What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I currently am a Research Fellow at the University of Bologna, where I participate in several projects pertaining human evolution and environmental, as well as biocultural, adaptation. My main occupation is developing and implementing computational, analytical, and statistical methods for large-scale genetic datasets, in order to infer population composition, relationships, dynamics and instances of adaptation due to natural selection. I mainly handle data produced from modern human groups, but also integrate ancient DNA to provide a temporal framework and disentangle episodes of adaptive introgression, where the genetic elements providing evolutionary advantage have been acquired through admixing events with the cousin populations of Homo sapiens (Neanderthals and Denisovans). As part of a team in the highly interdisciplinary field of anthropology, we are trying to answer human-related questions from several viewpoints, integrating molecular expertise with socio-cultural perspectives, as well as geo-archeological and linguistic data. The methodology that we employ is very flexible and can be easily applied to any other living (or extinct) population, provided that reasonably good quality DNA can be recovered.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? I have been interested in science since middle school, where biology and maths were my favourite subjects. I actually started a degree in Physics, but later realized that I wanted to study something more real, concrete and “dirty”, so I switched to Biological Sciences and graduated with a thesis in Biophysics. During my undergraduate degree, I have been particularly fascinated by two courses, Anthropology, and Introductory Bioinformatics (an emerging discipline in Italy at that time). I decided to enroll in an International Master’s Degree in Bioinformatics (something only two Italian universities were offering), where I graduated with a thesis in Molecular Anthropology, studying the differential composition of the Italian population in terms of ancestry and possible adaptive pressures. I then pursued a PhD in Earth, Life and Environmental Sciences, again focusing on human evolution and adaptation to changing environments, dietary influences, socio-cultural and linguistic isolation, as well as the evolution of cultural and behavioral traits in the context of genetic variation. Lately, I am broadening my academic interests towards issues that are close to my heart: neurodegeneration, science education/communication, conservation biology and public health in minority groups. And this is what I love about being a scientist: being able to blur disciplinary boundaries while working at the cusp of knowledge, towards novel fields of study.
What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Based on personal experience, my advice for the new generation of scientists it would be this: if you want to pursue a career in any field, you must believe in yourself, be fierce and fearless, and know that there are no limits to what you can do. Be patient and open-minded: you will have to deal with despicable people, but also with the greatest and most generous minds you will ever meet. The future of science (and of all other academic fields) is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, so think big, be bold and try to stretch your brain and the boundaries of knowledge as far as you can.