Silvia Peppoloni

Sector: Government

Field: Science

Occupation: Researcher

Meet Silvia Peppoloni, Researcher, International Association for Promoting Geoethics (click here for full audio interview).

Tell me your earliest memory of being interested in science.

In general, since I was a child, I had a fairly rational approach to things, driven by a great curiosity to understand how the world worked, an attitude that pushed me to ask myself the causes that were behind the phenomena.

I can tell you a funny memory that dates back to when I was about six years old. I was playing with the water that flowed from the tap and I just couldn’t understand where the water came from and where it ended up once it entered the drain hole. At the same time, I was perfectly aware that I did not have the ability to understand at that moment, but I was sure that over the years I would have acquired that competence. So, I thought of taking some water from the tap and closing it tightly in a glass bottle. Then I put a label on it where I wrote day, month and year. And finally, I swore solemnly not to open that little bottle until I was capable of analyzing its content and maybe to understand its origin.  The funny thing is that I still have that bottle, I never opened it and even today, when I recall that episode, I can’t help but laugh at me. But definitely, I recognize in that little girl something that still characterizes me, that is a great curiosity, the tendency of posing myself in front of a phenomenon in a way that can be defined “scientific”, to get to the truth of things.

Explain the steps you took to have a career path in academia or research? Please include your education.

At the beginning of my studies, when I was a teenager, I was fascinated by humanities: philosophy, art, the classical ancient world, and the beauty of the Italian language were my main interests. Moreover, from the age of eight, I devoted myself to the study of the piano. Thus, I opted for the secondary school, which in Italy is called “classical high school”, centered on disciplines such as Latin, Greek, history, art and philosophy …. But at the same time, I could not escape from the great amazement (and even fear) that natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, aroused in me. So, at the end of secondary school, when the time came to choose a course of study at the university. I chose to study Earth sciences. Although disciplines such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry were definitely penalized in the humanities school, it was very easily for me to recover my gaps with respect to the students coming from the scientific school. Indeed, sometimes, when I had to solve a mathematical equation, it seemed to me that my brain used the same logical strategies that it used to translate a Greek or Latin text.

Today, years later, I recognize that a humanities background represents an additional resource for anyone, even for those who want to dedicate their lives to scientific studies. My experience at the university was very positive: professors were capable of transferring to me the love for the study of natural dynamics and processes of the Earth, the wonder for the evolution of life, but also the rigor of the scientific method and the importance of developing rigorous technical tools to investigate and understand how the planet works. My degree and my PhD were focused on the study of geomorphological processes, on geological landscape forms, on river dynamics and morphotectonics.

But, over time, I felt the need to give more concrete outputs to my knowledge. Slowly, I became convinced that geoscience knowledge goes beyond the simple intellectual satisfaction and love for science. The specific knowledge and skills that I was building for my career, could have clear repercussions on society and the environment. Thus, I turned my interest to studies on geological hazards and risks and to their immediate applications, such as seismic microzonation, and in general, the study of the geological vulnerability of inhabited centers. These have been and are my research fields at the Italian Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, where I have worked since 1999. During my work, I became increasingly aware that the geoscience activity involves great responsibilities and the duty of using our knowledge to best serve public good. These are the reasons that led me to develop geoethics, which today represents my main scientific activity. I felt the urgent need for an ethical and social reflection on geosciences practice and research. Finally, only a few years ago,  I added to my career the activity of the geoscience dissemination, through the cooperation with Italian newspapers and the publication of books that meet interests, needs and concerns of the general public.

What were some challenges or obstacles you had to overcome to pursue your career choices?

