A tiny world, forgotten and yet vital to our existence

Dr Daniela Zeppilli is fascinated by the world that is invisible to the naked eye: Particularly nematodes, a microscopic underwater phylum. Her research is aimed at understanding how these animals have been able to resist certain bacteria and extreme conditions. She hopes to discover new groups of peptides or proteins capable of generating a network of communication signals that could be potentially useful in the immune response. On top of all this, Daniela is a working mom with two small children. She takes a few moments to tell us about her career and her experiences as a woman scientist.

What are you researching?

The world of meiofauna (animals smaller than a millimetre that live in benthic habitats all over the planet) is populated by animals of amazing shapes and adaptations, capable of withstanding extreme conditions. Often forgotten due to its small size, this life form is essential to the proper functioning of the ecosystem. Meiofauna is an excellent environmental indicator of the anthropic impact and can also have applications in industry, including the production of molecules of biomedical interest discovered, for example, in the course of investigations in extreme environments.

What would you like to achieve through science?

It’s my dream as a scientist to understand the limits of metazoan life on our planet. Four billion years ago our planet was an extreme environment. There are still several extreme ecosystems that exist today where meiofauna is present in surprising abundance and with adaptations that call into question our knowledge of the limits of life.

How did you become a scientist?

I have always loved nature and the extraordinary beauty of the infinitesimal. As a young girl, I would spend my afternoons watching insects. The perception that invisible life is everywhere was what triggered my desire to understand, explore and get closer to science. An enthusiastic science teacher at school and Gerald Durrell’s books had a big impact on me during my teenage years. When I finished secondary school, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be a scientist.

I was born and raised in Ancona, an Italian seaside town, and the idea of combining my love of the sea with my passion for science prompted me to choose biology and marine ecology. I knew that the age of exploration of Jacques Cousteau’s era was over, but when I completed the first year of my biology master, I discovered the existence of meiofauna and was instantly fascinated by these sea creatures. There was still so much to be discovered about them! From that point on, eleven years ago, I dedicated my life to this tiny world.

How do you view male-female parity in the science world?

Women scientists don’t have an easy life. Even if a number of institutions and foundations, the European Community and several countries are all promoting parity and gender equality in scientific work, we are still a long way off from achieving that objective, especially if the woman has or wants to have children. Most lab work is forbidden during pregnancy and breastfeeding, the same goes for sea trips (in my field of work). This means that women who want to have children must organise their work on the basis that they will not be able to collect samples or work in a lab for about a year. That’s not easy when the majority of contracts are for 12 to 24 months. Temporary contracts are becoming increasingly common in the scientific world and it’s becoming extremely rare for women under 35 to land a permanent position. I don’t think it’s fair that a woman should have to choose between having children after 35 (with all the risks that entails) or leading a stressful life as a scientist and mother.

Moreover, the pursuit of scientific excellence means you have to be prepared to go off and work in the best labs in the world, which means frequently moving from one country to another. Since 2010, when my first son was born, I had postdoc positions in Italy, Portugal and France. This ‘problem’ does not have the same impact for my male colleagues. I will soon be looking for a new postdoc position, with two children, probably in a new country. I know this work is my life and I could never give it up, but on the other hand I also know that being a mom is my greatest achievement… It’s not easy to find the right balance. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by a fantastic family who support all my decisions. I think scientist moms have enormous potential due to the combination of their scientific potential and their abilities as mothers: multitasking, dedication, practicality, imagination and so on. Being a mother, assuming it’s a good experience, gives women a huge amount of energy for science. I hope that the scientific community will soon start doing more to enhance the lives of women scientists who are also mothers.

Daniela Zeppilli received a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship in 2014.

For Women in Science

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