.

You have just mentioned that the project involves a large pool of volunteers and many moving pieces. How could someone else volunteer on the project and help?

(Italian) scientists of any background, working anywhere in the world, are more than welcome to join our army of pen-pals! Interested teachers should reach out if they think there’ll be ways for them to incorporate this project among their yearly activities. Right now the best way to volunteer is to reach out to me and keep an eye on our website.

Thank you very much for your time and for everything you are doing, Valentina! Before we are done, if you had to describe your life now in three words, what would they be?

Caring – for myself and for others. 

Acting – over those few things we can actually control. 

Sharing – contacts might have to be virtual these days, but I will not succumb to isolation.

To get in touch with Valentina, you can check her website and the “Penne Amiche della Scienza” website (in Italian):

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