Elena Gazzarrini

Elena Gazzarrini grew up in Turin. After completing high school in the Italian city, she found the idea of going to a new place, learning English and meeting new people more exciting than the idea of staying in the same country. She went on to study physics at King’s College London, spending her undergraduate years there and her third year at UC Berkeley after winning a scholarship. After completing her Physics master’s degree in materials science in London, she sought advice from Nicola Marzari, the former advisor of her master’s thesis supervisor, Francesca Baletto. This brought her to EPFL for a six-month project in his group. After a summer break, she started a two-year project as a Computing Fellow at CERN last month. In her free time, she pursues hobbies including dance, climbing in the Jura, playing the flute, reading, travelling and meeting people. 

Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL

Have you always been interested in science?

No, not really. In Italy, I went to a ‘classical’ high school, meaning I only had one hour a week of physics and two hours a week of math, while the focus was on ancient Greek, Latin, philosophy, history of art and a lot of Italian literature. Ancient Greek - both translating ancient texts and studying the culture of the time -  is actually the subject that occupied the biggest chunk of time during those years. On the side, I had started reading physics books (about astrophysics and quantum mechanics mainly) and was fascinated by this different and very fundamental subject. I always want to understand more about how nature works. When people ask why I studied physics, I always say because it was the thing I knew the least about.

How did you hear about the INSPIRE Potentials Program?

My master’s supervisor at King’s College, Francesca Baletto, had worked with Nicola Marzari—he was her supervisor at MIT. I spoke with him just to ask for some advice because I was undecided on whether to start a PhD. I recall we had a long online meeting, during which we talked about educational systems in different parts of the world, about physics, about life. In the end he suggested I could start a 6-month project in his group to take some time to decide about future steps, as he also said it didn’t seem like I wanted to start a PhD. It was a good choice, as a PhD is a personal project which requires determination and passion for a very specific topic.

I wanted to experience something other than academia and I didn’t see myself working alone for the next four years. I like working and collaborating with people who come from different backgrounds and this is in the end why I came to CERN. I am learning many new things, as I am again a Fellow, and am working with scientists from different institutions, facilitating scientific collaboration between groups inside and outside CERN. The EU project I am working on, called EOSC-Future, is very new, meaning we are a small team of people deciding and discussing on the strategy we want to follow and the concepts we want to develop... it’s not only my little bubble and it is very stimulating. 

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed my time at EPFL, where I was not a student, I didn’t take classes, and I was just focusing on my own research.

What was the topic of your master’s project?

The topic was trying to understand why some inorganic materials are more abundant than others in nature. That was the fundamental question. The group I was working in uncovered a property underlying both theoretical and experimental datasets, namely the abundance of materials having multiple of four atoms in their primitive unit cell, the smallest composing unit of a crystal. I had to understand why this property was emerging, making first sure that no one else had already investigated the problem. We had many hypotheses in the beginning, we thought that it was just because the formation energy was the lowest for these kinds of structures and so of course you’d have more of them, but we disproved this energetic argument using hybrid machine learning methods, supervised and unsupervised methods with clustering algorithms. Then we used some smooth functions to approximate the structures, which are quite accurate under the quantum mechanics perspective, and found out that this emerging property was mostly symmetric, depending on local features. Let’s just say that we investigated the phenomenon under different perspectives, using innovative computational techniques to test our hypotheses, and are now trying to publish the paper. It was interesting how things that sounded obvious in the beginning, weren’t. We have found a general conclusion but it’s not totally satisfying—I’m still working on it. The title is basically “Investigating anomalous distributions in Inorganic Databases”.

Do women face specific challenges in the sciences? 

This has been a very hot topic and I think in general there is society bias towards women not being capable of doing sciences and not having a logical approach to the world—being more sensitive and irrational, let’s say. This is definitely a societal problem. Personally, I have never really faced any challenges in the workplace in academia. My master’s supervisor was a woman, one of my supervisors at EPFL was a woman… she used to say ‘don’t get affected by the imposter syndrome, it’s not true that you’re not enough’. We had many discussions within the group with both men and women about this, and the men always said that the feeling of not knowing enough is not only specific to women, and that they many times feel it as well. In any case, it is probably something which statistically happens to women individuals more.

The only time that I felt that maybe being a woman was a disadvantage was for some interviews for big firms that I did before joining CERN. When the work environment is very ‘standardized’, where people conform to certain standards, then I definitely felt the pressure of presenting myself in a certain way, for example by wearing certain clothes/make up, and noticed the old-fashioned mentality. However, this problem affects not only women, but any minority. In general, there is more sensibilization on the topic nowadays and I’m happy about it, but I also think it’s important not to fall into victimization.

Any advice for young girls interested in the field?

I’ve been teaching physics to a young girl for a year now. We have lessons once a week and I always tell her ‘don’t be scared of making mistakes and of being yourself.’ I have learnt the most important things from mistakes. Being yourself, even if you feel like you’re standing out because you’re different, is also extremely valuable. Everybody’s mind works differently and people adopt different approaches to work.  Many times I have felt different from the people I work with, who have a more rational and logical way of thinking. Sometimes I don’t understand in the same way, I’m more sensitive to it and visualize what I am doing in a way that other people wouldn’t understand. Everybody has a different learning process, so you just need to find your own way of doing and understanding things.

What are your plans for the future?

For the next two years, I’m going to focus on finishing this project at CERN and getting the most out of it. I am already learning a lot about DevOps and project management—that’s something that I’m doing already after one month—and gaining as much technical theory as I can. Afterwards, I have different projects in mind. I think the most general way of describing the first path is connecting physics and scientific knowledge with creative processes. The other path would be going back to my materials science knowledge and working on solving sustainability issues. These are the two paths I could imagine taking, but everything is still a bit up in the air. The most important aspect of whatever I am doing and will do is continuously learning new, cool things.