Giulia Fiorani for #womeninresearch: the transition towards sustainable chemistry

In 2013, during a post-doctorate at Ca’ Foscari, Giulia Fiorani prepared a research project for ‘Marie Curie’ which brought her to the ICIQ, Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia, in Tarragona, Spain. Then, at Imperial College London and at the University of Oxford. Four years later she is returning to Venice as a researcher in the Department of Molecular Sciences and Nanosystems. Giulia Fiorani is a chemist who aims to contribute to the transition towards more sustainable methods of production and consumption.

The 12 principles of Green Chemistry written by John C. Warner and Paul Anastas in 2001 were her reference point. “They are still very valid guidelines,” she says, “that encourage the minimisation of solvents, activate processes triggered by a small amount of molecules, reduce waste and energy use, favour renewable sources, etc.”

Can you give us examples of these guidelines?

"Minimising the use of solvents, for example. An unaware person does not realise the volume of solvents needed at an industrial level to produce an active ingredient of a medicine. Being able to use a solvent that releases the molecules that I need, or liquid salts after a reaction, for example, offers numerous advantages. You reduce emissions and they can be reused. There are many others, but they are less understandable to all. For example, I could say that I’m pleased if a reaction occurs with catalysts that don’t contain metals, but not everyone would understand."

How much did the the Marie Curie experience contribute to your career?

"During my Marie Curie fellowship at ICIQ in Spain, I had the opportunity to develop my own project, not only from a conceptual point of view, but having the funds to manage and learn to research from a managerial point of view. We are educated to be great scientists, at least from a theoretical point of view, but in order to carry out our research in practical terms we need funding and collaboration. The knowledge of renewable resources that I developed during the Marie Curie Fellowship in Spain brought me to England, where I was able to examine the chemistry of polymers in depth and apply it to the preparation of materials of renewable origin. Working in competitive academic environments like Imperial and Oxford was a good push before returning here. The possibility of moving to different places was fundamental because it teaches you a lot both a scientific and human point of view."

And now a return to Ca’ Foscari….

"It happened at a time when I didn’t really expect to be able to return to Italy. I knew what I wanted to work on, but I looked for opportunities in England and other European Institutions. I was sought by Ca’ Foscari. From here, they followed me in my path and when the opportunity arose, I took it and it went well. It is an uncommon phenomenon in Italy to be headhunted by a University. The administration has supported my return from abroad, the department has given me a very warm welcome and my team leaves me free to carry out any ideas and expand on my skills in a way that complements the rest of the team."

Regarding Green Chemistry: is there a ‘green’ thread that binds all of the research?

"As a graduate and PhD candidate at Tor Vergata in Rome, I had the opportunity to work with the people who started Green Chemistry in Italy. After this, in all the laboratories where I have worked in, I have always worked on various aspects of Green Chemistry. Over the years I have refined my goal. At the beginning it was a somewhat vague concept and as a research associate I focused on other people’s projects. But with the Marie Curie fellowship, my research started to take its own direction. I started researching terpenes, biomolecules that are found, for example, in secret plant resins or even in orange peels, today’s rubbish but potentially tomorrow’s resources. They are natural compounds of which the cosmetics and perfume industries make extensive use. We have looked at the potential to make these molecules reactive and synthesise materials. Now at Ca’ Foscari we can focus on this: using sustainable chemicals as toolboxes in order to synthesise new molecules and then use them as building blocks for high added value polymers."

So, for example, one goal is to produce bioplastics…

“We are not yet ready for a complete transition from plastics of fossil origine to biomaterials. We would like to develop biocompatible materials, biodegradable and that can respond to stimuli, for example they respond to various temperatures, pH levels, and lights. So, I would like to focus on this here at Ca’ Foscari.”

We talk about sustainable chemicals because unsustainable ones exist…

“The chemistry of today is indeed unsustainable.”

Does your research thus rather focus on chemistry's future?

“We are working on it, and it will take a bit of time. I think that in the next 20 or 30 years we won’t have a well integrated system, all around the world, we will be close, and I’m sure of that. I hope to be in the picture when its achieved. If not, at least towards the frame… (laughs)”.

Can you give us an example of an achieved result?

“At Imperial College and Oxford University we worked on creating polymeric materials starting from carbon dioxide and derivatives of natural origin. But these results haven’t yet been published so I can’t discuss them. While during the Marie Curie fellowship has developed methodologies for producing diols, important molecules in drugs, without heavy metals and only using waste materials, carbon dioxide, and molecules of natural origin.”

What are you currently working on?

“Professors Selva and Perosa and I are currently working on the development of biomass. Moreover, I would like to apply techniques developed by them to the synthesis of monomers, with the aim of synthesising polyesters and polycarbonates in an innovative way, favouring the use of materials derived from biomass and sustainable chemical methodologies.”

Let’s talk gender inequality. Are there the same career opportunities for men and women in science?

“I would say that there is still a long way to go. Being a woman and a mother in the field of scientific research means that at some point in your journey you will have to stay away from the laboratory for a couple of years. On a European level, maternity leave is respected: women are given more time to receive financial aid and plenty of legroom in terms of work flexibility. However, in Italy, grant holders may not go on maternity leave. On the other hand, in my year group for my chemistry degree, there were mainly women and for my doctorate there were only women. Women undertaking scientific studies is on the increase, so something is changing. I think that it's a good sign to see that women are invested in science. We know how to do good research and it is no longer a purely masculine field. The presence of both men and women working well together in a calm and constructive environment is important from the perspective of mankind."