Tiziana used to work on electron microscopy of nuclear ceramic materials, now she is dedicating her early retirement to helping children understand quantum physics through her illustrated series: Millie Micro Nano Pico.
What do you do on an average workday? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?
Tiziana holding Millie, the cat
Since I stopped working full time, I no longer have an average workday. I’m very lucky because I can do more of what I am passionate about.
One of my projects is making quantum physics appealing to younger children. I spent a few years writing and illustrating the adventures of Millie, a very curious pussycat, in the sub-atomic world. Millie uses the magic words "Millie micro nano pico" to become so small that she can play with elementary particles, such as electrons, photons, neutrinos. These books are for primary school children. I started the project because I found it outrageous that quantum physics is more than 100 years old, and that it’s the basis of all modern technology, but it’s still only taught at university to very few people.
At the moment, I am designing educational activities that use demonstrations and experiments to complement each book.
Another of my activities is to teach women how to use their own computers and phones better. My mother suffered from isolation due to the digital divide, so I decided to support mature women who are missing out on technology.
What did you study at school? And after high school? I ako koe i te aha i te kura? I aha koe whai muri i te kura tuarua?
Tiziana holding homemade cooking, one of the hobbies she enjoys
I was born in Italy and I went to school there. Because I loved maths, I went to a scientific high school. However, in Italy, humanities are extremely important, so on top of maths, physics, chemistry, biology etc., I had to study Italian, Latin, English, history, philosophy and art history. It was a burden at the time, but now I am really glad I had such an extensive education.
After high school I decided to enrol at a very prestigious university and engineering school in Milan, called Politecnico di Milano, to become a nuclear engineer. It was 1977 and that university was a male stronghold. The general view was that girls didn’t go there unless they were trying to marry an engineer. People told me that I was very brave, but they meant insane. However, I was determined to show that I could be as good or even better than a boy, which was extremely motivating. We were organised in groups of 400 students and in my group, there were only 7 girls.
Once lectures started, I realised that it really was a boy-only university because there were no women's toilets. One of the hardest things for me was using the male toilets. Lecturers expected more from female students because they didn’t want to be accused of favouritism. After five years only two of us graduated.
Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?
Tiziana at the age of 4 in Pisa
I am very glad that I had an education in both science and technology, even though, once I left Italy, I realised that everything I knew was only theoretical. It’s quite sad, but unfortunately in Italy stealing is a very common activity, so in my universities, all labs were essentially off-limits to prevent instruments from being stolen. Most of what I studied has been relevant to my work, but I still notice that I tend to look at mathematical formulas to understand how something works instead of the other way around.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now? He aha āu kupu hei āwhina i ngā rangatahi wahine e whakaaro ana ki tā rātou mahi mō te wā kei mua i te aroaro?
Girls can do anything and it’s important not to accept compromises when starting a career. Strong motivation and a commitment to what you love will save you from the most unpleasant situations. During my scientific career, some people thought that I was the cleaner and once a male colleague told me to go home and be a wife instead of stealing a man’s job. When I was working in IT, visitors always thought I was the receptionist. I am sure things are much better now. Young women are more assertive and inclusiveness and diversity are finally undermining the patriarchal rules. However, the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling are still a reality, so equality is still a work-in-progress.
What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?
Tiziana smiling with a toddler on her lap
I did my masters in one of the Joint Research Centres of the European Community, and it was extremely exciting to be amongst scientists from all over Europe. My research project was the study of materials for nuclear fusion reactors. I loved it and I decided that science was what I wanted to do.
As appreciation for my work there, the European Community awarded me with a scholarship to do a Materials Science PhD in Paris. I spent three years in a lab of the French Commission for Atomic Energy created by the Nobel Prize laureate, Irène Joliot-Curie, daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, and her husband. That’s where I learnt how to use a transmission electron microscope to study the radiation damage in ceramic materials used in nuclear reactors.
After my PhD, I worked at the Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, where I used extremely powerful electron microscopes to study ceramic materials for mechanical and electronics applications. It was amazing because I was able to study how atoms organise themselves in different materials. Very often the macroscopic properties of a material are determined by tiny defects in their crystals that are only visible under an electron microscope.
In 1993, I came to New Zealand, and I started working for the superconductivity team of Industrial Research in Lower Hutt, which is currently the Robinson Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington. Electron microscopy was an essential tool to study superconductivity, but the microscopes available in the country were not good enough. Luckily, I was able to go back to Switzerland once a year to get all my experimental work done. When I was there, I had to work at night, so as not to disturb other scientists, but I didn’t mind because I loved what I was doing so much.
I wrote a number of proposals to get funds for a new microscope for Industrial Research, but they were never successful because transmission electron microscopes cost over a million dollars and there wasn’t that kind of money at the time. For me, it became essential to be able to work in the country because I had a daughter and going to Switzerland was no longer an option.
Ten years later, I was glad to hear that Victoria University of Wellington bought a microscope, but by then I had abandoned scientific research and converted to IT. It was too frustrating to be an electron microscopist without a microscope so I had looked around for something else to do. It was the end of the ’90s and the “dot.com revolution” was in full swing, so I decided to become a web developer. I taught myself the Java programming language, obtained certification, and found an exciting job at Solnet Solutions in Wellington. Working for them, I had the opportunity to contribute to important web applications for different government departments.
Around ten years ago I was made redundant and since then I have been working from home as an IT consultant. This gives me plenty of spare time for writing and illustrating Millie’s books.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand? He aha a STEM (pūtaiao, hangarau, pūkaha, pāngarau) e whai take ana ki Aotearoa?
Millie in front of a computer with the book Millie micro nano pico on the screen
I think engaging in STEM is important not only in New Zealand but everywhere because STEM disciplines pervade our daily life. STEM should be introduced at an early age and be given more weight at all levels of education. When my daughter was at secondary school, the focus was essentially on written words even in science. I was sad to see that she was essentially spoon-fed with “scientific” notions which killed her enthusiasm. STEM is about curiosity, observation, experimentation, discovery, critical thinking and problem solving, which are essential skills for everybody.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?
I think that having more women working in STEM fields will finally break the gender stereotype. There is absolutely no evidence that boys are better than girls at maths and science. That’s simply a strong and deeply rooted prejudice, which has created a self-perpetuating vicious circle. To make it worse, there is also the widespread view that science and in particular physics and engineering is for “nerds”. It’s awful to see both those damaging stereotypes reinforced by very popular sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory.
Tiziana was a materials scientist and later a software developer. Currently, she is dedicating her early retirement to promote an understanding of quantum physics in primary school through the Millie Micro Nano Pico series of illustrated stories. Connect with Tiziana on LinkedIn
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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