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Italian (research) story

Rosa Gini


Nothing in my personal experience suggests that being a mother is in whatever contradiction with successfully completing a Ph.D. program in mathematics. It is true that during those weeks following Sara's birth, when I was still nursing, besides Sara, my older daughter Eloisa, aged two, I had not much time for research. However, the crucial paper for my thesis was lying on the desk in our study-bedroom, a key passage well highlightened, so that one night, while sleeping, moving inconsciously that image in the right way (I was doing topology), I dreamed the first theorem of my thesis.

That theorem is now published in an international level journal. It was also through the bias of that result that I got in contact with a brilliant Romanian researcher living in France together with whom I found the central theorem of my thesis which I then defended successfully in the spring of 2001. That day my mother taught our daughters - I and their father defended the thesis the same day, in the same area, geometry -, and a riddle which perfectly dribbled the painful problem of an Italian equivalent of the Ph.D. title: "Viva i nostri genitori/ che oggi son superdottori".

The day after things went on more difficultly. It was only too clear that the perspective of a job in research was far away. Maurizio, the father of my daughters, had won a position as a high school teacher in Pisa, the town we live in, and I myself was ranked pretty high. But in the preceding months Maurizio was invited to apply for a European postdoc fellowship in France: this could open some expectation. We tried to move on finding a position for me too - but Maurizio and I were working in the same area and a non-written rule in attributing positions via European networks is that it is to avoid that two persons of the same nationality go simultaneously in the same place. This is meant to favour a maximum of intercommunity mobility, but it is in fact a real disgrace from the point of view of equal opportunities. In the end I didn't apply, the very reason not being to avoid competing with Maurizio, but the impossibility to answer the question: what shall I do if I win? He would have lost any expectation; I should have stayed alone with the kids and when should have I found time to study? That year Maurizio passed four months in France and one in Romania, the next year six months in Denmark. I was shared between Pisa and his destinations, with the two daughters still depending on me, trying to zig-zag among school schedules (long live the Pisan kinder-gardens!), baby-sitting, grandmas' help and finally non-paid holidays. My mathematical production continued to be, however, valid, the persons I was collaborating with were satisfied as were also the referees of my papers. But after my first experience of foreign fellowship I had, when we decided to leave the kids in Italy, my decision, already taken, became definite: it was pointless putting between me and my kids the continuing and more and more random search for a mathematical research job. I hated being far from the girls at the point of not being able to work anymore.

When, all of the sudden, Maurizio won an assistanship position (ricercatore) in a rather far from home university, waiting to decide whether we shall move all of us or not, and during a part time job in a high school, I started a master in statistics - professional education for undergraduates, ša va sans dire: it was no trace of specific professional education and orientation for research graduates, and believe me, I looked for hardly. In the meantime, I was lounching my CV over the regional territory, CV in which my research Ph.D. was given a more and more hidden place, even disappearing during the interviews...

Following the statistics master finally proved to be the right choice: looking at 360 degrees for qualified place to fulfill the final stage, I contacted a research company pending on the regional health entity in Florence - were I shouldn't dare to send a job request - and it was a flash of lightning. At the end of the stage a (female) courageous responsible found no contradiction in offering me a collaboration especially intended for a mathematical Ph.D. with a master in statistics.

And this is today story, a well paid job where my education has found, in extremis, its sense and utility. If I have no occasions of proving theorems, I apply, however, all my skills issued from my research training, from the capacity of absorbing the contents of scientific literature till the writing of a paper, from the use of moving among research groups till the art of gathering various stimuli in an original way, from knowing how to present complex matters to an heterogeneous audience till the ability of extracting information from seminars and presentations... In this moment I am in charge with the Toscan part of a project of the Istituto Speriore di SanitÓ on building statistical indices of health, I successfully worked on projects for the passage of some of the functions of the private software Agency to the free software and I am coordinating a regional inquiry on certain behaviour of still borns' parents. My contract started in June 2003 and in July I completely forgot to participate at the written exam of an assistanship contest I was applying for in Pisa; it was the last time I applied for a research position, no matter the protests of friends and collaborators. I am very satisfied with the actual course of my life, I'm in the middle of a lively, interesting reality which opens true perspectives, even different of what I am able to imagine now. Among others, I became interested in biomathematics, a scientific realm in strong expansion, in the very middle of my knowledge and skills.

So that finally I am happy with what I am now. But on the other hand, I see clearly that the reasons I didn't go on with my research academic career were not casual, whilst the reasons I found, in the end, a way of pursuing a research career, were entirely casual.

In fact, I think that it is perfectly possible to prove that a career with an indefinite trajectory, with an uncertainty period and absolute mobility much over 30 years, is strongly discouraging for those who decide to have children while still young, for the women particularly, as they less freely can postpone the moment of having children. This being completely independent of the capacities and professional skills, and even on the motivations - as the preference given to serene education of children doesn't prove, as such, low motivation for research. In various European countries, in Canada and in USA there are now initiatives to actively support the young researcher having children - e.g. the possibility of coordinated applications - but, obviously, not in a systematic way. I am convinced these considerations weigh considerably on my individual case as on other's, be they he or she.
Not less serious is the problem raised from the side of the issue. The fact that a research Ph.D. who, from a certain reason, decides to quit the career in pure research, cannot find any trajectory ending in an ad hoc permanent job is not only a damage for that individual, but is reflected in the general incapacity of the Italian productive system to give some place to research and development sectors. It is not so hard to imagine such trajects, organized by the very universities which deliver research Ph.D. titles, or by the provincial authorities, by the commerce chambers or categorical associations... public entities or associations which all could take the charge to channel this broad human patrimony in the numerous potential useful directions, on the model already in use in almost all the countries with very similar economic, educational and social systems.

Ad Astra • Volume 3, Issue 1, 2004 • Women and science
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