A drive down the Via Discesa Coroglio, on the coast in the Italian city of Naples, is a curious experience. A huge, abandoned industrial site clashes with breathtaking views of the sea and may leave first-time visitors unsure whether to proceed or turn around. But those who continue another 200 metres along the coast will discover a restored 19th century fertiliser factory, the home of Italy’s first interactive science museum at La Città della Scienza.
Like the road to the museum, the career path of Alessandra Zanazzi–an astrophysicist by training who abandoned her dream of a research career to work at La Città della Scienza–has offered opportunities to turn aside. On her first visit to the museum in 1996, when she was seeking an internship, her first look at the place didn’t offer an obvious prospect of a shiny new career.
“It was a real and concrete project, but there was nothing to look at in that particular moment” except the pretty vista and some building plans, she says. But the enthusiasm of the project’s planners was contagious, so she continued down that road. Ever since, she has been working to harmonise two apparently dissonant worlds–science and society–in her rewarding career in interactive science communication and education.
The road less travelled
Zanazzi was set to become a woman of letters–studying Italian, Latin, and ancient Greek literature–when a book about the universe’s known and unknown aspects captured her imagination. “Understanding where we came from, how it was before, [and] how it evolved” fascinated her. So she left her native Perugia to study at the University of Florence. She was ill-prepared for the sciences but nevertheless obtained her laurea (equivalent to a master’s degree) in astrophysics with maximum marks.
One month after graduating, as she prepared for the competitive examinations to enter a doctoral programme in Italy, an ad for a position at the museum caught her eye. The Città della Scienza was looking for an astrophysicist to help get their new centre off the ground. The concept was so new that Zanazzi “didn’t even know what it was about,” she admits, but “I thought … interacting with people would be something quite interesting.” Zanazzi was offered a 1-year paid internship, or borsa di studio. The internship was renewed once and then she became a member of staff, with an open-ended contract. “I tried, and I liked it,” she says.
As the museum grew, her responsibilities grew with it. As an intern, she interacted with visitors to the museum’s astronomy section. She soon began designing exhibitions for the public, preparing educational activities for schoolchildren and teachers, and organising conferences. When the museum opened a planetarium in 2001, she worked on setting it all up. One of the greatest challenges in her professional life was to design and coordinate production for the first automated show to be displayed on the planetarium’s 3D screen. “It was something I never did and had no reference for because it was the first” show of its kind in Italy, she says. She has been running the planetarium ever since.
Zanazzi expanded her professional space in 1999 when she started writing grant proposals to the European Commission to support the participation of La Città della Scienza in pan-European science-communication projects. Today she works locally on several European projects, such as Hands-on Universe–which aims to bring interactive astronomy to the classroom–and Communication in Science, which researches new ways to communicate science using educational programmes for the public in informal settings such as museum centres.
Zanazzi especially enjoys the variety of projects and activities her work offers. “I have been working for 10 years, and I have never been working on similar things,” she says. “Every time is different and is a new challenge.” Working on a variety or projects means working with a wide range of people, another aspect of her job that she enjoys. “I interact with a lot of people and I like it very much,” she says. She also appreciates the degree of creative control she has over astronomy exhibitions and conferences.
No job is perfect, of course. “I wish I had more decision power sometimes,” she says. Working within financial constraints can be frustrating, as it is when, for example, she would like to create new exhibitions for the planetarium but sees her plans delayed. She believes a more flexible schedule than the 9 a.m.-to-6 p.m. working day would allow her to be more creative and vigorous. But these are minor issues in an otherwise happy career.
The Città della Scienza and other interactive science centres differ from traditional museums in that, rather than locking exhibition objects behind protective glass, they encourage interaction. The only thing her museum forbids, Zanazzi says, are signs saying “Do Not Touch.” Museum visitors push buttons to make things happen, do their own experiments, and view interactive science shows. “I think it is very effective to attract people [to science] and to make people understand and remember scientific phenomena,” Zanazzi says.
The Città della Scienza is no longer unique. Interactive museums have sprouted around Italy and across Europe as the European Commission and individual nations have placed science-and-society issues higher on the agenda. “Science and society are apart somehow,” she says. An interactive museum “is a way of putting them closer.”
As funding for such museums has grown, opportunities for scientists to pursue careers in museums have grown also. “It’s easier now to find a job” than it was a decade ago when she was hired, Zanazzi says. According to Emilio Balzano, a researcher in physics education at the University of Naples Federico II and the manager of the educational and scientific programmes of La Città della Scienza, opportunities in Europe are expanding with particular vigour for people who are prepared to work on communication and educational programs that span several disciplines and both formal and informal settings.
A deep and broad understanding of a discipline is a good start for scientists interested in careers like this one. Excellent communication skills are a critical complement. “I am quite convinced that if you want to explain something to the people, you have to know much more,” she says. “If you happen to interact with children, they ask a lot of questions, and you have to know the [answers].”
Communication, in this case, doesn’t mean just getting your ideas across. It means creating and nurturing a dialogue. “We are convinced that the role of science communication is not simply translating scientifically difficult concepts in easy words. It’s also engaging people … and creating debates between science and society.” Zanazzi’s interest in this topic goes beyond astronomy. She has taken part in several pan-European projects promoting public engagement in debates on scientific issues such as nanotechnology–in the NanoDialogue project–or advances in brain science–as in the Meeting of Minds.
Creativity and imagination are also key aptitudes. During the job interview, Zanazzi impressed Balzano, who has been supervising her educational activities and research projects for the last 10 years, because “she was able to deal with new matters, [and] she show[ed] evidence of creative ability and motivation in … research activities.”
But the main thing young scientists will need to enter the field is experience, Zanazzi says. A communications course is one approach, but make sure it takes a hands-on approach and provides opportunities for work experience. The master’s in science communication at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, for example, offers students the opportunity to gain theoretical and applied skills in science communication, including the kind of work done at museums and science centres. Otherwise, scientists should try to enter the field by contacting museums and science centres directly to see if they can volunteer as guides and exhibition operators, or through an internship, as Zanazzi did. The experience she gained as an intern has proved essential for her progress in her job. “I just knew nothing about communication and education” to start with, she says. “I am still using what I learnt at the time.”
Taking a right turn
Zanazzi still finds astrophysics research attractive. “Maybe I would have liked it too,” she says. But she’s glad she kept driving down that coastal road. At La Città della Scienza, Zanazzi discovered new interests, an ability to communicate science, and a rewarding career. If she hadn’t been a little curious, she might never have found out how much fun she would have sharing her fascination for astrophysics.