Ethics, health, physics of ultra-fast processes, space exploration, energy and sustainability: these are just some of the themes pursued by young researchers at Politecnico di Milano, in an increasingly central perspective of responsible research and the impact of technologies in society.
The European Commission in particular is one of the major allies of university research in this sense and offers various tools for the recruitment of young and talented researchers with an international profile. One of the most important tool is the “Marie Curie Individual Fellowship” grants: research grants dedicated to young researchers who deal with crucial issues for society.
Since 2014, through the European Horizon 2020 program, Politecnico has welcomed 24 MSCA fellows. Six of them will begin their project at Politecnico in 2021: let’s learn more about them.
What does it mean to be a subject in the 21st century? Diletta De Cristofaro, 34 years old, wonders. Hers project, SCRAPS: writing the Sleep CRisis: 24/7 cAPitalism and neoliberal Subjectivity, will study what doctors and psychologists around the world call the "sleep crisis". The researcher will analyze works of fiction, nonfiction and digital culture to investigate the impact of the times of productivity on health and the relationship between individual health and neoliberal ideologies.
Its base will be the META, a research group of Politecnico that deals with philosophical, epistemological, ethical and social issues related to the processes of science, technology and innovation.
De Cristofaro has a degree in philosophy in Milan and a doctorate in American studies in England, where she worked for 10 years before arriving at Politecnico: "it's the right place to explore the relationship between human beings and technology - comments De Cristofaro - fundamental relationship of our identities ".
She is one of the researchers who have leaned on the MSCA Master Class of Politecnico, a path that supports the best post-docs from all over the world who want to apply for a Marie Curie grant and choose Politecnico as host institution: "it was a ' priceless opportunity. Through this masterclass, I developed a deeper understanding of the MSCA application and assessment process and learned the best tips and strategies that helped me shape a successful application, ”commented the researcher.
Michele Loi also comes from a humanistic background: he is 42 years old, with a degree in philosophy in Cagliari and a doctorate from Luiss in Rome. For 5 years In Switzerland, first working in ETH Zurich and then at the University of Zurich, he has been dealing with ethics applied to data, in particular medical data, big data and algorithms.
“Data is not everything - comments Loi. The way you look at the data leads to different conclusions. And it is not based only on scientific but also moral considerations. It is our ideas, our values that tell us how to read the data to come up with a judgment on the algorithm's fairness.
"The debate is particularly relevant in reference to clinical care, where machine learning algorithms have been used to improve diagnoses, therapeutic choices and, in general, the actions of the health system. Loi's MSCA project will focus on this: "Fair predictions in health".
In fact, since automatic learning models depend on historically collected information, comments that have suffered or suffer structural discrimination risk further damage due to inaccurate projections which, for example, can lead to unfair choices in the allocation of resources, reinforcing inequalities in access to health services.
“Il mio obiettivo è quello di sviluppare un framework di lavoro condiviso che permetta di tradurre alcuni assunti morali in vincoli di programmazione. Questi assunti morali devono essere resi espliciti e comunicati in modo comprensibile agli stakeholders. Dovremo identificare una serie di problemi di equità nei modelli utilizzati, ad esempio, per prevedere come un paziente reagirà ad una cura e capire come collegare alcuni principi etici con alcune formulazioni matematiche tipiche della computer science.
Vorrei anche lavorare alla costituzione di un “Fairness Lab”, un laboratorio che visualizzi i possibili significati e modi diversi di leggere i dati sotto la guida di principi etici. Per questo ho scelto il Poli: mi sono reso conto che, per poter dare un reale contributo alla società, da filosofo mi devo confrontare con persone che si occupano di matematica e statistica. Oggi non è possibile fare etica senza confrontarsi con ciò che è matematicamente impossibile”.
Maurizio Reduzzi, 33, Physical Engineering Alumnus and former PhD student of Politecnico, has sinced worked at UC Berkeley, California, and at ICFO - The Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona. He has always dealt with the physics of ultra-fast processes (in particular attosecond science), a discipline in which Politecnico is historically at the forefront.
This interest brought Reduzzi back to his Alma Mater with an MSCA grant for the HETRUSQ project: HETeRoaromatic biomolecules Ultrafast Spectroscopy in liQuids. He will work with the group of prof. Nisoli (we talked about his ERC project, Tomatto, in issue 9 of MAP).
“Tomatto deals with studying charge transfer processes on a very short time scale (from a few femtoseconds to a few tens of attoseconds) in organic matter”, explains Reduzzi. "With HETRUSQ I will use similar techniques, with the aim of exploring the interaction, on the same extreme temporal streams as TOMATTO, between molecules and their natural surrounding environment, water".
