Past Event

International Women’s Day 2024 — Interview with Anna Grassellino

March 8, 2024 - March 31, 2024
12:00 AM - 12:00 PM
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“Women have special skills that are critical to progress in all fields, STEM and non-STEM!”

To mark International Women’s Day 2024, the Academy once again looks at the role played by women scientists. Barbara Faedda, Executive Director of the Academy, interviewed Anna Grassellino, Director of the National Quantum Information Science SQMS Center and a Fermilab Senior Scientist. She holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in electronic engineering from the University of Pisa, Italy. Her areas of expertise are Quantum Devices, Radio Frequency Superconductivity, Microwave Engineering, Materials Science, and Quantum Sensing. 

Her research focuses on radio frequency superconductivity, in particular on understanding and improving SRF cavities performance to enable new applications, spanning from particle accelerators to detectors to quantum information science. She has received numerous awards for her pioneering contributions to SRF technology.   

This interview is a brief introduction to the thinking of Dr. Grassellino, who will be at the Italian Academy for a live conversation on April 18.

Barbara Faedda

Professor Grassellino, you are the recipient of numerous awards for your pioneering work. Can you explain to a general audience what are your areas of expertise, what is your specialty, and why research like yours is so important and often crucial?

Anna Grassellino  

My expertise is in the field of radio frequency superconductivity, a field at the intersection of materials science, superconducting devices, electronics and cryogenics. These very special technologies are building blocks of the most advanced tools for scientific discovery, from giant particle accelerators to quantum computers.


What was your educational and career path like? When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in science? What was it like for you to move from Italian universities to American universities?



I realized I have loved science since middle school. I went to a scientific high school and chose electronic engineering for my bachelor’s and master’s degree. I then did an internship in the USA at Fermilab and loved the research and the culture and decided to come back for a Ph.D. in Physics at University of Pennsylvania. I did part of my thesis in the USA and part in Canada. Aside from the time it took to fully master the language, I always found the American system very welcoming, meritocratic and rich in opportunities.




Because you work at Fermilab, I must ask you for a brief reflection on Enrico Fermi, the great Italian-born scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938. (Side note: right here in our building at Columbia, a reception was held in his honor in February 1939! This was right after he fled to the United States with his wife, who was targeted as a Jew by the Italian racial laws.)


Enrico Fermi was one of the greatest physicists of all times, and the foundational work Fermilab was built on decades ago comes from Fermi. It makes me so proud that every day when I go to work, I am reminded of how Fermi and so many more Italians abroad have distinguished themselves by excelling in science and many other fields.



Many observers say that the situation for women scientists has already changed a lot--and is steadily improving. Do you agree with this statement? Is this what you notice in your professional field?


I think there are improvements, we see many more women in scientific and management positions, but still not enough in the pipeline. We need to encourage more women to pursue scientific studies earlier on starting from high school. We can’t stop and need to continue pushing.



Among many recognitions, in 2017 you were awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers by President Barack Obama. Could you explain what that event meant for a young and promising scientist?


It was incredible to receive that call and the email. I almost didn’t believe it! To me it meant truly a lot that a country I had moved to only a few years before recognized me as one of their top young scientists in the whole nation. It was certainly a stimulus for me to do more and more, and to work hard to give back.



The theme chosen by the United Nations for International Women’s Day 2024 is “Invest in women: Accelerate progress.” In your opinion as a woman scientist, why would investing in women accelerate progress?


Women have special skills that are critical to progress in all fields, STEM and non-STEM! We can be uniquely creative, able to make connections and bring groups to work together, goal-oriented and result-driven…every field needs our special talent and abilities.



UN Women (the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women) explains that “the current economic system exacerbates poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation, disproportionately affecting women and marginalized groups…advocates for alternative economic models propose a shift towards a green economy and care society that amplifies women’s voices.” What is the specific role—and consequent benefit—of women scientists in the process of “amplifying women’s voices”?


Young women need to see other women in role models positions to be able to project themselves in those roles.



I would like to ask you a question that I have posed to other distinguished women scientists. Women scientists have historically been disregarded; now they are frequently in the spotlight. Do you have a specific message for young women—in America, in Italy, and all over the world—who intend to pursue a scientific career, or wish to reinforce their original decision to do scientific research?


There is nothing you can’t do, and your voice and talent can make a big difference. I highly encourage women to consider pursuing a career in STEM - being able to pursue a career in science, where your job is advancing knowledge of the world around us for the greater good for all  humanity is a true privilege!


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