Meet Dr. Arianna Piccialli, a planetary scientist studying Mars and Venus atmospheres, and passionate about science communication!

What is your scientific background?

I am a planetary scientist: I investigate the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. I studied physics at the University of Naples “Federico II” in Italy with a specialization in astrophysics. I had the opportunity to spend the last year of my master degree between the Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte (Naples) and the Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali (IAPS), in Rome. There, I investigated the atmosphere of Mars using the very recent data from the European mission Mars Express. After my graduation, it was very clear to me I wanted to pursue my studies in planetary atmospheres. I was delighted to be accepted for a PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany where I could investigate the atmosphere of Venus.

Arianna with a model of the Venus Express spacecraft during her PhD
A model of the Venus Express spacecraft – Arianna Piccialli

Do you come from an academic family?

Yes, I was very lucky to be born in a family where both my parents were passionate about science. My mother started as a social scientist at the University of Naples “Federico II” and later she moved to teach social science at high school. Thanks to her guidance in my readings, I discovered important role models in science such as Marie Curie, Rita Levi Montalcini, and Konrad Lorenz, just to cite a few. My mother has been and still is my greatest support for my decision to become a scientist. My father was a physicist himself. He was a professor at the University of Naples “Federico II”, where he investigated computer music. Although he passed away when I was only 15 years old, I was strongly influenced by his enthusiasm, curiosity and great love for science and nature.

What is a typical day like for you?

Actually, what I like the most about being a researcher is that each day is quite unique. It is true that I spend most of my time in front of a computer screen. But as a researcher, I need to wear different hats: I program and analyze data. I write papers and often review articles for scientific journals – although this takes quite a lot of time, it’s also a way to learn a lot from the field. Similarly, I spend much time writing proposals for new funds and reviewing others’ proposals. Going to conferences is also an important part of a researcher’s life: they allow you to remain up-to-date and to have interesting face-to-face discussions with colleagues from different corners of the world. I am also passionate about science outreach: being able to share my love for astronomy with adults and children is always very rewarding.

Arianna during a workshop with high school students
Arianna during a workshop with high school students – Karolien Lefever

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

This is something I learned over time. During the first years of my university studies, I was spending entire months at home preparing for exams without much social life nor other activities. If I could give advice to a younger version of myself, then it would indeed be to always reserve some time for ourselves. Spending time on an activity one likes, with friends, it’s not wasted time for work. Actually, it’s all the contrary! It helps to refresh the mind and to relax, and as a consequence, to be much more productive at work.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

To me, the hardest part of academic work is related to job instability. Nowadays in Europe securing a permanent or even a long-term position has become extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the last eight years, after my PhD, I have had several temporary contracts which brought me to live in three different countries. A certain degree of mobility in research is very important, as it allows to see things from a different perspective, to acquire new skills, and to start new collaborations. On the contrary, hyper-mobility requires many sacrifices. Not everyone can follow this kind of lifestyle, due for example to family reasons, or health problems. The costs of continuously relocating – both economically, physically, and mentally – become eventually too high and, to my point of view, not advantageous anymore for career advancement as it does not allow to make long-term plans.

Research presentation
Research presentation – Séverine Robert

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I love to spend time in nature: whenever possible on weekends I go hiking. I am lucky to be in Belgium since it is a very green country and offers many possibilities to be outdoors. However, I am also very much a city person. I like going to cultural events, such as cinemas, theatres, concerts – I am a big fan of jazz music. Since I spend most of the time in front of a computer, running, swimming and yoga have become necessary for my mental and physical wellbeing. But I also love having some quiet time: just being at home, reading a book or crocheting a scarf for a friend.

Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?

In this video I explained my studies on Venus atmosphere:

If you want to contact Arianna, you can reach out to her on Twitter (@apic79), check also her blog (in Italian)