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. Gregorio’s turn, a widely celebrated figure in the field of advanced cosmic research. She has been credited as one of the 100 most influential scientists in Italy, runs her own satellite-focused start-up and currently holds the position of Planck LFI AIV Manager and Instrument Operation Manager, AtmoCube Principal Investigator. Concurrently, she is the Instrument Coordinator for the Euclid project, a program that employs thousands of scientists across a multitude of institutions and stations. She is a fairly busy person.
What started your interest in space?
“I have been interested in space and the questions that it poses from a very early age. I opted for a science-based curriculum throughout school and always intended to work in this discipline. As a child, I grew up close to the famous Triestina astrophysicist, Margherita Hack, who has always been my inspiration. My work with the Plank and Euclid programs has hence been the culmination of a path that I chose many years previously.”
Why is your research now especially important?
To hear Dr. Gregorio explain her work sounds like someone pitching the plot of a science-fiction film.
“Despite all the effort, advances, breakthroughs, and inspired theories, we remain ignorant of some fundamental aspects of our reality. This is concisely summarized by a series of stark statistics: 78% of the universe is believed to consist of Dark Matter, 28% of Dark Energy and an underwhelming 5% well-understood by the human race.”
It is Dr. Gregorio and her colleagues’ goal to improve that ratio.
“The Euclid program takes data from a variety of sources and delivers these to the Mensa Stadtmitte Studierendenwerk (MESA) facility in Darmstadt, from which it is transferred to the twin project centers in Paris and Trieste. While the Plank project is focused on a particular energy frequency and a small area of the universe, Euclid measures a range of energy across the radio frequency spectrum in order to provide a better understanding of a stella object and phenomena.
A part of this will be investigation of the aspects that first created the universe: these first ‘seeds’ were both matter and energy, and how and why they became what we can currently see is one of the key questions. Concurrent with this there are questions: Why do we have matter rather than anti-matter? Why is the volume of Dark Matter and Energy so high? Are we missing key factors that would help us understand all of these things?”
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?
“While the proportion of women in astrophysics is certainly increasing, I believe that there is and will remain a general bias towards men in science subjects, particularly physics. This is partly due to traditional expectations of respective male and female professional specialties, but also a degree of innate personal interest.”
Dr. Gregorio notes that for about 10 years there has been little difference between the genders in terms of subject interests but this is becoming increasingly pronounced during adolescence. This may simply be a natural inclination, but Dr. Gregorio feels that early efforts to stimulate a greater interest among young girls would be a key aim.
“To demystify the subject and show that it is gender neutral is very much my goal. Using Dr. Hack as an example, I often visit schools and associated institutions to try and raise awareness and enthusiasm for the subject.”
Trieste s often termed ‘the city of scientists’. Do you think this is true?
“Trieste is rightly regarded as a leading science center and the statistics demonstrate this. There are over 40 major research institutions across the wider city, covering the full range of traditional and new scientific disciplines. Trieste is calculated to have 4 researchers per 100 inhabitants, which is 6 times the EU average. Trieste is and will remain famous for this, while simultaneously being an enjoyable and easy city in which to live. People that come for the research and study opportunities carry back with them the message of what a wonderful balance of life it offers, creating a positive feedback loop.”
You are from Trieste. Do you think the city is now receiving the attention it deserves?
“One of the reasons for creating my own PicoSat company was to advance the link between academic research and useable findings that can benefit technology. I feel that a greater focus on this would improve Trieste’s reputation as a city not simply of science but applied scientific light industry. The potential of development at Porto Vecchio is an ideal opportunity to make more of this output focused effort and the benefits it will provide for the city’s scientific standing.”
What are your interests outside work?
Alongside a childhood interest in physics, Dr Gregorio has been a keen, lifelong sailor. “I have taken part in many major races which offer both personal satisfaction for myself and contribute to the general renown of the Trieste scientific community. I also travel a lot for pleasure, but prefer interesting geographies and areas less well-trodden, such as Tibetan mountains or Patagonian plateaus. Having been to numerous science institutions and events in major cities, these wide-open spaces are of greater interest to me and they offer beautiful views of the night sky.”
Do you see yourself living anywhere else?
Dr. Gregorio is content to continue her life and work in Trieste. “Programs such as Euclid are already a huge, international collaboration so being in any specific place is of less importance though in this case Trieste is one of the prime data collation and analysis centers. I know that other cities in Europe and beyond offer significant benefits from a purely scientific perspective, especially those closely engaged with major public institutions such as the European Space Centre for Earth Observation in Rome or the Thales aerospace facility outside Cannes. However, the balance of what I enjoy in work as well as my passion for sailing and skiing would be difficult to match elsewhere.”