Antonella, leukemia researcher, Venice

Your life in a few lines, exactly from where it starts

My life started in Treviso by Calabria region-born parents who were just moved in Northern Italy. It started in good company because there was already my elder sister on this world who opened up a path for me 13 months earlier.

It continued for some years in Dosson (located in the province of Treviso), and then in Padua where I studied medical biotechnologies, then it randomly touched Venice even if the studies would have been continued always in Padua with a phd in oncology. After it, I continued in my research work in Padua but perseverate to live in Venice, where I found my ‘house’ and my ‘family’ of friends and…happy ending…my Alvise (Alvise Bittente, visual artist and illustrator).

I love to live in two cities. Padova is perfect work-wise and my other life is in Venice where my friends and my free space are located so I keep work and life separated by 30 minutes of train.



You deal exactly with science and research, to be specific you study a rare form of leukemia (Large Granular Lymphocyte Leukemia, LGL Leukemia)

It’s a rare form of recidive disease occurring especially in adults.



Can you tell us your work day, the joys and the hurdles of this specific profession, if possible?

My work day starts usually with the train, a transport mean I really like because it helps me to get well awake and prepared once in Padua. The interval of travel, 30 minutes, is totally a time for myself, I read, I call, I pause from the run run time of life in general.

Once in Padua, I get my bicycle, I ride for 10 minutes and get the laboratory where I work (VIMM: Istituto Veneto Medicina Molecolare).

Once at the lab, the work is always a bit different form the previous day, there is no routine in my job. There is always one or more projects on the desk and the kind of experiments and tests are different according to the data we are searching. Also the team can be different in its composition while the time runs, because we always host new dissertation writers or interns in biology, medicine, pharmacy, new phd, new fellows.

I coordinate a small group of ph d and thesis students, all together study different research lines on LGL leukemia. Every test result is discussed with doctors working in Padua hematology department who are very expert of this disease and follow many patients since years. Of this peculiar disease the origin and the causes are still unknown, we discovered some mechanisms that characterize it but there is still a lot of work to do. We are in this moment trying to understand the biological alterations of a leukemia affected cell which bring it to be different from unaltered and healthy ones.

Our tests cover a wide range of examination: from the DNA to the intra-cell signals, to the cell surface until reaching the interaction either cell-cell and cell-ambient.

There is another slice of our path: to investigate which could be a specific therapy because there is not yet a tailor-made care for this specific cancer. We test specific medicaments in vitro and we also study their effect on the cells we derive from the blood of the patients to learn how and which works better among the therapies already used on them and if some of them are producing better results on some patients instead of others. Our goal is to reach a more focused therapy.

Which joys from my work? To learn something you were not knowing before – a cell is a very small world; to discover something new and never described before; to contribute with small steps forward to leukemia studies; to transmit this knowledge; to be successful in involving who is just stepping in the lab with enthusiasms and empathy in research; to start always new paths; to get always new missions; to exchange among different labs; to travel for work (this peculiar job leads you to join conferences and panel discussions; you can share your viewpoints and meet the ones of the other researchers, it’s a really dynamic profession).

Which hurdles? For sure the precarious state of my work contracts, the anxiety each time a new expiry date approaches, sometimes the work rhythms which can be very tiring; to end, the stress to finalize a lot of tasks together.

The very fast pace indeed contributes to the ‘adrenaline’ for a new discovery and a new scientific publication. Do you like other hurdles? Sometimes it’s very hard to keep the pace with everything happens around research but this also involves a certain dose of good luck, to have good occasions, to have good research means, and to be enabled to work very professionally (in this field, this means practically to have very good and high quality standards and is not always easy to get them, because very expensive). Sometimes, you can imagine, we got frustrated, anyway we face every fear, every performance anxiety by accepting our proper limits and by reminding ourselves the inner potentials. And we revolve the sorrow in lever to help our work to glow in new bright, challenging colors.

I could, of course, start a political polemic discourse on the Italian state of art of the profession in this field but I will not. I only allow myself to say that I am always amazed to count how many Italian researchers made this profession better and in a sense they wrote the ‘history’ of science. How many Italians, and how many Italian expats around the world, are nowadays the protagonists  of a very important enhancement of medical or scientific researches? I hope Italy will not forget this pioneering identity and I always get saddened by how poorly scientific research is considered. Italy should heavily bet on research: this is an investment on brain, on creativity, on the evolution of our mentality. I believe that research is a way to look very forward: we only seem to be very narrow minded, our pace stays weak and our glance very obstructed.



If you were not focussing on this rare form of leukemia, which would have been your aspiration of research?

I was and am always interested in cancers, if it was not this leukemia my focus, I would always research in oncology. I am deeply interested in how cells transform themselves from healthy to ‘out of order’ ones, and how they invade the human body they firstly were contributing to sustain. How this happens? And why? How the balance human-machine can be lost? I always point on the fact that cancers diffusion is very wide and all of us are crying for the loss of a friend or a relative for this kind of diseases, that’s why I’m interested to work in this field.



