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‘How one evening changed my career’

This year, European Researchers' Night is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Image credit: European Commission
This year, European Researchers' Night is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Image credit: European Commission

For Matteo Iafrati, a European Researchers’ Night conference changed the course of his career. For others, it provides an opportunity to connect with the general public and generate a broad interest in science. 

As the EU-wide event marks its 10th year of helping people get an insight into the life of a researcher, we talk to six participants to find out what the event means to them.

The student

Matteo Iafrati, ENEA, Frascati, Italy

Image courtesy of Matteo Iafrati

In 2009, Matteo Iafrati’s career path changed when he attended a European Researchers’ Night event in Frascati, Italy. Although he had been interested in pursuing a career in science since he was a child, his first love was particle physics and his ambitions leant towards studying at CERN. It was a meeting with his future supervisor, Professor Giuseppe Mazzitelli, from the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA), that changed his mind.

‘Researchers are the employees of the people.’

Matteo Iafrati, ENEA, Frascati, Italy

‘Since I was at school, I wanted to become a physicist. In particular I was attracted by particle physics, and big machines for particle physics like the particle accelerator in Geneva, like LHC (the Large Hadron Collider). But during the European Researchers’ Night in 2009 I met Prof. Giuseppe Mazzitelli at a conference. This conference was about fusion energy and fusion research and a special device for bringing the power of the stars to the earth, called a tokamak. And I fell in love with this fusion research, and one year later I started my physics degree in Rome and I changed my initial career, becoming a plasma physicist, not a particle physicist.’

Matteo is completing his master’s thesis and will shortly be embarking on a PhD programme looking at the use of liquid metal to capture energy inside the tokamak. He describes European Researchers’ Night as a ‘bridge’ that originally gave him an insight into a particular area of science as a member of the public, and now lets him introduce his work to other people as a researcher.

‘I think it is a good way for people to know what we are doing. We want to check (on the) developments in our work with feedback from people. It is a very good opportunity for people to also know how researchers spend public money. Because researchers are the employees of the people. So I think people can learn a lot from the night and the researcher also.’

The Commissioner

Tibor Navracsics, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport

Image credit: European Union  2014/ Jacquemart Jennifer

Tibor Navracsics, the EU’s Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, says that he hopes that European Researchers’ Night benefits the public by giving them a glimpse into how the European Commission is spending money on research.

The researchers’ community is somehow exotic to … people. They (researchers) work in the future and for the future, so we have to open up that community and the achievements of that community to ordinary people. Partly because it’s supported financially by their money, i.e. by the people’s money, and partly because it serves their future.’

On 25 September, more than 250 cities across Europe will host events that are designed to bring the public face to face with researchers and let them discover the impact of science on everyday life. Commissioner Navracsics says that he thinks that anyone who visits an event would be inspired.

‘All the ordinary people who just come here and see the experiments or the stands, or just get some knowledge about the practical and tangible results of research activities will be very enthusiastic about the researchers’ achievements,’ he said.

Commissioner Navracsics says he sees a bright future for events in coming years. ‘My vision is to make it as open as possible, to go outside the buildings, to make really comprehensive and really popular events and to link all the other events on the same night in every European city … and to develop it into one cohesive series of events with a single message.’

The museum programme manager

Stephen Roberts, Natural History Museum, London, UK

Image courtesy of Stephen Roberts

As a member of the public programmes team at London’s Natural History Museum, Stephen Roberts is used to working to generate public interest in science, but he says that European Researchers’ Night offers a great opportunity to get the scientists involved too.

‘We bring together 300 or 400 researchers and scientists who normally work in the field or in laboratories, and connect them with a large and diverse public audience.

‘Let’s say one of our scientists might be studying mosquitoes. When chatting with that researcher, visitors often realise that actually they are not the stereotypical scientist, but also that what they’re doing is actually highly relevant to people’s lives. Because suddenly we’re thinking about mosquitoes not just as an irritation on holiday but as a critical pollinator as well. It’s about connecting human beings and understanding the relevance of that scientific work to all of us.’

‘We’ve had some wonderful feedback from visitors. Some of them make me chuckle, but “They’re just like normal people”, is the kind of headline quote we want to see. People realise that scientists are people doing really amazing, relevant work and they’re not obscure, bearded boffins.’

He points to events such as a live link-up with researchers in a fjord in Sweden where the public got to ask researchers questions as they embarked on a night dive as a particular highlight of the museum’s last six years’ involvement in European Researchers’ Night. He also says that they focus on getting as broad an audience as possible, including working with schools to engage disadvantaged children in science.

