“Hydrogen has the potential to be a limitless source of clean energy”

Italian chemist Marina Faiella is focusing her research on hydrogenases. These enzymes could have a significant impact on the sustainable production of clean fuel, and help protect the very same nature which provided her solution. Thus, the current methods of hydrogen gas production are very expensive and can cause pollution. Marina Faiella is convinced that chemistry is crucial to develop new energy sources.

DiscovHER - What is your opinion about the overall condition of science?

Marina Faiella - Science progress has reached very important accomplishments during the last years, but not enough to solve some of the most important problems, such as anti-HIV treatment, cancer detection, as well as many other diseases for which medicines have not been discovered. I think stem cells are really promising, and it is a pity that sometime the scientific research has to be stopped because of political or religious issues.

Chemistry will have a decisive role to play, in making fuels from renewable and sustainable sources; to generate electricity without carbon dioxide emissions; and to revolutionize energy efficiency and use.

D/H - Those are ambitious, but necessary goals! How does your work contribute to these advancements?

MF - My project is focused on the development of artificial proteins, which could be used to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen gas has the potential to be a limitless source of clean energy if simple and efficient methods of production and utilization can be developed. One of them is offered in nature by a particular class of proteins, called hydrogenases. Recent years have seen a variety of breakthroughs in the understanding of the structure and the function of these enzymes, but fundamental questions about their mechanism remain unanswered, leaving their utilization a great research challenge in the ”hydrogen economy.” With my project, I hope to answer some of these questions, improving the concrete utilization of proteins to produce hydrogen, with consequent benefits to the environment.

D/H - What made chemistry so appealing to you as a career?

MF - My interest in science started during my childhood. I have always been interested in the natural phenomena around me. My parents are also chemists, and they transmitted their curiosity and knowledge to me. I was really happy when I could play in their lab, and they showed me some easy experiments even when I was a child.

Today, I want to participate actively in scientific progress, working in the lab as much as I can, with the hope that my small discoveries and experiences will be part of big changes.

D/H - What difficulties have you faced as a woman in the male-dominated field of science?

MF - The biggest challenge I have faced during the last years concerned my authorship. During my Master first, and my PhD later, I had the feeling that people thought that somebody else helped me to reach my accomplishments, and that there was always a hidden reason for which I gained some particular results. It was very difficult to affirm my person and my idea, probably because I was a woman in science, or worse, a student woman in science. I think that anybody can have great ideas, no matter if you are young or experienced.

D/H - Did you have any mentors to help you face these challenges?

MF - Teaching and learning is a bilateral process, where everything is transferred and shared, and sometimes the two roles can be exchanged. This process has to be the keystone of science, where communication and networking are necessary for everybody to proceed in doing research. In my case, I am grateful to my PhD supervisor, who has been my mentor for many years, and whose scientific curiosity pushed me to go on every day, even when the results were not successful. I learned many things from him, and he never addressed me in a different way than my colleagues – I was one researcher among the others, not a woman among men.

For Women in Science

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