Easing the pain of long distance relationship

Sab.JPGSabrina Maniscalco is a quantum physicist and a Reader at Heriot-Watt University. She is the Leader of the open Quantum Systems and Entanglement group (www.openquantum.co.uk) currently consisting of 8 members (6 of them women!). After obtaining her PhD in Palermo (Sicily) she worked as a researcher in Bulgaria, South Africa and Finland, before finally settling down in Scotland. Her main research field is quantum physics and, specifically, quantum computers and other quantum technologies. Sabrina tells Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-organiser, of the personal struggles she has endured for her science and that her survival tip is her passion for discovery.


SS: Your previous Soapbox Science blog on promotions, in which you reported how you were told to “start behaving like a professor”, received a lot of attention on Twitter. How you would like to see the scientific culture change, to make the career path fairer for women in science?

SM: Universities in the UK appear to use one criteria for promotion: the more money (grants) you attract, the more successful you are. In the personal development review (PDR) of our University, you only have “Excellent” if you managed to attract major funding. During my PDR, I was told that if I wanted to become a professor I had to start behaving as a professor, and when I asked in which way I was not behaving as a professor I was given as an answer: “You should have more PhD students”, meaning at least 10 or 15. So, what counts are the numbers, not the quality of supervision! I supervise 3 PhD students and 1 master student (+ 2 visiting PhD students); three other PhD student have graduated, but these were in Finland and apparently they don’t count! Big labs, big bucks sounds like a very male-oriented  criteria, and fails to acknowledge careful supervision and care for your students (which requires a lot of time), interdisciplinary collaborations and new high risk ideas that might take time to “take flight”, just to mention a few.


SS: You have embraced the international aspects of academic life, having worked in 3 different countries. Postdoc research abroad is becoming an increasingly important criteria in assuring success as a scientist. But many people, especially women, are put off by the upheaval of their personal lives every couple of years. Tell us how this has affected you and how you’ve dealt with it.

SM: My husband and I were able to find postdoc positions in the same groups in Bulgaria, South Africa and Finland. We work exactly in the same field so this, in principle is not easy. What was (and still is) really difficult, however, was to find a permanent position in the same place. As my contract in Finland was finishing I applied for a position at Heriot-Watt University and received an offer, so I decided to move. It was a difficult decision and, as my husband still lives and works in Finland, it is certainly not easy. It is true that working in the academia allows great flexibility, but eventually this is something that requires a lot of personal sacrifices and I would only recommend it if one really loves doing science and research, otherwise it may turn into a nightmare. I do not have children, so I think a long distance relationship can be managed (it requires, time and effort and a lot of flexibility, though) but I do not think it would be possible for a couple with children and, actually, this situation has certainly affected our choices in this regard.


SS: Of all our Soapbox Science speakers this year, you perhaps have the most challenging job: explaining quantum physics to the public! Tell us why you decided to take on such a challenge.

SM: I love sharing with others what I’m passionate about. It may be a little bit in my Sicilian nature: I really feel driven by the desire of sharing what I find beautiful, inspiring and fascinating. And Science is certainly something that, even after many years and struggles with “the Academic world”, never fails to fascinate me tremendously. I’m a quantum physicist and I find the ultimate laws of Nature so beautiful, mysterious, mind blowing. I guess that I was very much attracted by the idea of having yet another occasion to share these feelings with others.

I liked the idea of Soapbox as presents a combination of challenges: the idea of an event involving women scientists, the challenge of a direct one-to-one interaction with people passing by in the street, the challenge of trying to find (yet again) ways for communicating quantum physics, as it really requires a huge effort in trying to find a new language to share these concepts. I look forward to telling the story of particles being teleported, of the flawless dance of atoms whose motion is frozen by a watchful eye.


Take a crash course in quantum physics with Dr Sabrina Maniscalco on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London, where she will be talking about: “Playing the Quantum Computer Game”. Sabrina’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship of L’Oreal For Women in Science and the Zoological Society of London.


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