About 13 years ago I met a young scientist who had just started working on atmospheric plasmas. At that time, I was about to complete my doctoral studies in the field of low pressure, radiofrequency plasmas, but I was fascinated by the potential of generating plasmas using atmospheric pressure conditions. Her excitement was so evident every time she talked about building a new reactor and finding ways to understand the interaction of these plasmas with materials. I knew that she would become very successful in our field and up to this day, I always look forward to reading her papers. More importantly, I am so honored and happy to refer to this person as my friend: Dr. Fiorenza Fanelli.
Please spend a few to minutes to read the interview below and learn more about her groundbreaking research.
Interview with the Scientist of the Week: Dr. Fiorenza Fanelli
- What is your personal motto?
To be honest I do not have a personal motto, but I have a favorite quote in mind since I read it in an Editorial of an ACS Journal. The Editorial was highlighting a highly cited review paper by Charles Martin, distinguished professor of Chemistry at the University of Florida. The Editorial included a short interview to professor Martin, and when he was asked what was his advice to young scientists trying to discover the next breakthrough in material science his reply was: “Whatever scientific box you are in now, get out of it”. I was very impressed by these words. I firmly believe in the importance of creativity and imagination in science, and creativity and imagination imply thinking out of the box, and to find inspiration in “creative” works undertaken by other researchers outside our own scientific box. On the other hand, a major challenge for a young researcher is finding the best synergy between creativity and feasibility & imagination and experimental issues.
- To my knowledge, you were the first researcher in your group to study plasmas operating under atmospheric plasma conditions. What were the challenges that you faced in starting this new line of research?
Yes, I was the first in the group of professor Riccardo d’Agostino, whose activities during those times were focused on low pressure plasmas. Let me briefly tell you the story of how it happened. It all started from the idea of my Ph.D. supervisor, professor Francesco Fracassi, who proposed a Ph.D. project on dielectric barrier discharges and on their utilization for thin film deposition. He really bet on me and on the research line, and he kept raising the stakes over the years. In the first period of my Ph.D. training I had the great opportunity to be a visiting student in the research group of Dr. Françoise Massines in Toulouse, France. I will never stop thanking Françoise and her then coworkers, Dr. Nicolas Gherardi and Nicolas Naudé, for everything they taught me on DBDs and on DBD reactors. When I came back to Bari, I built the first DBD reactor. I ignited the first DBD in January 2004, with the precious collaboration of Savino Cosmai, currently CNR technician of our group, who has always supported me in reactor design and realization.
What were the challenges that I faced? First of all, I am a chemist. I was a Ph.D. student in Chemical Sciences, but most of what I had to deal with had just nothing to do with chemistry and with everything I had studied that far! My Ph.D. project kept me completely outside my beloved chemistry box for a couple of years, during which time I studied fundamentals of atmospheric pressure DBDs, focused on reactor design, assembling and optimization, dedicated some months to the electrical characterization of DBDs, and spent hours literally staring at the discharge. My Ph.D. work moved away from the usual schemes and required considerable organizational skills: I had to take care of everything, from the very first screw of my reactor! This was really time-consuming, but at the same time watching the research line grow definitely boosted my commitment and passion. Another intrinsic difficulty of starting a new research line in a group that is focused on something else is the need to develop one’s own scientific and technical skills. The utilization of atmospheric pressure cold plasmas in surface processing of materials requires a different mentality and new strategies need to be implemented to obtain reliable and reproducible processes, thus I would say one of the biggest challenges I had to face was to acquire and build my expertise day by day, from my own experiences.
- Which of the papers that you authored are you most proud of and why?
This is a very difficult question! I am very proud of our recent paper on aerosol-assisted atmospheric cold plasma deposition of organic-inorganic nanocomposite thin films. This study required a great effort to optimize the deposition process and to characterize the hybrid coatings. Since the deposited nanocomposite coatings were very different from the ones obtained with low pressure plasmas, I definitely needed to find answers elsewhere! The scientific box I had to go out this time was that of plasma processing, to find motivation and inspiration for future applications. I am also particularly attached to this paper because it marks my beginning with field emission scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and it was love at first sight! What I personally love of scanning electron microscopy is the fact that, yes, it allows obtaining beautiful images of micro/nanostructured materials, but this is just the tip of the iceberg and there is so much more information to reveal. Diving into the world of SEM, studying fundamentals and advances in microscope technology can give a much finer feel for the technique and a deeper insight into the material nature and properties.
- Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
I have several, but my favorite hobby is surely cooking! I love cooking for my family and my dearest friends! My bad mood can go away in a few minutes when I start cooking. I love making risotto, homemade pasta, salads and cakes. My friends especially enjoy my salads, in which I like to mix tastes, flavors, colors, and with every new salad I prepare, one of them asks me the ritual question: “Fiorenza, what is the secret of your salads?”, and my answer invariably is: “The secret of my salads is … olive oil”. But be careful, it should be a very good Apulian one!
Note: The editorial that Dr. Fanelli is referring to in her answer to the first question can be found here:
Carlos Toro (Managing Editor), Jillian M. Buriak (Editor-in-Chief), “Template Synthesis Approach to Nanomaterials: Charles Martin”, Chem. Mater. 2014, 26, 4889−4890.