Mentoring, networking and navigating careers

Laura Zamboni (MCS) and Diego Fazi (CSE) are two postdocs who recently navigated some major career changes. As a dual career couple from Italy, their story is akin to a game of “tag and chase.” Their career paths have led them through Europe and the United States — sometimes requiring the two to travel different roads for periods of time.

As many dual career couples are required to do, Laura and Diego found a way to turn the so-called two-body problem into opportunities to be successful not only in their distinct careers, but more importantly, successful together. Their story is a direct experience of the great possibilities arising from good mentoring, networking and passion.

As a young couple who met in college, Diego and Laura each share a desire to pursue research and experience life in the United States. Full of hope and conquering worries, they start their American journey in California, where Laura had been in contact with Professor B. Stevens and Ph.D. student, Simona Bordoni at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Through networking with Simona, Diego meets Dr. Riccardo De Salvo, and he is offered an appointment as a visiting research scholar at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech); he works there at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) project for four years.

But with Laura pursuing her graduate degree back in Europe, this meant time apart. Luckily, collaborative work with Professor Mechoso at UCLA brings Laura to California, where she and Diego can pursue their scientific interests together. Over the years she would move back and forth from Europe to the United States in pursuit of her career and educational goals; this meant making some tough choices and seeking out the advice of trusted mentors.

One such critical time was in 2009, when Diego was offered an exciting position as a postdoctoral scholar at Northwestern University. At the same time, Laura completed her Ph.D. in Environmental Fluid Mechanics from Università degli Studi di Trieste, Italy and was offered a postdoctoral position at the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, in Italy. So what do two talented scientists who have just received great offers do? This wasn’t an easy decision considering it meant being on two separate continents again — something that family members and friends who are not accustomed to the career demands of scientists did not quite understand. The two accepted their respective offers and once again, tag and chase!

While Diego was at Northwestern, Laura continued to hone her own skills, while at the same time, she kept an eye out for career opportunities. In 2010 she was awarded a DOE funded Computational Postdoctoral Fellowship with the MCS Division at Argonne. While developing her expertise in physics, atmospheric sciences and climate change, she reached out to her mentors as she began a massive undertaking working to improve models’ predictions of precipitation patterns. She credits her mentors and advisors, Professors Neelin and McWilliams at UCLA, V. Rao Kotamarthi (EVS), Tim Williams (ALCF) and Rob Jacob (MCS) for the excellent support and guidance they provided. Laura would go on to win 40 million hours at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) to investigate and explore her climate models.

During his time at Northwestern and as an environmental activist with the nonprofit group, Citizens’ Greener Evanston, Diego became interested in renewable energy; this interest developed into a passion where he began to consider a career change. He decided to speak with his advisor and mentor at Northwestern, Professor Vicky Kalogera, about his new career direction; with her support and encouragement, Diego began to network with many professors and researchers in the renewable energy field.

From within Argonne, Laura started scouting for opportunities, and in June 2011, she invited Diego to attend Argonne’s “Future States” lecture on alternative fuels, given by Dr. Mark Petri (EESA). Diego decided to approach the speaker at the end of the lecture and Mark gave his availability to meet on multiple occasions, to discuss about different research possibilities connected to renewable energy at Argonne. Diego also found help from unexpected sources; his fellow activist and sustainable architect Nathan Kipnis put him in touch with the Director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), Dr. George Crabtree (MSD). George not only connected Diego with several scientists in the renewable energy field at Argonne, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the University of Chicago (UC), but he accompanied Diego to informal meetings with them. Many encouraged him to pursue his career change, a few did not, but Diego kept trying.

Diego found out the power of networking when, through George, he came in contact with Dr. Pam Sydelko (EESA); further interaction with Pam allowed him to meet Jessica Polos at the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago who, in turn, put Diego in touch with former Argonne Director, Professor Robert Rosner.

In the end, though, it was Laura who found the right connection for Diego; at a Postdoc lunch seminar she decided to approach the speaker, Dr. David Tiede (CSE), a leading specialist and researcher in solar cell technology, explaining Diego’s intentions and asking if he would be available to meet with him. With David, Diego discussed his career goals and possible research opportunities at Argonne; his idea of applying computational techniques used in gravitational-wave data analysis to the problem of the structural characterization of solar fuel catalysts sparked David’s interest and today Diego is a postdoctoral appointee in the Chemical Sciences and Engineering (CSE) Division.

With all the time spent apart and then together and then apart again, how did Laura and Diego “make it work?” From the technical end, intercontinental flights and video calls kept the two connected. But more than that, they had the support of each other. They sought input from leaders in their respective fields and identified individuals who were good mentors, including Kawtar Hafidi (PHY) and Joe Bernstein (CEPA) at Argonne and advisors from their respective schools.

Their career transitions took a great deal of soul-searching and outreach. Both needed to get outside their comfort zones and network with mentors and form new friendships and associations. Indeed, by doing a lot of footwork to seek out the ideal path to pursue his research, Diego was able to make a major career transition. “I could not hope for a better end to this story,” says Diego. “I am working in an amazing group with a great supervisor who’s also a great mentor.” Diego’s ability to openly express his career ambitions together with the support of great mentors like Vicky Kalogera at Northwestern, George Crabtree (MSD), Mark Petri (EESA) and David Tiede (CSE), allowed him to explore new opportunities and reach his goals.

Laura also undertook many life changes over a short period of time. She found throughout her travels and studies that her openness and honesty with her mentors and advisors was most important. “The very first time is the toughest,” says Laura. “I soon realized that my advisor was able to provide me with tailored suggestions, comments and advice only if I was open with my goals.” Laurass mentors (both informal and formal) and collaborators, who include Tim Williams (ALCF), Maria Caddeau and Rob Jacob (MCS) have helped expand her research vision and point out strengths, which she may not have recognized without having conversations.

While Laura and Diego undertook major research projects and career transitions they were able to make these changes because they were both flexible and open to change. The pair credits their mentors with helping them navigate their careers. Here at Argonne, Laura and Diego have found that networking with people at seminars and getting involved with organizations has helped bring to light opportunities that they otherwise would have missed. Laura relates how attending the Women in Science and Technology (WIST) First Friday Forum gave her ideas on how to approach potential mentors and maximize her mentor’s time.

Something as simple as meeting for a cup of coffee or sharing an interesting article with a mentor can spark new ideas and build confidence. For dual career and culturally diverse couples such as Laura and Diego, this can mean a world of difference in being successful and happy in new fields and a new country. Laura and Diego are now part of the Board of the Postdoctoral Society of Argonne. They are happy to share their experiences and thoughts about career changes, mentoring and double career situations.

Diego Fazi received both his “Laurea” Masters of Science and his Ph.D. in Physics from the Università degli Studi di Bologna, Italy. Currently Diego is using Markov-Chain Monte Carlo techniques coupled with Pair Distribution Function analysis to compare experimental high-energy X-ray scattering data with theoretical models of water-splitting solar photo-catalysts. His goal is to characterize the catalysts’ molecular structure and improve the efficiency of hydrogen production from artificial photosynthesis.

Laura Zamboni received her “Laurea” Masters of Science in Physics from the Università degli Studi di Bologna and her Ph.D. in Environmental Fluid Mechanics from Università degli Studi di Trieste. Currently she is using Intrepid at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility to investigate the sensitivity and uncertainty of precipitation in climate models. Using high-resolution models, her research is furthering the risk assessments and water management worldwide. Laura is also expanding scientific knowledge and understanding of processes in cloud formation and precipitation.

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