Interview with KIF Prize winner 2020 Irene Tamborra

Congratulations on winning the KIF prize 2020!

You came to Denmark as a young researcher in 2016, and within just a few years, you have become a tenured associate professor and leader of your own research group, the AstroNu group at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen. We would like to ask you tell us about your career path both before and after you came to Denmark


Q: At what age did your interest in science start, and what was your motivation to pursue a career in physics?

I have been fascinated by science since I can remember. As a kid, I really enjoyed to look at the stars at night and understand how things work: my favorite question was “why?” I decided I wanted to be a physicist in high school when I met an inspiring Math teacher. Before meeting her, I was convinced I was not skilled enough to become a scientist, but she made me discover my passion for Theoretical Physics.

Q: Where did you study and which positions have you held before the current one?

I grew up in Italy and studied Physics at the University of Bari until my PhD. I visited the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich for a PhD research exchange and had so much fun there that I decided to apply for an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship to return to Munich for my first postdoc. I won that competitive fellowship and, after two years in Munich, I moved to GRAPPA, Center of Excellence of the University of Amsterdam for other two years. In 2016, I landed in Denmark as Assistant Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute and have been tenured shortly after.


Q: What is your field of research and what are some of the results of your research group?

I work in Particle Astrophysics and Astrophysics. I love to deal with elusive elementary particles named neutrinos. Neutrinos are the second most abundant particles in our universe after photons and play a pivotal role in many astrophysical events, ranging from the sun to extreme core-collapse supernova explosions. We are currently simulating the production and the fascinating behavior of neutrinos in very dense environments, such as core-collapse supernovae, compact binary mergers, the early universe, and gamma-ray bursts. Our aim is to understand the role of neutrinos in the nucleosynthesis and source dynamics. We are also using neutrinos, together with other cosmic messengers as gravitational waves and photons, to unravel the inner workings of astrophysical transients and to learn about the possible existence of particles beyond the ones foreseen by the Standard Model.

Q: Within the past couple of years, you have received several large research grants, such as the Sapere Aude Starting Grant from the Independent Research Fund Denmark, the Villum Foundation’s Young Investigator Program and the Carlsberg Distinguished fellowships. What advice would you give to young researchers who are planning to apply for such grants?

If they have exciting ideas, they should definitely apply for funding and not be discouraged by the amount of work that it takes.  

Q: As the leader of your own research group, you hire other young researchers for your projects. What do you look for in the people you hire and how do you support their careers?

I look for excellence and I highly value diversity as I believe it is key to a creative team. I have chosen to support talented junior scientists from groups underrepresented in Theoretical Astro-Physics because we all have the right to pursue our dreams and should do so in a supportive environment. I am especially aware of the challenges faced by minorities in STEMM and I do my best to train young researchers to strive for positive change. I have faced many hurdles by myself throughout my career; now, I am happy to support others going through a similar path. In addition, when I was a young researcher, I deeply appreciated that my mentors always found time for me, I try to do the same with the younger people I work with.

Q: You have been awarded the KIF prize for being a role model to other women in physics and engineering, and this is certainly very well deserved. Who have been your own role models as a student and young researcher?

I am really thrilled and honored to receive this award, and it is certainly a big responsibility to continue to be a role model to other women. I have met very few women as a young researcher. Looking backward, I realize I have had (and still have!) many role models, both men and women, some of them being my peers; each of them has taught me something and I am extremely grateful to all of them.

Q: What advice you would give to young women and other underrepresented groups who dream of pursuing a career as a scientist?

They should go for it by all means and not be afraid of the challenges it entails! The joy that comes from unveiling the secrets of the Universe is absolutely priceless. There is space for everyone in Science, they should not be scared away from not conforming to the stereotypical scientist, but rather believe that they can bring a unique perspective and nourish their passion.

(Chairwoman of KIF, Maren Malling, interviewed Irene Tamborra)

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