"I think the ability to express my creativity – an essential ingredient in research and education – is what makes me love what I do the most."
Where did you grow up? Were you always interested in your current field?
I grew up in northern Italy, in a beautiful countryside hilly region between the western Alps and the sea. I have been interested in science and mathematics since as far ago as I can remember. As a child (and still today), I was particularly amazed by things happening in the kitchen: why some fruits, vegs and teas juices change their colour when adding lemon, vinegar, bicarbonate? Why salt dissolves in some liquids and not in others? Why can you melt and “unmelt” chocolate but not cook and “uncook” an egg? Around 12 years old, at school we learnt about how water molecules rearrange during phase transitions, that is when going from gas to liquid to solid and back. That pretty ball and stick representation of a water molecule took my heart, with its two white hydrogen and one red oxygen atoms, and I decided that I wanted to be a chemist.
Are you working from home? If so, how’s it going?
I have been on maternity leave throughout the pandemic, and will be back at work in a couple of months. At first I felt lucky: I am having a career break during a time that would most likely have been of low productivity anyway. Now I feel a bit scared about going back to work and finding myself in an environment with setups that I am totally unfamiliar with. I am confident it will be a lot better than I expect, though.
While at home, I took the chance of my daughter being at home as well to develop STEAM activities and share them through social media. We called our project “The House of Fun”, as we really had fun, and we shared our material to help supporting families with young children during the lockdown (https://raffademichelis.wixsite.com/thehouseoffun). We could reach our friends, colleagues, local community, and our families and friends in Europe, and it has been our way to encourage everyone (and ourselves) to remain positive.
Do you have kids/pets at home that are helping/hindering?
I have a nearly 4-year old daughter and a 6-month old baby. They certainly help with keeping the mood up, but working from home would never have been possible.
What projects are you working on?
I study how minerals form in systems as diverse as coral reefs and the human body, and how they interact with various chemicals. I do so by developing virtual models able to reveal the atomic details of mineral growth and reactivity. Developing these virtual models is quite demanding in terms of resources, that is why I am a massive user of our national supercomputing facilities at NCI and Pawsey. My goal is learning how to harness and mimic the rich chemistry observed in our environment, which can help addressing numerous challenges. For example, my work can offer insights into the mechanics of carbon dioxide sequestration and coral reefs preservation; how kidney stones, bones and shells form; and how to control scale formation in industry.
I also contribute to develop software and computational tools for the simulation of minerals that are used by many academic and non-academic research laboratories worldwide.
What do you want people to know about the work that you do?
My virtual models reveal fundamental details (i.e. how atoms and molecules move, interact, and rearrange) that are the key to learn controlling mineralization. These atomic details are not accessible through experiments and provide information that helps understanding complex chemical reactions. They basically bridge the gap between what we know from observations and what actually occurs at the atomic scale.
Why do you love what you do?
It is difficult to justify something you love. I think the ability to express my creativity – an essential ingredient in research and education – is what makes me love what I do the most. Also, my job is just the perfect combination of things I am passionate about: science, education, communication, and human interactions.
Something I find particularly motivating is the never ending learning opportunities that my job offers, together with the collaborative aspect of science: intercultural, international, and personally enriching.
What is one specific thing that you have achieved (research or otherwise) that you are most proud of?
Over the years, I have matured the ability to successfully and productively interact with people of diverse cultural and professional backgrounds. I have achieved this through engaging in a variety of activities, including organising conferences, teaching, delivering presentations, initiating networks, designing and delivering outreach activities to children and the broad community. It has been a lot of work, partly done in my free time as a volunteer, but investing in human interactions always pays back.