The organiser

Giovanni Mazzitelli, Italian Institute of Nuclear Physics, Frascati, Italy

Image credit: ThelmaCesarano

A decade ago, Giovanni Mazzitelli got together with a group of researchers to open up their nuclear physics lab, which contains one of the five particle colliders running in the world. This year he is coordinating DREAMS, an EU-funded project to set up events in 10 cities throughout Italy that include lab visits, science cafes and artistic performances.

‘Our most popular thing is the visit in the laboratory. We are very large research laboratories which are surrounded by gates that are three metres high, on which is written everywhere it is forbidden to access. So at any time it is the thing for which there are most participants. The fact that you are able to be in contact directly with the researchers is one of the added values of the events.’

He says that 10 years of science events in Frascati, which is home to a number of scientific institutions, has created a sense of pride among residents and a desire to participate.

‘Today, what happens is, if you read our social media pages on Facebook or Twitter or on our website, people really want and expect something to happen. They know what happens in the researchers’ centre, they know who the researchers around them are, they ask to organise events because this is something that they feel part of, the area. This is part of the context in which they live.

‘Most of these people are saying that direct contact with researchers is clearly making a change because they feel part of the system, they don’t feel separate. This, for me, is a great success of what we do because it means that it is a good way to change something with respect to science communication.’

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie grantee

Dr Olatz Lopez-Fernandez, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium

 Image courtesy of Olatz Lopez-Fernandez

For Dr Olatz Lopez-Fernandez from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, events like European Researchers’ Night present a rare opportunity to get out of the lab and meet the public.

‘As a researcher I am always in my lab, in my office, doing research. I share this research with my colleagues in the university, we have seminars, and also I am doing the dissemination in our scientific meetings, conferences, journals and books, but we don’t have too much opportunity to disseminate our research with the public, which is the most important.’

Dr Lopez-Fernandez was awarded a grant to run a project called TECH USE DISORDERS, which investigates addictive online behaviour such as excessive internet, gaming or social media use. On 23 September she took part in an event in Brussels to mark the 10th anniversary of European Researcher’s Night.

She says she spent the morning being quizzed by teenagers who thought they might be addicted to the internet. ‘They were worried and asking, “What can we do in order to control our video game behaviour?” I was giving them some advice in order to manage themselves better, like to do other activities in their real life not involving technology.’

Dr Lopez-Fernandez said that events such as European Researchers’ Night were a good opportunity to meet the people who her research is designed to help. ‘For me it has also been really interesting to be with these young people and help them in some way and explain a little bit about the research to them.’

The young scientist

João Pedro Estácio Gaspar Gonçalves de Araújo, Lisbon, Portugal

Image credit: EUCYS

Mathematics does not easily lend itself to public demonstrations, as João Pedro Estácio Gaspar Gonçalves de Araújo was well aware when he was invited to present a hands-on project for the public at the Science is Wonder-ful event in Brussels to mark the 10th anniversary of European Researchers’ Night. In 2014, he won first prize at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) for his work in a branch of mathematics called semigroup theory.

‘From the national science show, I have the experience that people come to my stand and I explain to them my abstract work and they don’t understand a thing. For example, two years ago in the national science show that sent me to EUCYS, there was a young scientist that returned five times to hear my explanation. In the end he came to me and said, “I have already been here five times and I still don’t understand your project.”’

However, with the help of his father, he came up with a solution. First, he expanded his previous work to show that his result always holds true, and wrote a scientific paper to show this. Then, he created computer software that allows people to generate their own version of his paper, where they show that the result holds true in specific cases.

‘What’s nice about this programme that I implemented was that it generated completely valid scientific articles which could then be submitted to scientific journals and would probably be accepted,’ he said.

He says that he enjoyed thinking of practical applications of his work that he could present to the public. ‘It was a very rewarding exercise because for the first time I had something which had an application.

'And even if (people) didn’t understand the mathematical details involved, they could already get a grasp of what it could be used for.'

European Researchers’ Night

European Researchers’ Night is a set of simultaneous events that take place each September across more than 250 cities in Europe. The idea is to bring science closer to citizens and more than one million people attend the events each year.

In 2015, European Researchers’ Night is taking place on 25 September. Events include a workshop to make masks to prevent the spread of African swine fever in Tallinn, Estonia, a scientific quiz to fund language courses for refugees in Braunschweig, Germany, and a garden full of artificially grown glass in Iasi, Romania.

The European Commission allocates a budget of EUR 8 million over two years for the events. The funding comes via the Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, which are designed to provide training and career development opportunities to talented researchers.

More info