Voices for change: AO women in STEMM

My journey: Nunzia Di Luise

AO Research Institute Davos (ARI) Scientific Project Manager Nunzia Di Luise, PhD, is living proof that a career in research doesn’t have to be confined to a laboratory. Educated as a pharmaceutical chemist, Di Luise has found her niche at ARI in a role that that allows her to continue her research career while raising a family.

Di Luise, who joined ARI in June 2017 as a scientific project manager, a role in which she wears two hats: research grant manager as well as research data manager.

“The research grant manager role started with me and I am really proud of this: I provide face-to-face support to researchers with grant applications to national and international agencies,” she explains. “When I was a student, I didn’t realize the enormous amount of money it takes to fund a research project. I never imagined myself in a research grant manager role; I imagined myself in a lab and I did work in a lab because I did a PhD, but I got fed up with the lab and decided to make a career step out of the lab—while remaining in science. During the first year at ARI, I realized how fascinating it was to counsel researchers, so I am glad I took the job.”

A native of Salerno in the Campania region of southern Italy, close to Naples and the sea, Di Luise has been inspired by nature since early childhood.

“When I was growing up my family often went out on the weekends to the countryside or the seaside,” she says. “I think this contact with nature from an early age inspired my interest in science.”

The role of mentors in scientists’ lives and her own good fortune are recurring themes as Di Luise describes her pathway into research.

“Early on, I wanted to become a marine biologist, but I had a very good science professor in high school—a key period in life when you’re deciding what you want for a career—who advised me to study chemistry,” she recalls. “My mentor really pushed me and that’s so important, but it doesn’t always happen for everyone. I was lucky. She thought marine biology might be too specialized and said that I would have many more options as a chemist because so many companies were looking for chemists.”

Underscoring the critical role of mentors, Di Luise says that more than half of her own mentor’s students went on to study science.

“Mentors are very important. My own mentor was my science professor in secondary school. To give you an idea of her influence: More than half of my classmates ended up studying science,” she emphasizes. “She really inspired us with her passion for science and, today, most of my classmates have very good positions in science. My professor did her job well.”

In university, she studied pharmaceutical chemistry, the educational path to becoming a pharmacist.

“In Italy, most pharmacists are women because it is a career where you can manage a balance between family and work,” she says.

Di Luise says she also feels fortunate to be in daily contact with science—a factor that keeps her interested, engaged, and moving forward in her research career.

“ARI is always on top of the hot topics in science and has such a strong leadership position in advancing orthopedic patient care through innovative research and development” she adds. “Being in the middle of this activity is very interesting. Also, the calls for research proposals keep me informed about where the science is going, what direction it is taking. I love it.”

As fortunate as she feels to have found her niche, Di Luise is well aware that many other scientists face myriad hurdles.

“I think ARI could involve more people from less developed areas of the world. It would be nice, especially in the last few years with so many wars all over the world, if we could have at least one scientist from a low-income country,” she observes. “Our people at the AO in general come from the more developed parts of the world. I think it would be good to have the fresh perspectives that colleagues from these less-advantaged backgrounds could bring.”

As one would expect from an internationally renowned research powerhouse like ARI, the institute employs researchers from the United States, China, Australia, and across Europe. Di Luise would like to help students and researchers from less developed countries —but it isn’t easy.

“For example, because of the political situation in Afghanistan in the last few months, there was a discussion within ARI about how to help Afghani scientists, but the process to get them to Switzerland is very long—as long as two years—so, at the moment, it’s not really possible,” she says.

Di Luise also sees barriers that women face in the workplace.

“I studied in Italy [where] it is really difficult to pursue an academic career if you want to be a professor or assistant professor—but if you are a woman, it is even more difficult. Also, there are not enough academic positions for the number of people who want to follow this career path. Second, for me as a woman, it was also a matter of family,” says Di Luise. “I had to ask myself, ‘Do I really want to follow this path into academia and focus all of my efforts on a path where there are no guarantees? Or do I want a family as well, which will mean finding a paid position that will allow me to balance family and work?’ After finishing my PhD, I decided that I wanted a family as well.”

Today, Di Luise has a satisfying career and a family—and she is happy with her decision to step away from the lab and explore new horizons in science.

“Today I have two children and I still have a career in science, in close contact with research. Not all science careers are confined to a laboratory.”

For science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) students as well as professionals facing barriers to reaching their goals, Di Luise’s advice is pragmatic and hopeful.

“I would tell them that they will face barriers, but it is possible to use whatever makes you different to your advantage: Your fresh perspectives could help you overcome the barriers you face. Put all of your effort into showing that your differences should be no barrier to access, entry, or achievement,” she says.

It is this very guidance that Di Luise gives to her young cousin who has just begun studying medicine.

“She just started medical studies and she told me that most of her professors are men who have a very male perspective when they give examples in class. I suggested to her, ‘Just go on—and study, study, study—and show that you are as competent as your male classmates.’ Talking is not enough. Showing that you can do the same that men can do is the only way to prove that there are no differences. Girls and women have to work harder. It’s the only way to achieve the same position as men.”