Understanding chemistry and contaminated land: Meet Sabrina Cipullo

Sabrina Cipullo is a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher in Environmental Science at Cranfield University. She has a Masters of Environmental Science and Biotechnology from the University of Milan, and a BSc in Biotechnology. Her PhD focuses on environmental chemistry and toxicological approaches to site assessments. Her research focuses on better understanding the sources of pollution and the environmental fate of complex chemical mixtures.  Meet Sabrina at Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Sat 29th July, 12-3pm talking about soil science, contaminated land, and the Chuck Norris Effect.


Soil Science, Contaminated land – Detoxified!

What do you do with your plastic bottle or soda can when you’re finished with it? Do you throw it in the trash bin, recycle it, or simply drop it on the ground? Trash is one of many ways to pollute earth. Soil is contaminated when harmful, unwanted materials (pollutants) are added to it. Even if we cannot always see the pollution, it can have negative effects on living things and the environment. Did you know that soil contamination is one of the leading causes of water pollution around the world? Remediation can reduce contaminants to lower levels, and in particular, bioremediation uses microorganisms, fungi and plants to clean the environment. But, how do regulators (and scientists) assess the risk and establish “how clean” is clean” after remediation?

At Soapbox Science, I will be talking about the main contaminants affecting soil and how they behave in the environment. I will talk about methods for how to find, manage and clean soil contamination (but do not try this at home!) Secrets will be revealed, about how scientists study the effects of this contamination (toxicity) to protect both people and the environment. And of course, you’ll also find out how to prevent soil contamination and what you can do to make a difference.


My superheroes


I never imagined myself doing a PhD. I grew up in a family with two sisters and all of us were meant to take over our father’s building company once grown up. The Italian side of my family has its origins in the south of Italy, where traditionally the man (my grandfather) was the ruler of the family, while the female (my grandmother) took care of the day–to–day operations and mostly acted as child carer and housewife. My grandmother, for example, took her driving licence at the late age of 50, after my grandfather passed away. Before that, she was not expected to drive or have any need to leave the house. Fortunately that changed rapidly, in only one generation!

My mother had a regular job and always participated actively in every aspect of economic and social life. However it is true that there can still be a tendency to expect women to perform the majority of the domestic tasks they did in the past, in addition to new responsibilities. For this reason, I have always been inspired by these superheroes, who are intelligent and loving mothers, but also strong and motivated women. Somehow I knew one day I would be like my mother.

From when I was very young I was interested in art and science. I still remember at the age of 7 preparing chlorophyll extracts (a very secret recipe, which only my sister is aware of) and selling it to the neighbours for a few liras (former Italian currency) to make their plants grow healthier and stronger. For a long time I actually believed I was making the miracle happen. It was only later on that my father admitted he would secretly substitute my test-plant, overnight, with a much bigger one, so that the following day I believed the chlorophyll extract was working. To be honest I believed it, and it was probably the best self-confidence booster, and helped me build my motivation.

As a child, every day was a new discovery, and I became passionate about entomology (the study of insects) as well. For my 10th birthday I received a book about insect classification. Luckily, I lived in the countryside, and the fields were my lab. Me and my sister, Valentina, would spend endless days (and sometimes evenings), crawling around the fields in search of small insects, or jumping with our butterfly nets. I must say it was not always satisfying, and we often finished empty-handed, but it was worth the wait. When we finally caught something, we both screamed with joy, and of course fear!  The following day we would prepare and carefully pin the little insect’s legs, and add a tag with the information and name of the catcher. That was great fun!

I always felt the most boyish of the three sisters. Don’t get me wrong, I had my Barbie dolls and a pink bike, but I always enjoyed challenging myself, and of course, the boys, in both sports and science. I always had quite a strong personality and somehow it helped me to be respected. I never struggled or suffered in my childhood over gender differences. At school I was a good student (very talkative at times, some would say…) always fascinated and curious about everything new, especially in biology. I was unsure about what to choose for my undergraduate studies; it is difficult to make such important choices at a young age.

However, I now realise that in reality things can be flexible and scientific disciplines cross and interlace. Plants and the environment always fascinated me (and still do), so my undergraduate studies were focused on green biotechnology. Unfortunately at that time I was a little stubborn, and I wanted to work and study at the same time, so I couldn’t follow the regular lectures. I was pretty much on my own, since all the rest of my classmates had already made friends and study groups. Luckily I found a group of mechanical engineering students, always studying at the library until late, and we became a study group, but most importantly friends. Needless to say, the group was male dominated, with only two females. The competition amongst us was fierce, and even though we were all friends you could read between the lines that we (the girls) were  considered to be less capable. I really struggled to finish my course in the three prescribed years (due to the time I dedicated to work), and that really hurt my pride. I started asking myself if I was good enough, or whether there was someone still swapping the “small plant” with the “grown up plant” to make me believe that I could make it.

Luckily I always had very supportive parents, a stubborn mind, and thick skin. After a career break in Australia (where I worked as a waitress in two different places with a 20 hours/day shift), I thought about becoming an architect, but then went back to my roots and enrolled for a Masters in Environmental Biotech at the University of Milan. Once again the gender ratio was shockingly unbalanced (and not in my favour), but I found my way and graduated with the best grades and honours. This journey was short and intense, and my colleagues were always helpful and encouraging.  I shared the most interesting scientific (and non-scientific) conversations with them, and I made good friends for life.  I have to say I always felt treated well and respected by all my male colleagues. I would not have a career in science if it were not for them. My colleagues, and most importantly friends, have supported and encouraged me to complete my undergraduate study, do postgraduate study, and still support me every day during my PhD.

Finally, I would not be who I am if my mother had not been brave enough (and crazy enough!) to send me travelling around the world at a very young age. She also taught me a great deal about how to work towards my own goals. I am incredibly grateful for her support and encouragement. All this has helped me a lot during my PhD journey in which, like insect hunting, some days you end up empty handed, but on other days it is extremely rewarding. I like the challenges that come with the PhD and the excitement of doing new things, and constantly learning. There are many ups and downs, it feels a lot like an emotional roller coaster, but I am sure that one day I will look back and miss these moments.

I am very passionate about communicating my science and showcasing my work and I recently became a STEM ambassador to inspire and engage young people about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I have been involved in outreach activities and have taken part in different events to help people better understand chemistry and contaminated land. I am really looking forward to participating in Soapbox Science!





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