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Daria Galimberti: ‘For me science is about asking questions, finding answers and asking new questions’

Interview with dr. Daria Galimberti (Theoretical & Computational Chemistry)

In November 2020, Daria Galimberti was appointed Assistant Professor in the Theoretical & Computational Daria GalimbertiChemistry department within the Institute for Molecules and Materials (IMM) at Radboud University. The research group tries to explain and predict properties of molecules, clusters and molecular solid, with quantum mechanical, semi classical, classical and statistical mechanical methods. The approach is computational, Galimberti develops new methods and software when necessary and works together with experimental groups.

Galimberti lives in Nijmegen.

We interviewed Daria Galimberti about her research background, her research focus within IMM and herself.

Where exactly did your curiosity for science start?

“Since my childhood I have been interested in science. Both my parents are teacher, we used to go to interactive museums where you can play and try things. This really inspired me to learn about nature and physics. I want to know how things work. The most important thing in life is to ask questions, find the answer and ask a new question. I enjoy it and I am lucky because it will never end.”

What is your passion for being a researcher?

“It is all about being passionate about understanding how things work. I want to open the box and to know what is inside; to discover the pieces, put them together and play with them for alternative outcomes. And I love programming, my hobby is my work.”

What has been your career path so far?

“I studied materials engineering - a combination of mathematics, physics and chemistry - at the Politecnico of Milan, Italy. I did my PhD in Milan, where I focused on using DFT methods to characterize the structural and vibrational properties (IR,Raman) of molecular materials - molecules and polymers. During this time, I have applied existing advanced methods but also developed new ones. Moreover, I did an internship at the University of Evry in Paris (group of Professor M. P. Gaigeot) expanding my research field to DFT Molecular dynamics simulations. This kind of simulations are suitable to study the properties of inhomogeneous and/or disordered materials. After my PhD, I continued my work in the Gaigeot group as Postdoc for 3 years, working on the characterization of aqueous interfaces e.g., solid-water interfaces by IR/Raman and SFG spectroscopy. After that I have done a second Postdoc in Berlin (group of Professor J. Sauer) with an Humbolt Fellowship, working on the development of methods to compute free energies from the spectroscopic data. In particular, we have chosen as test case the adsorption of short alkanes in zeolite (system relevant for the petrol cracking industry).”

Did you enjoy being and working abroad?

“Yes, I sure did! I think we focus to much on the differences; however, the differences in European countries are really small. We should put more emphasis on mutual aspects. I must admit that moving to and settle in new places also costs time and energy: start again, find an apartment, get to know people and find your way in the city is challenging. However, bureaucracy is most difficult part. Overall, I feel at home in most places.”

How did you end up at Radboud University?

“In the group of Marie Pierre Gaigeot I worked together with dr. Anouk Rijs (former researcher at HFML-FELIX). And when there was the job opening at Radboud University I decide to apply for my current position in the Computational Chemistry group at IMM.”

What is your research focus now?

“I will continue developing methods for spectroscopy and free energies. So far I developed two methods; one to analyze the vibrational spectra by graph theory and the other to compute free energies form the vibrational density of state. Currently, I am able to start applying these methods as I have proof of principle. The model system is in operation, we now want to study what will happen if we apply it to bigger systems. I have in mind to applications to test the power of the developed of these methods Self-assembly of bio-polymers and Adsorption of alkane and alcohol in in zeolites.”

Characterization complex molecular systems by vibrational spectroscopy

You have won the Clara Immerwahr Award 2021 which is for high-quality applications from excellent female scientists at the early stage of their career. You must be very proud.

“Yes, indeed, I am very honored to receive this award. The joint work with the experts of the UniSysCat will provide new tools to elucidate the molecular mechanism governing multi component reactions at interfaces. I hope that it will be the start of a long-standing collaboration. I was pleasantly surprised when they called me, I was speechless for a few seconds as I did not expect to win the award. I am really happy my research work is recognized with this prize.”

What are your near future plans with your group?

“We will soon open positions for two PhD employees. However, due to these rather difficult times, we decided to postpone recruiting to be able to accommodate the PhD’s in a good way and provide them all the support they need. I have developed a method to analyze spectra with the aim to expand it, one of the PhD candidates will work on this project. The other PhD will work on the research on free energies.”

How do you experience these Covid19 time?

“The easy part is that I can continue my work from home, as my research is computational. However, I miss the discussion with my colleagues which lead to new ideas and views on research. I started my job in Corona time which was not easy, but everybody helped me as much as they can and my colleagues are very nice.”

What makes you happy to be in this research group?

“I wanted this position as this is a good place to work in for me as researcher. Surrounded by many scientist colleagues of various disciplines, I am able to work together on many research topics. My work and the research in the group is really complementary, which makes it very interesting. Also, I can make use of the innovative techniques and systems at the university. Together we can take our innovative research to a higher level.”

How do you experience IMM?

“So far, I have met most of my colleagues by Zoom meetings. Everybody was welcoming me and very helpful, even in these strange times. I mostly feel for all the new students. It is difficult and challenging for them following lectures online and only few contacts with other students. I genuinely hope we will go back to a normal situation soon.”

Text: Miriam Heijmerink