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Stories of success at ICTP

Two ICTP-based scientists awarded prestigious ERC Starting Grants

14/09/2017 - Trieste

The European Research Council (ERC) has recently announced the awarding of its Starting Grants to 406 early-career researchers throughout Europe. Among them are two ICTP-based young researchers: Marcello Dalmonte and John Goold, both working at the cutting-edge of fundamental science, studying physical properties of quantum systems.

   

ERC_2

 
Marcello Dalmonte and John Goold
 

“Top talent needs good conditions at the right time to thrive. The EU provides the best possible conditions at the early stages of a researcher's career through the ERC Starting Grants. It's an investment that will pay off, boosting the EU's growth and innovation,” said Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, on announcing the awards. 

“We need to capitalise on all talent available,” Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the ERC, said. This seems to be particularly true this year: the share of women amongst the grantees, four out of ten, is the largest ever in an ERC competition, and there is also more diversity in terms of nationalities: 48 in total, based in 23 European countries. Each ERC Starting Grant, worth over one million Euros, will enable young scientists to set up their own research group and pursue ground-breaking ideas.

ICTP science writer Anna Lombardi interviewed Dalmonte and Goold to understand the real impact of these ERC Starting Grants on their careers.

 

How will this grant affect your research and life perspectives?

Marcello: Given the current Italian situation in terms of getting funding, which is not so easy for a young researcher, an ERC grant is vital. If you want to purse your scientific career and compete with the top notch guys around, you really need this kind of support. I have chosen Trieste as my host institution because I think it is, by far, the best place to realize my project. I am already working as a scientist here at ICTP, but I have also strong connections with SISSA.

John: Unlike Marcello, I am not staying in Italy. I am going back to my own country, Ireland, to Trinity College Dublin. This grant has given me the opportunity to get a permanent job in a university, to build a group and do things on my own for the first time, to explore things in greater depth and over a longer timescale.

 

Can you tell me more about the projects which were worth this award?

Marcello: The main goal of my work is to get a better understanding of the physical properties of matter at the atomic scale and beyond. The aim of this project is to theoretically investigate atomic many-body systems, in close connection to quantum information, condensed matter and high energy physics. I would also like to further investigate the properties of quantum entanglement, i.e. the strong correlations between physical entities we observe at the atomic scale but not in the classical macroscopic regime of our everyday life. To understand why and how certain entanglement properties are connected to physical properties of materials or ensembles of atoms could be extremely useful for future experiments and applications.

John: I started being interested in the thermodynamics of quantum systems a number of years ago. It is currently a blooming field and there is a significant effort trying to understand how quantum features manifest in finite time thermodynamics, for example in enhancing the power and the efficiency of engines. Unfortunately, many of these studies are based on simplistic models. My idea is to take the description to the next level, to a greater degree of complexity, by adding all the key ingredients you expect to find in a real physical material: dirt and disorder, interactions between parts of the system and coupling effects to the outside world. To describe such complex systems, I will apply all that I have learned working in the condensed matter group in Trieste. The theoretical and numerical problems which are needed to be solved are already of interest independent of the ultimate goal.

 
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John Goold and Marcello Dalmonte

 

Any potential application of your research?

Marcello: We work at the cutting-edge of fundamental science. According to my understanding of the ERC schemes, they don’t really distinguish between fundamental or applied. In the end, they are looking for excellence.

John: I am not motivated by an immediate technological impact, even if I am very much inspired by that. Like any other scientific project, you try to take a good idea and you never know where it will lead you. But you want to be at least looking in the right direction.

 

What is the most difficult part of your job and, on the other hand, what do you enjoy the most?

Marcello: To me, one of the biggest challenges is that you don’t only have to solve problems, you need to formulate them properly in the first place. In my field especially, this is probably the hardest thing to do: to identify and define precisely what you want to do. On the other end, freedom of thinking is just priceless. In addition, I like the social aspect of this job: you work and collaborate with a lot of people, often coming from very different cultures, but you can count on a common language, not easy to find anywhere else.  

     
   "Freedom of thinking is something priceless"  

        

          

John: This type of work can be a huge source of stress for most young scientists who are looking for stability and job security. Nowadays, a postdoctoral position typically lasts three years, at maximum. If you have a family, like I do, you would like to settle but it’s really hard. In my opinion, the hardest part of being a young scientist is definitely coping with the stress of job insecurity. But if you can hold together and still enjoy what you do, you have the great opportunity to do what you are interested in for 12 hours a day, never feeling like it’s really a job.

 

What tips would you like to recommend to young researchers who wish to apply for this prestigious grant in the future?

Marcello: I think the most important thing of all is credibility. If you write an excellent project in terms of scientific interest, yet very hard to testify in terms of credibility, there you have a problem. You need to prove your skills with your CV and during the interview, coping with all their technical questions.

John: The project itself is very important but your CV is just as crucial: you need one that can compete with other peers in Europe. I must say there is also a certain degree of luck: working on a hot topic which attracts some interest in the community can help, to a certain extent. You also need a good network, as in any other job. Coming from a prestigious institution does not really count so much: there are examples of people from small universities who got awarded in the past.

 

These are five-year grants. Where do you see yourselves in five years’ time?

     
        

"Physicists are the Peter Pans

of the scientific world:

they can stay young through curiosity"

      

Marcello: In terms of science, delivering on the things I have written about in the project will be great. I cannot guarantee that of course, but I will try very hard.I think there is still much more to be done and understood. It’s a very interesting field, at the interface between atomic, molecular and optical physics from one side and high energy physics on the other. Anyway, five years is a lot of time. Who knows what could come up?

John: I have a 9-month-old son and it sometimes shocks me how curious he is. I have heard someone saying once: “physicists are the Peter Pans of the scientific world: they can stay young through curiosity.” All the projects I am working on have more open questions than answers. I started asking questions as a curious child and in 5 years I still want to be doing that. That is the most important thing, sometimes even more than the answer.

 

---- Anna Lombardi

 

 

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The ERC celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. To date, it has funded over 7.000 top researchers at various stages of their careers, and over 50.000 postdocs, PhD students and other staff working in their research teams. More information about all ERC funded projects are available here.

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