Public Engagement Activity at Milan University

On 22nd May 2019, I provided a seminar to an audience of 100 chemistry students during my secondment at Milan University. It was my first time presenting such a long talk (one hour and a half) to such a large audience. I began by talking about the molecular universe. I explained how molecules are widespread and are responsible for the formation of galaxies, stars, planets, and even complex organic species such as myself, and the students. I illustrated some of the various chemical reactions that take place in the interstellar medium, highlighting the synergy between laboratory experiments, theory and observations in furthering our understanding of the universe. I then went on to talk about the EUROPAH network, and what it means to be an Early Stage Researcher (ESR) in an Innovative Training Network.

During the coffee break, several students approached me with questions on what it takes to become an astrochemist, and how the skill set of a chemist may contribute to the growth of astronomy. This made me realise that although astrochemistry is not a commonly taught subject in most chemistry courses, it has mass appeal to those studying chemistry. The students seemed genuinely interested and fascinated by the field.

After the break, I ended my seminar by going into a bit more detail about my own research. In particular, I discussed how quantum chemistry can shed light on important processes that occur in space, such as the formation of molecular hydrogen and the building blocks of life that we detect in meteorites and asteroids.

Something that stood out to me was that some of the students were rather shy about addressing questions in English. In order to make them feel more comfortable, we switched to speaking in Italian, my mother tongue. I realised how tough it can be to study science in a language other than your own (English), but have to explain it in your own language.

The questions I received from the students were very enthusiastic and pointed. The first questions I answered were all related to my experience as a scientist who had graduated in Italy. I had the impression that the students don’t always receive the support, guidance and resources needed to inform them of the various opportunities that young scientists have in Europe. Other questions I received related to the interdisciplinary nature of the EUROPAH network and of the field of astrochemistry itself. Some students even approached me in private to obtain more information about how to enter this field, particularly on the theoretical side. My advice to them was to look beyond their education: chemistry courses provide an excellent foundation for astrochemistry, but only when you push beyond your boundaries and look to new experiences can you truly set yourself on the path to pursure your dreams.

Preparing for and delivering this seminar made me realise how remarkable it is to share your experiences with young and curious minds, and how this can enrich your own personal background as a researcher.

This blog was written by Dario Campisi (ESR 4).

Credit: Sanjana Panchagnula