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As a child in Verona, Elisa Salvetti used to look up at the stars, tiny pinpoints of light in the dark sky, each of which represents a distant world, and dream of becoming an astronomer. But instead of exploring those far-away giants, she finds herself in Cork, looking at bacteria.
The trajectory of a scientist is rarely straightforward.
Elisa Salvetti is an Italian researcher who never really wanted to get into research. But on an Erasmus placement in Cork, the Verona native completely changed her mind about her future.
“Doing my Erasmus here opened my mind a lot. I didn’t want to go on to research, but coming here and doing research here in Ireland, I said, wow, this is wonderful, this is so exciting.”
After finishing her PhD in Italy, Elisa is now back in Cork working at University College in the microbiology department. Her field of interest is bacteria – the basis of fermented food and drinks such as cheese, bread, beer and wine. Who knew bacteria were the secret ingredient behind so many damn wonderful things!?
Elisa could be classified as an early-stage researcher. But at her young age, she is a bit of a veteran. She completed her Bachelor’s degree and PhD in biotechnology at Verona University. She successfully won a Marie Curie fellowship and she’s now developing her skills in Ireland. As part of her fellowship she is also expected to conduct outreach activities and participate in conferences. The goal of the Marie Curie fellowship is to turn graduates into fully-rounded researchers.
Elisa is no slouch. Back home in Verona, she is also Associate Expert of a start-up which provides technology services to the food and agriculture industries.
Elisa’s normal day is usually spent in front of a computer, conducting analysis of all the genomes in her dataset. By seeing whether bacteria have the same or different genes, she can determine what the genomes are doing.
Starting out as a student and expecting to do applied science, Elisa was surprised to find herself doing research. Her next move is also surprising to her: she has become interested in bioinformatics and regulation. She ultimately sees her future in the commercial world, and to that end will shortly move to Copenhagen. There, she will be seconded at a company and will have the opportunity to develop her biotechnology research. She is very much looking forward to putting her research into practice.
The field of microbiology seems incredibly complicated, and yet Elisa has often participated in fairs and events geared towards local communities. I ask her if people understand what it is that she does.
“I was really impressed about that,” Elisa says. “I speak to Italian people about gut microbiota, older people, they say what is that? Here, they know everything. Because the newspapers talk about this kind of stuff. And also the TV shows – there are many things that give this kind of news. And for the children as well, the kids, they were very interested in what we did in the lab. Even if they didn’t know exactly what we were going to do, afterwards they understood us quite well.”
I don’t want to draw Elisa into a conversation about comparisons between Italy and Ireland, but I can’t help asking her why she chose to undertake her post-doctoral research here.
“Italy was good to me as far as professional development,” she says. “Universities in Italy are very good in developing your skills and building up your knowledge about the topic that you’re studying.”
But Ireland, she says, simply offers more opportunities and more money. It’s also easier to collaborate with colleagues. “What I can see in Ireland, is that here people are more pragmatic.” Personalities and personal conflicts are not a problem – people still manage to work together.
Elisa’s advice to other early-stage researchers is simple: you must look around you for opportunities. She also stresses the importance of ensuring independence from your supervisors so that you can stand on your own two feet.
She could also add that if you reach for the stars, you never know where you might end up.