Anna Cupani, PhD


You can find her on Twitter @AnnaCupani. 

I studied Pure Chemistry as an undergraduate and then I did a MSc in Molecular Sciences. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a PhD but I definitely enjoyed research work, so I joined a lab as a postgraduate researcher for a couple of years. I then started a PhD at Imperial College in Chemical Engineering, part time working in a pharmaceutical company. I submitted my thesis in 2016. 

My current job title is: Stakeholder Engagement Manager at the Data Science Institute at Imperial College London. I’m responsible for the Institute’s communications and I support collaborative projects around Data Science across Imperial and with other universities, research centres and governmental bodies. It’s a great opportunity to still be involved with science and learn about mind-blowing research. I love working with researchers, learning about their work and supporting them.

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

Contrary to most, I never had a lightbulb moment as a child when I definitely knew I loved science. During my school years I enjoyed languages and philosophy a lot, but I realised towards the end of my High School that I wanted to study science a bit more in depth. I read a book (The Periodic Table by Primo Levi) when I was 17 and I loved it both as a celebration of the beauty of nature and chemistry, and as a homage to humanity and its complexity. The writer is a chemist who survived the Nazi concentration camps and this book is for me a hymn to life, in a very non rethorical way and a literary piece of art.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

I met some very good teachers through my academic education and I am incredibly grateful to them. Definitely the supervisors of my MSc thesis (which in Italy at the time used to be a 9 to 12-month research work) were essential in supporting me at my first attempts at research on new topics, with all the failures and disappointments that come with that. 

A professor that sat on my thesis committee really liked my work and later got in touch and offered me a bursary in her lab. She really believed in me, probably more than I did about myself. She encouraged me to apply for extra funding, and gave me plenty of opportunities. I probably did not appreciate that as much as I should have at the time, but she really was great. 

I also had an incredible colleague while working at a company, she reached out when I felt very isolated and bullied and that helped me to put things in perspective, and identify some problems and how to solve them.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I had plenty of such moments! As a student I wasn’t sure I was good enough for research (for all those asking themselves the same, I’ll repeat what one of my supervisors said: it’s not a matter if you’re good at it, but if you want to do it) and later as a researcher I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend my entire life in the lab. This crisis was actually helpful because I started exploring alternative options and that was an empowering, if difficult, process.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

Mmm. I thought Organic Chemistry was too messy and difficult for me, then I went to a Biochemistry and a Supramolecular chemistry course and I loved it so I ended up working on synthesis! I was very close to moving to Finland for a PhD, but the supervisor there misunderstood my answer to his offer and thought I was not interested. I thought I missed the chance to work on that project but another partner got in touch with me so I ended up in Belgium instead. None of these countries was “chosen”, I just happened to receive an offer and to take it. I ended up working in a big pharmaceutical company, I learned a lot, including that I wanted something different.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work. 

By chance I was offered to cover some language lessons at an evening class for adults. I loved the job and I learned a lot about class management and how to lead a group of people twice my age, something that turned out very useful for my current job. I studied music until my piano diploma. I think the discipline required to sit down and train, to accept the incremental improvements and not the easy success, kind of helped me in my research work. I also think that it was good to have something completely unrelated to my science work, to keep me sane. Some days in the lab are just not working and it’s a blessing to be able to channel your energies on something totally unrelated. 

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

I think the advice would depend on the career they chose. A possibly unpopular opinion is that a complete career change is not something to be ashamed of, if that’s what works for you. Even dropping science is absolutely fine, and doesn’t make you a failure. If you want to become a politician to improve society and help fellows humans, this doesn’t mean that you wasted your science degree, quite the contrary! Your degree taught you some concepts and some methods, knowledge is never wasted. 

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