I would define talking face-to-face with Sandra Savaglio as an exciting experience. Internationally renowned astrophysicist, I met her a few days ago in Rome, during the presentation of a cultural award that has been assigned to her, dedicated to the Women of Science. I had the honor to ask her a few short questions, thanks to the intermediation of a common friend, the nuclear physicist Sergio Bartalucci. Sandra’s charisma (she immediately granted me the use of “tu”, a proof of great humility, often uncommon among the great personalities of our time) is immediately evident: a confident personality, gifted with a calm and reasoned speech, with a bright smile that makes her interlocutors feel immediately at ease.
Sandra Savaglio returned to Italy a few years ago, but she had spent most of her life abroad. She grew up in Marano Marchesato, near Cosenza, and then spent more than twenty years away from her birthplace, working in important scientific institutions in the USA and Europe. She has been a tenured Professor at the University of Calabria since 2014. Currently, she is a member of the Board of the National Institute of Astrophysics, and councilwoman at the department of Education, Research and University of the Region Calabria. And more, much more. We are going to talk about all this in our informal and brief chat. During her career, Sandra Savaglio has received many awards, including the Pythagoras Award (Crotone, 2008); Calabria nel Mondo (Rome, 2010); Made in Calabria (Rome, 2011); Prime Donne (Montalcino 2014); Frescobaldi (Milan, 2015); Vittorio de Sica (Rome, 2016). An Italian scientist, who makes us proud in the world. We’re lucky she returned to Italy after so many years abroad.
Sandra Savaglio starts by saying, “If you decide to study physics or astrophysics, you must like math. Nature spontaneously gives us breathtaking wonders. Just in our galaxy alone there are 200 billion stars and in the whole universe there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. Math is the fascinating tool that allows us to understand all this”.
Sandra, what’s it like to wake up one morning and find out you are the woman on the cover of Time magazine?
“The cover Time dedicated to me as a symbol of the European “brain-drain” coming to America dates back to 2004. At the time I lived and worked in Baltimore. At first, a reporter from London called to interview me. Then they called me from New York to tell me they would send a photographer for the magazine cover. At that time, I was confused. It was a big surprise and I was obviously very happy”.
How long had you been living in America at the time of the cover, which remains an unattainable aspiration for many?
“I had been living in America, let me think…since 1998, if I remember well. All considered, not such a long time”.
So, is it true that the American Dream really exists?
“It is certainly irrefutable that America opens its doors to talent and skills. It doesn’t care where you come from. If you’re good and eager to succeed, it gives you the opportunity and means to be successful and it recognizes your contribution and the work you do. I must admit though, that I have good memories of my time in Germany, too, as I worked there as well. Summarizing my most important professional experiences, we can identify them this way: from 1996 to 1998 I was a Fellow at the European Southern Observatory, in Munich. From 1998 and 2006, Fellow for ESA at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Senior Research Scientist at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; I was also a researcher at the Astronomical Observatory of Rome, a position I left very early. In 2006 I moved to Germany, at the Max Planck Institute for the Extraterrestrial Physics, the most important European research institute in the field of astrophysics. I stayed there until 2014. I highly recommend studying and working abroad. Unfortunately, Italy is not very appealing to foreigners. Our country is entrenched in old rules; many other countries, economically advanced like ours, travel at a different speed. Italy must make an effort to modernize and come up to par with others”.
You specialize in the astrophysics of distant galaxies, in the chemical enrichment of the universe and in explosive phenomena. You can boast over 200 publications in international journals, as an author or co-author, and you are regularly invited to international conferences. In Italy, you take part in public events for scientific diffusion and you are very committed and active in the promotion of science, in particular for women.
“Yes, true. The study of distant galaxies is what gave me the most satisfaction, even in the USA. I had a wonderful working team. I have always been active in the general promotion of science: traveling, moving around, talking to young people, encouraging girls who want to devote themselves to scientific research. Sometimes women have very little belief in their own possibilities, so they need to be encouraged, because they are actually a great resource in the professions, certainly not only in the domestic environment”.
You’re a member of several international scientific commissions, including the one that decides the use of the space telescope Hubble, is that right?
“Yes, that’s right. I received the request regarding the Hubble telescope many times, recently for the next session in February 2021. This telescope, considered the most important in history, has been orbiting outside of the atmosphere since 1990, at an altitude of 540 km. above our heads at a speed of more than 7 km. per second”.
An inevitable question to ask these days is in regard to Trump and Biden. What have the Trump years been like for you and what do you expect from Biden’s presidency?
“When I went to America the first time, Clinton was the president and we were in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. The president whose administration I lived through the longest was George W. Bush, during the period following the 9/11 terrorist attack. When I was in Germany, Obama was elected. This was a great achievement for American society. Considered an outsider, few believed he could win. Instead, it happened, thanks also to the great support from the African-American community and the youth vote. Obama changed the fabric of America and the world. What was a fundamental achievement in that regard? The approval of Obamacare, considered a real revolution, a step forward for American society towards a more inclusive and affordable model of healthcare, like in Europe. He had a flawless First Lady beside him, Michelle, who has been herself a great guide for America. Trump was elected four years ago, when I was in Italy. Regarding Trump, I know only what I have been told by the people who live in America and with whom I’m in contact, or what CNN or BBC report, news outlets I follow regularly. Like so many others, I think Trump did not do any good to America and its people. From Obama to Trump: they are polar opposite. The Trumpian experience has been extremely divisive for Americans”.
What do you expect from the new President, Joe Biden?
“He is certainly not a young President, but there is great expectation for his VP, Kamala Harris. A great figure. Biden has included many women in his cabinet, something that Trump didn’t do, and this induces great hopes and bodes well. Hopefully it will be enough to forget the four years of the previous administration, linked to the negative figure of Mr. Trump”.
What is your relationship with New York?
“I’ve never worked there, but I know that it’s a beautiful city, but I haven’t visited in a few years. Last time I was in Manhattan, I thought it was getting worse, chaotic, messy and dirty”.
One last question: do you believe in UFOs?
“No, absolutely not. There are many satellites visible to the naked eye in the sky, and therefore they are explainable phenomena. There are thousands of satellites orbiting continuously. In space there is a crazy invasion of telecommunication tools. If there were UFOs they would certainly not be easy to hide”.