The relation women/science is difficult and sometimes harder than the relation of male professionals in scientific job posts (more or less the same of what happens also in other professions). What do you think about this?

I look at the future of science as something related to human kind, not to male or female dominated habits. There are more women than men in my sector and also on the top management side, I see more women than ever. With the shift among the generations, I see that something changed: there are more leading women in research labs and this differs from the past even if has been not obtained by gender equality movements or battles: it just derived from the merits of this or that person, quite often a woman today.

I might say that the difficulty to get a positive affirmation in this work field is equal either for male and female researchers, we are all in the same situation.

I indeed saw women getting the spotlight in this field with energy, quality, pride and stubbornness without the handicap to be a woman but using the female potentiality.

Working in science and making science today is also a matter of communication and there fore to be good storytellers in order to create the good awareness on everything frightens people, to fight ignorance and fake knowledge. I saw many capable women in this task. Admiring, fascinating, emphatic and powerful ones.



Which difference of aptitude can you trace between a male or a female colleague in the application of protocols and knowledge in a day by day task at work?

I do not know, every one has his/her own approach and I do not find really very interesting to talk on gender potentialities, what I believe is important is that a good team should have a good mix, a fertile contamination among male, female, young, old, Italian, foreigner points of view.



Do you find any spare time to dedicate yourself to other passions, as the theatrical one that I crossed once? Can you tell us more?

Theatre is a very precious opportunity I have and is a space in which I can taste extraordinary bits of life. It is like a game (it’s fantastic to play when adults!); it is like to discover pieces of myself  I was not aware of in my daily life; it is pure reflection and, to end, is a way to create beauty.

When you come to build a stage or to construct a very deep, dense improvisation which is true in its fiction, so effective…you are really living – and creating – beauty. It is like to paint. You feel it works from the inner self, you feel that you’re not creating a reproduction of reality but a common feeling. The magic of life into a representation of what life is not and is at the same time allows you to pass upon and under the reality level. Theatre is a collective and individual composition, so while you create you can meet human beings on another level. If I could only retain myself within the daily life, I would miss so many things. It is an occasion to experiment on the not ordinary and so on the  ‘extraordinary’ .



A talent you have and the one you miss?

I believe to have the capacity to unify energies, to be a reference point and put people together to form a team in order to exploit everyone’s potentials. This is thank to the fact I am very naturally oriented to see the best and the most positive in everything and in everyone. It’s how I see and perceive this world. Therefore, I feel that to have a good vision in resuming datas, in potentials and in connections also in the research field.

I lack in practicality when it comes to reach a fast conclusion, to be super fast in taking decisions, to be super fast in closing projects which is equally crucial in my job. If I do not have a precise deadline, I take too much time.



What do you think to give to your city and what do you feel to get back from it?

A very simple but important contribution for Venice nowadays? Simply, the fact I live here, I live here as a citizen, I go in the local shops, in the local osteria, in the local cinemas or in the theatre, I go to the gym here and, to sum, I contribute to the fact that Venice is lived not only as a touristic destination which empties progressively it and erase the life of the residents in favor of the life of tourists.

The more the residents leave Venice (for very understandable and reasonable reasons, by the way) the less there is the quest for places and situations suitable for citizens and so they are getting totally lost.

What Venice gives to me? A sense of peace being without cars and being the city made for the proper human pace. Even keeping all the treats of cosmopolitan and big metropolis, for instance with big exhibits and important events, it is like a city-village where you walk and step in people you know. It’s a beautiful city which I stil love to discover and rediscover. And, then, it has the Lido with its seaside: thanks to a short vaporetto ride in summertime I am really in vacation every weekend.



A book and a song with you in this moment?

There are two Alvise’s books on the table right now: Jack Vance’s Opera dello spazio and Tristan Corbière’s Tutte le poesie

Radio is playing  Nena’s 99 Luftballons right now.



Your favorite food and drink?

I love so many recipes, one of these is potatoes gateau.

W water. If I have to think to wines, last year I got in love with Ciù Ciù rosso piceno superiore, I stressed all my friends to find it also in Venice.



Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I live day by day, I never designed a longterm plan. Time by time I feel I have to change place, ambient, activity and I follow the needs of the moment. Maybe in ten years I still see myself in Venice because I got really attached to the whole and because I would always love to return or to have a base in Venice even if life will bring me elsewhere.

I would, indeed, hope life will bring me elsewhere, to be traveling and working abroad but I always hope to get a reference point where to get back.



What did you learn from life so far?

That you can face challenges and the hardest difficulties if your are backed, if you share with someone your weights, so that the importance of your family and of your friends is crucial.

Every fear must be faced otherwise you loose always more space.

The importance to take care first of yourself, of your wellbeing and of your goals. Because you’re, ultimately, the one with whom you’ve to trace results: when I was earlier talking of the importance of the ‘neighbor’ I was meaning this.  You can only endure on yourself when you try to help the others: if you are starting this path with a crack or a failure, you are weak and risk to fall down together with the person you’re trying to help.

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