The experiments will mainly concern heteroaromatic molecules, which constitute the fundamental components of DNA and a large part of organic matter. The final step will be to compare the results of the studies in a gaseous state with those in a liquid environment, to which the molecules react.
"The development of optical technology will be crucial, which will allow us to synthesize light pulses tunable in frequency in the ultraviolet state of the art (lasting a few femtoseconds). The integration of this light source with a monochromator for the extreme ultraviolet (a very advanced instrument already present in the laboratories of Prof. Nisoli) will allow time-resolved spectroscopy studies that have never been carried out before".
Armando Genco, 32, studied materials engineering at the University of Salento, has obtained a PHD at the Research Center for Nanotechnologies in Lecce and has completed his post-doc at the University of Sheffield.
He is an expert in polaritons, particles composed of a photon and an exciton (ie an electron energetically excited in a luminescent material) which, in very particular conditions within micro- or nanometer-sized devices can bind.
“This type of condition is called a strong coupling regime,” explains Genco. "It has characteristics that can be exploited to obtain coherent light sources (lasers) with innovative and low-threshold materials, which require very little energy: the potential repercussions in the world of telecommunications and computing, for example, are very promising both in terms of speed and environmental impact ".
Genco's MSCA project, ENOSIS: ENhancing and prObing Strong light-matter Interactions in 2D materials by ultrafaSt optical techniques, will study the properties of 2D materials (materials with a thickness of a few atoms). In particular the coupling between 2 different layers of these materials in relation to the possibility of creating the conditions for the emission of polaritons. "In a strong coupling regime and as a function of the twist angle (i.e. reciprocal torsion), these bi-layers can create very favorable conditions for producing coherent light through polaritons. To move forward in my research I needed a perspective in the field of ultrafast spectroscopy, to look at what happens to electrons and photons a few tens of femtoseconds after coupling, and the group of prof. Cerullo at Politecnico is at the forefront in this field ".
Today still few groups of research in the world have studied 2D materials with "twisted" angles and specific characterization techniques are needed for these devices. In order to study them, Genco will rely on the "hyperspectral imaging" technique (using a Politecnico patent), which allows to obtain a spectral analysis of the light for each single wavelength almost simultaneously for each point of the analyzed sample.
Mirko Trisolini, 32, deals with the dynamics of celestial bodies, satellites and space debris, in particular the motion of fragments and particles around minor bodies of our Solar System, such as asteroids and comets.
After graduating from the University of Pisa and gaining a Phd. from the University of Southampton, he began collaborating with Prof. Colombo's research group at Politecnico, where he obtained a post-doc and laid the foundations for the MSCA project CRADLE (Collecting Asteroid-Orbiting Samples: enabling a safer, sustainable, and autonomous exploration of asteroids).
"I chose Politecnico as host institution for the experience and technical background of the research group in which I work and the deep-rooted collaborations, including international ones, to which he has access". Trisolini, in fact, will work with the University of Padua and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) to develop an innovative and autonomous system for the extraction of rare and precious materials that could be found inside asteroids and comets.
"Being able to explore the composition of these celestial bodies will allow us to improve our knowledge of the Solar System, but also to learn how to exploit the resources of space: mineral resources, for example, but also vital for future manned missions, such as water that it could be under the surface ”.
The intermediate step of the project will lead Trisolini to develop more precise models for the collection and behavior in orbit of materials extractable from asteroids (with image processing techniques and reconstruction of the characteristics of the particles). The development of these models and algorithms will help improve the autonomy of satellites for long-range missions.
One of the greatest challenges of our time is energy transition and especially implementing ‘energy smart’ chemical manufacturing processes. Mark Bajada, 30, is working with goal in mind: he holds a degree in chemistry at the University of Malta and a master in energy engineering at Cambridge, where he is continuing his PHD, focusing on artificial photosynthesis (generational solar fuels).
His MSCA project, SSEFR: Single-Site Electrocatalytic Flow Reactor for C-C Coupling, aims at identifying and creating new materials capable of storing energy to solve intermittency problems associated with renewable energy.
“The excess supply could be directed and stored in a stable chemical bond. However, to achieve this goal, efficient and selective electrocatalysts are needed”. Bajada will work on single-site catalysis an interesting and new research field.
The first objective will be the design, development and understanding of precious-metal-free single-site electrocatalytic systems that can be produced with cheap and available materials. The following step will be to engineer and manufacture catalytic flow reactors that use this type of fuel instead of conventional electrochemical cells, to obtain economical energy from renewable sources and without the risk of fluctuating availability.
"I chose Politecnico di Milano for its excellent reputation: I am interested in Italian culture and this is the best place for what I want to develop".