Dr. Serena Zacchigna: Changing The World One Heartbeat At A Time

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Serena Zacchigna, photo credits Erin McKinney
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Interview: Edward Hunt

Photography: Erin McKinney

Every Saturday we’re spotlighting remarkable local females who could change the way we look at the world. This Saturday is Dr. Zacchigna’s turn, a distinguished fellow at the world-famous International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, ICGEB in Trieste.

She is the current Group Leader in the Cardiovascular Biology Laboratory at the Center. As the title suggests, her focus is the study of Cardiovascular conditions and the possible cure that might be developed for this serious condition. She also represents the ICGEB at the UN Agency Committee for Bioethics and other international bodies.

What started your interest in the subject of cardo-vascular disease?

I did not initially have much interest in medicine or biology. Believe it or not, I dreamed of a career in journalism. My change in trajectory came about during my senior school years, when my Maths teacher introduced me to science, and I met the world-famous Dr. Arturo Falaschi, founder of the CCEGB. Early in my new studies I was Introduced to Dr. Marco Jacco, another famous research scientist in the discipline.

Why is your research now especially important?

Though not as prominent in general consciousness as Cancer or HIV, Cadio-related issues in adults are the primary cause of morbidity across the world. As general human diets have changed, this problem has moved across the globe to become common in most countries and populations. I remember an early seminar that I attended, where the speaker asked each participant to look to their left and right, remarking that either they themselves or one of their immediate neighbors would die of a Cardo-related issue. There have been no new treatments, therapies or drugs developed in the last 30 years. Babies can repair heart muscles in the first few weeks of their lives, but this disappears after a few months. These and similar puzzles are the focus of my work.

There are still not as many women as men in science. Do you think this is changing and why? What else could be done to encourage more women in this sphere?

As a woman that has reached high standing at her native research institute and is widely known among the global practitioners of cardiovascular work, Dr. Zacchigna is confident that the future will see an increasingly mixed science population, with a 50/50 split between men and women.

“In my experience, women tend to score highly in medicine and in cardiovascular work. I feel that changing attitudes and greater assistance and flexibility in work/life balance have aided this growth of capable female researchers. As a mother, I recognize that women have different objectives and that once with children may simply prefer to alter their career paths. This is normal, healthy and I feel that it would be wrong for this to be cited as evidence of workplace prejudice. From a more practical perspective, gaining grants and funding success is difficult, so anyone seeking must be committed wholeheartedly to the project. Any scientist – male or female – that wishes to spend more time outside of their work is something of a liability for wider programs.”

Trieste is often termed ‘the city of scientists’ Do you think this is true?

Dr. Zacchigna feels that Trieste will likely grow stronger in medical research and development.

“Trieste has an excellent quality of life, it is well-positioned in the center of Europe and the open borders allow rapid movement of staff from one institute to another. I noticed an increase in ‘scientific tourism’, where staff have brought their families to events as a mini-break rather than arriving on their own as a business trip. However, I am concerned it remains a primarily research-oriented environment and lacks a wider understanding of bringing the work to a practical end and marketable status. I was dismayed to learn only in my 30s that all my research – the IP – needed to be patented early as companies would not invest in work that freely existed in the public domain.”

These kinds of lessons,  Dr. Zacchigna feels, should be taught early in a student’s career. Her work in the US, and even in Milan, illuminated a very different research-practical application- a medical development approach from Trieste’s rather more traditional horizons.

You are from Trieste. Do you think the city is now receiving the attention it deserves?

For Trieste, Dr. Zacchigna feels that the local authorities have made strong steps in supporting this, the renovation of Porto Vecchio adds a fantastic opportunity to make best use of Trieste’s potential.

“Unfortunately, what should have been a landmark event in 2020 was derailed by COVID. With restrictions now almost ended, these efforts should be restarted and will have both science-specific and wider city benefits in terms of interest, investment and renown.”

For the remainder of her career Dr. Zacchigna has decided that Trieste offers the best overall balance for her and her family and is confident that – with a little more effort – many non Triestini scientists will become similarly enthusiastic about laying their roots in the city.

What are your interests outside work?

Dr. Zacchigna considers herself fortunate to have found a balance between her family and her work, partly as a result of Trieste’s relatively unique size and facilities.

“Many of my colleagues and I enjoy trail running in the woods and hills surrounding the ICGEB, with fresh air and space allowing mental freedom to consider difficult problems and chat without endless traffic and distraction of a city location.”

Do you see yourself living anywhere else?

Dr. Zacchigna has been happy to remain centered on Trieste, albeit with her work in any case taking her across different parts of Europe.

“Italy has a very high concentration of excellent scientists, with Trieste being a special example backed by many great institutions.”

While Dr. Zacchigna credits Belgium with excellent scientific programs and institutions, her experience has meant that she doubts life there could match Trieste. Though she knows many colleagues in California, there has been a notable move of Europeans from the US back to their native countries.

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Edward is a defence consultant working independently for various companies and governments. He has lived in Trieste since 2017 after moving with his family from London. His Roman wife is the Director of TICO Film Production company and works with the Trieste / Friuli film industry on a variety of projects both within Italy and overseas. His children love living in the city, though they lament the lack of large parks in which to cycle and play football. Edward read history at Magdalen College, Oxford during which time he was an RAF reserve officer, and after leaving studied for an MA at King's College London. His primary interests are aviation and history plus a love of film, especially Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Edward worked initially in finance and then at several consulting team and companies specialising in aerospace and defence. Among other positions, he was head of the UK consulting team at Jane's Information Group and during his time there was frequently interviewed by BBC, Radio 4 and other major global TV and radio channels for views and analysis on current global events and industry developments. Currently he also writes articles for various aerospace industry magazines, works with flight simulator game developers and corrects erroneous opinions in the FT comments sections like a Boss.

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