I think that sometimes the greatest obstacles to career are built by us, whenever we have no confidence in ourselves, every time we give in to a difficulty, every time we exclude a possible path considering it too difficult for us. But undoubtedly, there are external circumstances that can hinder a person’s career path. As far as I am concerned, the biggest obstacle I encountered was basically caused by the envy of a group of colleagues, who perceived the efforts and interests I put in my scientific activity as a threat, an unwelcome interference in what they probably considered their own field of action. In particular, one of those colleagues, a senior scientist, instead of dealing with me in a professionally correct way, started to defame my reputation worldwide. And this continued for years, in the complete silence and sometimes with the connivance of his closer followers. My fault was having started to develop my own ideas in that field they probably believed to be their exclusive sphere of competence. At that time, 10 years ago, I was at the beginning of my career and they were senior scientists. And today, years later, I realize that can be difficult for a young scientist to contrast similar pressures and intimidations.

In my case, an excessive respect for the old age of this person prevented me to denounce his absurd behavior in front of the scientific community, although every day I received dozens of emails with insults and threats and my life was becoming a hell. The support of many colleagues, who took my side, helped me to go ahead, to not let myself be intimidated. For those who are insecure by character, obstacles can completely block actions. I think that any obstacle can become a mountain if determination and self-confidence are missing. On the contrary, many difficulties can be overcome if we strongly believe that what we are doing is right. And fortunately, on our career path we meet many open, honest colleagues, ready to share that path. Opening up to others is fundamental in the work of a researcher: sharing ideas and results, promoting scientific debate and comparing honestly our point of view with different visions, is the best way to grow and improve ourselves.

What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work?

In general, when I approach a new job, I try to use all my knowledge and skills, not only scientific, but also organizational and managerial knowledge, with the aim to plan the phases in which to articulate that activity and assign tasks, focusing on subject of study, methods, objectives to be achieved. In particular, I try to make use of my past experiences, accompanied by a good dose of common sense. The beginning of an activity is the moment in which all our knowledge can help us, even the knowledge apparently further from the specific field of our competences. Going forward in the activity, obviously I need to apply more strictly scientific methods and tools, specific for that research subject, both technical and theoretical, that are appropriate to develop new knowledge and results. Anyway, every time it seems to me that all the things that I have learned over the years, none excluded, are useful for achieving the goal, even those lying in some forgotten part of my brain.

Describe the most exciting part of your research or teaching.

Undoubtedly the most exciting part of my scientific activity is represented by the phase in which my team and I must confront ourselves with others, the phase in which we open ourselves to the scientific debate. Once the results of a study are known, they are ready to be shared with the scientific community through the publication. At this point, you can have positive or negative feedback, which in any case remain valuable and indispensable opportunities for scientific improvement: in the first case they are cause of great satisfaction, in the second one they are surely an opportunity for a scientific growth. In fact, a criticism leads us to re-examine and verify our reasons, to support them if we confirm their correctness or to review them if we have made mistakes. That’s the best moment of my scientific research activity, the moment in which I have to go beyond my possible rigidities.

Describe the most discouraging part of your research or teaching and how do you overcome this limitation.

In my experience, the most discouraging moment of the research is when the interlocutors, with whom I compare my work, are not willing to listen my point of view, showing a non-constructive attitude or even an attitude of total closure. When I’m not free to express my idea, or worse when external pressures are exercised on me, such as to prevent me from acting frankly, that is the moment of greater frustration. How to behave in these circumstances? It is difficult to remain open and well-disposed, but I believe that striving to find a dialogue is always the solution that in the long term can re-activate reciprocity.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career?

I would have wished to meet someone who would tell me how to optimize my time and efforts, which activities did not deserve my energies and which ones could open important opportunities for me. A mentor, capable of transferring a long-term vision, is an indispensable figure for a young scientist who wishes to undertake research, especially in a field such as geosciences, which combine theoretical and practical aspects and need continuous updating.

What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

I’m convinced that science needs above all credible people and that our future on this planet needs an assumption of responsibility by all, without exception, scientists included. So, my advice for students who are approaching a career in Earth and space sciences is to always be true, to be the first to believe in what they are doing, to always ask themselves about their duties and responsibilities, and to be capable of combining their ideals with the concreteness of our wonderful and beloved geosciences.