Melania D'Aniello

Melania D'Aniello did her undergraduate studies at the University of Salerno in the south of Italy before moving to Sapienza University of Rome to work on her master’s degree. During her time in Rome, she saw posters advertising the INSPIRE Potentials program for work in computational materials theory. After Googling to find out more about it and speaking to her professors, she deiced to apply. After winning the scholarship, she went to complete her master’s thesis in the lab of Stefan Goedecker at the University of Basel. She is now writing up her thesis and planning to take her final exam next month. In her free time she enjoys everything related to dance. She is also active with Tutta n’ata storia, a group in her hometown focused on encouraging dialogue on topics that can be hard to discuss such as gender inequality and immigration. 

Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL

What was your master’s thesis on?

I implemented density functional theory calculations to test the quality of the pseudo-potentials approximation. My supervisor Stefan Goedecker is one of the fathers of this approximation that was invented about 30 years ago. Also, today it is widely implemented in some calculations because it decreases the huge computational effort required for exact calculations. Basically, Stefan generated new pseudo-potentials and my role was to test them simulating some elemental solids and for example calculating the atomization energy for the molecules and so. The most interesting part has been to learn how to interpret the data that I got and to give them a physical meaning.  

What was the best part of the INSPIRE Potentials experience?

I’ve just told you about the thesis, there’s of course something else to say. With this fellowship I had the opportunity to do scientific research in an international context, and this was a great opportunity. I think this can open your mind in two senses, not just for working, because you had every day the opportunities to have contacts with people around you and hear new ways of thinking about the topics you’re all working on. The other opportunity is the chance you get to enjoy new cultures. Switzerland is a very multi-cultural country and it’s easy to find people coming from several different countries and working with them gives you the chance to get to know something about their culture. 

Have you always been interested in science?

Actually, it’s something that came later, during the last years of high school. During those years, my math and physics teacher was a physicist and he was really a specialist to teach physics and so I also got passionate about the subject.  

Would you like to continue on to do a PhD?

I haven't decided yet. I am exploting this time before my graduation to look around, in order to come to the final decision. What I can say is that the INSPIRE Potentials fellowship was a great opportunity to experience part of an academic career, and see positive and negative aspects that are important to know before taking a significant path like a PhD. 

Do women scientists face any specific challenges?  

I never felt this for me. I never saw the problem, for me it was just “I want to do this” and so I did it. I can imagine though that it is not the same for everyone and it may depend on what country you are from. I know that it is not the same everywhere. I think the situation is improving globally. I remember that some time ago I saw a picture on the web showing the main scientists one century ago. Marie Curie was the only woman then and now there are many, many more. For sure, the situation is not balanced, there are some inequalities, but it’s improving.  

We cannot say that the problem is over. We’ll be able to say that I think when we don’t need these kinds of special programs and activities such as the INSPIRE Potentials fellowship. They are good because we need them, we need these opportunities because the problem is not over, but hopefully one day we won’t need them anymore.