Women in STEM: dr. Dorotea

dr. Dorotea, scientist and artist

My 22nd guest is dr. Dorotea, an Italian medical biotechnologist, working in Vienna and a talented artist.

Hi @my_art_and_science! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

Hi! I’m Dorotea Fracchiolla, originally from Ruvo di Puglia in the Province of Bari, South Italy. I am a medical Biotechnologist by education and pursued my studies at the Cattolica University in Rome and later on at the University of Bari. I moved to Vienna (Austria) in 2013 for my Doctoral studies at the University of Vienna at the Institute of Max Perutz Labs. I graduated in 2017 with a PhD in Molecular Biology and now have just completed my first round of PostDoctoral training.

When did you start your Instagram account and your blog? How did you get the idea?

I have started my Social Networks outcoming shortly before the beginning of April 2020, when I have launched my very own website http://www.my-art-science.com. I decided to combine my scientific education and my long standing passion for Art into one package: Art&Science. I chose to found my own website to have my creative corner where curious people or scientists can come and visit me. All my social accounts are a way to reach out to colleagues all over the world, scientists as potential collaborators and introduce myself to them. Art&Science is also for people not directly involved in science but with a genuine interest in nature. I hope many people can approach science through my illustrations and that scientists find useful to look at the molecular world from somebody’s else point of view. I want to help them visualise their ideas or in other words: make their ideas visible.

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life?

My private life is mainly made of hobbies like drawing, crafting, walking or cooking. All things to try out alone or in good company. When I can, I come home to Italy visiting my family and meeting friends. There, I’m always up for a swim in the sea, which I miss a lot in Vienna, and a hike in our National Park Alta Murgia. During my free time, the matters and the questions related to Lab work stay in the background of my head and thoughts rearrange while doing other things. Then, all at a sudden, concrete ideas pop up and the obvious solution is there. I think it is important to shuffle between science and other things to keep both moving forward and sustain each other. 

During your academic studies how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

I had many women colleagues over the years of education. Somehow medical research has a big attraction for the female sex, but many male colleagues were also there, of course. Why many women? I don’t know, but obviously they were attracted by understanding biology. I think this is very natural, it can happen to men and women, as the main driver of this job is curiosity. And the mankind is curious, luckily. This drove our Evolution.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar or artist because you are a woman?

Never, or if it ever happened I didn’t realise it. I’m usually an outspoken person: if I have a problem I’ll say it. Luckily, I have always been treated in a fair way and this happened because I always encountered great mentors on my way.

How did you become passionate about science?

My very passion are foreign languages: somehow my brain feels attracted by the foreign sound and when I hear any, I can follow for hours trying to decode what is being said. I can learn them easily and I think this made me love them at first. They give me goose bumps. When I was a teen, I learned English trying to write down the lyrics of famous songs. Rap music style was the most enlightening one: going after the rhythm, words aligned one after the other and with few msec of delay the translation would come up and the overall meaning build up. The decoding fascinates me. 
Searching the detail and putting together the big picture is also the process of science. More about science: I’ve always been a curious person and often am very alert of the world around me. I feel a bond with nature and I’m inspired by its complex simplicity. There is a person during my education that helped me develop towards a more conscious researcher approach: my Professor of Physics at High School. Her approach to formulas and problem solving was a key factor: always understand what a formula says, no need to learn it by memory. I will never forget her lesson on the Huygens principles when we started looking at waves in a water bath being produced by one and then two pins picking into it. Constructive and destructing interference built up and we were asked to describe what we saw. For the first time, I spoke out loud Huygens principals without even knowing him and about their existence. She always made me start from collecting observations to then derive general principles.Also, as a kid I spent a lot of time wondering around in my grandfather’s fields observing nature there: insects, birds, flowers, fruits hanging from trees. I liked to follow their evolution during seasons and see how they changed. My grandfather knew his plants very well and how to treat them, but he didn’t learn it on books. I liked to connect this to principles I had studied at school. Then, I liked to ask questions to him and my father and listening. Probably, this also helped me in growing my critical thinking. And over time, I discovered that this is what it takes being a scientist so, here I am.

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

I’m a molecular biologist and a biochemist. In our Laboratory at Max Perutz Labs, we study a process called Autophagy, a term derived from the Greek words ‘auto’= self and ‘phagy’= eat. It describes the ability of the cell to eat parts of itself for survival in emergency situations, like lack of nutrients. In particular, in the last seven years I have been working on the in vitro reconstitution of some steps of this process using purified proteins and synthetic lipids. In a way, the projects I have been involved in have pretty much matched my inclination of looking at the details. Building the various parts together was like playing a construction work and getting the whole machinery going on its own was always an amazing moment! Nature is inherently perfect and our discoveries showed us exactly this! 

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in STEM?

Based on my experience, I’d say try to do what inspires you, what you love. If you happen to be doing something you didn’t really plan to do before, take the best out of it and use it as a growth experience. Loving something does not make us good in it, by default. Working in scientific and technological environments requires a lot of effort and the will to study hard. Learn how your brain works and find a method that works best for you. Keep in mind that the goal is not to show others that you seem to be able to do something, but to be sure with yourself that you got it, first. This will give you confidence, will make you feel secure of your own steps and will allow you to drive discoveries.

Find Dorotea on her socials:
Facebook: Art&Science
Twitter: @DoroteaArt
Ig: my_art_and_science
LinkedIn: Dorotea Fracchiolla


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