Ever since I was a child, I loved biology. I wanted to know all about the body, the animals, and the trees; just about everything in the natural world interested me. Growing up I was exposed to children who had neurological disorders because of my brother who sustained brain damage when he was a baby and suffered from serious complications. During the summer I used to go with my mom to accompany my brother to a center where they provided physical therapy to children with many kinds of neurological disorders. This exposure shaped me and gave me the desire to help my brother, my family and all those kids who were suffering. I wished I could one day figure out something that would be helpful to them. Eventually my interest in biology and the desire to help children with disabilities came together and became my research goal to understand the brain and how it develops.
I was first introduced to research during my undergraduate years when I did an experimental thesis in Biological Science at the University of Bari, in the south of Italy. I thought laboratory research was interesting and wanted to do more. As it happened, a professor in my Institution was looking for a student interested in spending a year abroad in the United States working in a lab of a well-known biochemist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Even though I didn't speak much English, I took the opportunity to do this exchange program with great enthusiasm. It was such a positive experience that I began to wonder whether I could serio
Gabriella in her hometown of Bari, Italy
usly pursue this interest and enter into a Ph.D. program. In southern Italy at that time, these programs were very rare and access to them was mostly politically driven. So I inquired about Ph.D. programs in the States and was surprised to find that it would be relatively easy to gain access to them; my good grades and the little research experience I had was all I needed to be accepted. I was even more shocked to discover that I would get paid for my training! It was a modest stipend but it was enough, considering I was young and did not have many financial obligations. So I lived the graduate student life with some late nights in the lab and a lot of time spent with my fellow students. I made some really great friends and even though I worked pretty hard I had a lot of fun doing it. My graduate school mentor was also wonderful and showed me that one can do really good science and also have a family and have fun. I thought that I would follow his example one day when I had my own lab and students.
Thinking back, if my first year in the United States had not been a positive one, I most likely would have returned to Italy. My exchange program mentor was so supportive and we always had fascinating, historical conversations about science. He would tell me about the great old experiments that were done in his generation. He and his wife hosted me and helped me getting settled when I first arrived in the US, and I felt almost at home with them. It also helped that I met my future husband that year.
In a way, I think it was harder for me coming from Italy to make it in science because of the limitations of the system there. It forced me to make a hard choice between staying here and pursue a scientific career or go back home to my family. All in all, the opportunities were better for me in the US. I hope that the level of science and the number of opportunities increases in Italy so that people like me have a chance to go back and have successful careers.
The hardest challenge I face as a woman in science is balancing family and work. I have three children, a dog and a cat, so my life is pretty hectic. Almost every day I wonder if I should be doing something else with my children but then work piles up and I have to get it done. However, I suspect that life as a scientist may not be any harder than any other professional career. If you want to be successful in any field you have to put your heart, time, and effort into it, and that means compromising on other things.
I love academia because it allows me to work very independently. I get to define my research program and pursue the questions that interest me. In my case, they are about brain development. Our brain defines who we are and yet we understand so little about how it is formed. I feel that my major contribution of the field of neurobiology was my discovery of the reelin gene. I made this discovery when I was still a post-doc at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in NJ. This gene is such a key factor for early brain development and it was really a thrill for me to discover it. My earlier work elucidated reelin's major role in brain formation, but it was also a thrill for me to be able to grow with this project as we continue to find out new functions for this gene in my current lab here at Rutgers.
I feel that a lot of young women would like to pursue science as a career but often become discouraged, usually at the end of their training, by the challenge of maintaining a research program and at the same time having a family. But, while I know it is hard sometimes, I think that if science is what you enjoy then you should do it; don't listen to people who tell you that you can't. You might have to find your own balance and your own way of getting through difficulties, but it can be done. I don't know if it is a coincidence or not, but I tend to have a lot of women in my lab. It is important for me to support and encourage them. As a woman I may be a slightly better mentor than my male colleagues because I understand what young women are going through when starting a family and it may be easier for them to talk to me about their problems. Having said that, I know many male scientists who are also great supporters of women in science, and I was fortunate to have encountered some of them during my own career development. Whatever troubles come my way--as a woman and a scientist--my desire to gather knowledge on brain development so that one day we may be in a better position to help children with neurological disorders is what motivates me.