Francesca Rizzo is a DAWN/Interactions Fellow at the Cosmic Dawn Center at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

Congratulations on being awarded the Otto Hahn Medal by the Max Planck Society!

Please tell us about your research and why is it important.

The Universe is dominated by so complex phenomena that we do not yet have a comprehensive view of how galaxies were born and grew. Despite new insights that have been achieved in the field of galaxy formation theory in the last years, the history of the young Universe is one of the outstanding puzzles of modern astrophysics. The main open questions are: what are the main mechanisms shaping the morphologies of young galaxies? How did the infant galaxies acquire the fuel to form stars? The observations of young galaxies are thus crucial to answering these questions and gaining new insights into the past history of our Galaxy, the Milky Way. With my research, I try to understand how galaxies formed and evolved across cosmic time. In particular, I study young and very distant galaxies with the aim of gaining insight into the early stages of the Universe.

What are your plans and what are the possibilities that this grant opens for you?

My contract at the Cosmic Dawn Center will finish at the end of December 2023. For this reason, from September, I am planning to apply for my next position as a Postdoctoral fellow. I also would like to get some grants for having my own research group. I hope that the Otto Hahn Medal will act as a springboard for pursuing a faculty job in the near future.

Where have you studied and which positions have you held before your current one?

I come from a small village in Apulia, a region in southern Italy, and I did high school with a specialization in science there. When I was 19, I moved to Pisa (Italy) for my Bachelor in Physics and then to Bologna (Italy) for my Master in Astrophysics. I then moved again to Munich where I completed my Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics. Since December 2020, I have been living in Copenhagen where I work at the Cosmic Dawn Center, Niels Bohr Institute as an independent postdoctoral fellow.

How did you choose the field of physics you are now specialized in?

When we look at the night sky, we are looking back in time. I was 12 when I read this concept in a book by a famous Italian astrophysicist, Margherita Hack. At that moment, I was so surprised and excited about the idea of learning the history of the Universe by just looking at the most distant cosmic structures at those tiny, faint sparkles in the sky. This is the main idea that pushed me to study astrophysics and focus on galaxies that are almost at the edge of the observable Universe.

What motivated you to study physics?

The curiosity and the urge to address open questions about the cosmos drive my motivation.

Did you have a role model or mentor? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?

Yes, there are many people that are a continuous source of inspiration for me: researchers who are involved in many activities, from outreach for kids and disabled people to activists for making academia more inclusive. All these people have helped me to understand that doing research is not only just sitting in front of a computer and solving equations but it’s also having a positive impact both on the general society and on the research environment.

What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science?

This is my list of advice:

  1. If you want to pursue a career in science, just do it and don’t pay attention to anyone saying you are not good enough to do something you want to do. Don’t give up and remember that any technical challenge you face is positive as you will learn something new.
  2. Try to find supportive mentors and spend your energy only on fruitful and constructive collaborations.
  3. Remember to recognize and appreciate your achievements