some palindromic reflections on being differently employed   Leave a comment

In a couple of weeks I will be completing the first year of this new normal we are going through worldwide. It has been a tough year for reasons I would have never thought I could have found myself involved in both personally and professionally. On this palindromic day (12-02-2021) I have decided to reflect, leaving the details of my personal problems to psychotherapy sessions, on some adjustments I had to bring in my professional life. I have to say that working remotely, which has been defined as smart working in Italy, was not exactly something exotic for me due to the computational nature of my job. However, before the pandemic, this smart solution never lasted more than a couple of weeks or months during holidays or differently employed periods of my scientific career. So I ended up doing research with a laptop and its installed virtual machine, a book as mousepad and a tablet as an additional screen to read articles and analyze chemical structure of small molecules. As a computational chemist, I missed the big screens of the desktop computer at the office. Anyway, I really tried to maximize my productivity with the available resources working under the influence of music, coffee, tea and other less professional, still vital, passions. The views of the city of Pisa were stunning in both places I spent last year.

smart working in the room/office of the first apartment

I have never been a very social person, so I would not say that I missed face-to-face interactions with colleagues or long coffee breaks. I actually started drinking coffee again during the first lockdown due to one of those rediscovered personal life passions I will not write about in this semiprofessional post. However, the first month and a half of remote work was somehow a disaster, most probably because I was enjoying too much the sound of the music and having too many coffee/tea breaks ūüôā I was also enjoying cooking and reading again, and my job had become a sort of hobby. Then, after being reminded by my previous advisor that I was not meeting his expectations on the results I was getting, I realized that I needed to organize better the structure of my working days and, fortunately, some good results started appearing.

homemade pizza: my cooking skills are back ūüôā

I kept getting those good results even when I moved to another place in June 2020. However, last July I already knew that I was going to find myself unemployed or differently employed again at the end of the year. In the midst of all the daily life changes the pandemic brought (from the grocery shopping with a face mask to the confined walks inside an apartment), for the first time in my career, I was asked to contribute as a guest editor of a Special Issue for Life (https://lnkd.in/eBnE2XY), an online scientific journal by MDPI, and to be the peer reviewer of four scientific articles by different journals. As if I did not have enough spare time to fill up my days, I accepted almost all invitations. I was even invited to be the reviewer of a grant application, but I had to decline because my terrestrial day was starting to look like that of a workaholic. Instead of experiencing the feeling of an imminent job loss, I was completely overloaded by work because in the last two months of my employment I had also to write up two articles. I managed to submit one of the manuscripts to the Biophysical Journal (BJ) the day before of the end of my contract. Unfortunately, it was rejected by both reviewers, but now we are following their comments and suggestions to make our resubmission to BJ stronger than before. Fortunately, the second manuscript will be submitted to Life for the Special Issue entitled “Advances in G Protein-Coupled Receptors (GPCRs) Medicinal Chemistry” and with a deadline of June 30, 2021 will allow me to look for a job as well. I promoted the Special Issue in my social and professional media accounts (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) to increase its visibility.

remote working in a different room/office with a stunning view
the room with a view in the months of June (top) and October (bottom)

Since the mid of last December I am unemployed or, as I keep writing in this post, differently employed because I have not stopped working from home. To be honest, I have been dedicating more time to the garden and the running of different house related errands so far. Anyway, I am planning to dive more into the scientific work in the next two weeks of this month because I am also attending the 65th Biophysical Society (BPS) Annual Meeting with a poster presentation (595-Pos Analysis of L-DOPA and Droxidopa binding to Human Beta 2-Adrenergic Receptor #bps2021). Although, due to the pandemic, the meeting will be held virtually, I am still kind of excited about it because I have always found BPS Meetings (both Annual and Thematic ones) an excellent way to interact with other scientists. Since I will be attending a job fair associated with the meeting, it is also going to be a platform to look for a job.

Meanwhile I will keep relaxing doing gardening and, when the weather and the restrictions due to the pandemic will allow it, I will try to enjoy the beauties of Sardinia.

alocasia plant and other lovely plants in the garden
a view of Capitana beach in Quartu Sant’Elena overlooking the Gulf of Cagliari

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Posted February 12, 2021 by andrecatte in career

smart working in hard and sad times   Leave a comment

In Italy we have just started the second month of the pandemic COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. It has been really hard to go through every day of these first thirty days, but especially and unfortunately, the last two weeks have been full of sorrow for the many people who died because of the severe symptoms of this disease, which is now spread all over the country and the world. In the 21st century, it is almost unbelievable that we get to the point that we are forced to stay at home and to have lockdowns of cities, unless we live in South Korea, in order to try to contain the contagion. In modern times, it is unacceptable that medical doctors and nurses have to work without enough resources to protect themselves and to treat patients.

It has become very risky even going out for walks, which have been now limited to a radius of 200 meters around your home, or doing the grocery shopping. Italians have learned in the hardest and saddest way how to respect queues and rules. Unfortunately, some idiots (including me taking a trip to Florence on February 22, just one day after the first case) continued to live their lives as nothing had actually happened and this has led to the spread of the disease in other regions of Italy and even countries, where it could have been contained in a better way. Although this was the kind of response more or less every country adopted to deal with the pandemic, this does not make easier to process the whole situation. Instead of listening to scientists, such as virologists, or following China’s approach, which actually started producing results after three months of lockdown, our government has taken severe measures only after two weeks that the first infected patient showed up in a hospital in Lombardia.

I have started working from home since March 6 (the second picture is a view of the Church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri taken from the window of my office in Palazzo D’Ancona). I had the pleasure to be in a smart working situation before, but in such hard and sad times it can be very tough. However, the view from the window of the room I’m renting is very nice and I live in one of the nicest areas of Pisa (last three pictures). Anyway, I am trying to be as productive as I can, and more than ever I realize how lucky I am in doing a job that has always allowed me to work in every place with an internet connection. Ten days ago I did the grocery shopping in what it seemed like a surreal and fearful situation, which has now become the new normal for millions of Italians. After that sad and scary experience, due to my physical and mental health conditions, I have chosen to do my grocery shopping online. I have been watching on tv the daily sad report of cases, deaths and recovered, hoping that the mathematical models predicting the arrival of a contagion peak were going to be right. As of today, it seems highly unlikely that we will see that peak at the end of this month. I am trying to keep myself as informed as possible, even on the internet reading the news and keeping an eye on the coronavirus COVID-19 interactive map of the Johns Hopkins University. Moreover, I follow with heartfelt interest what it is also happening in The Netherlands, USA, Finland and UK, which are the countries I used to live and work before my return to Italy, through the news and friends.

Yesterday our prime minister concluded his speech saying that united we will make it. Putting aside any kind of political and social divisions, we will have to stay united as a nation, and a whole world, if we want to defeat this deadly pandemic. About two weeks ago I had my last walk in the beautiful park Le Piagge, which is located nearby where I live in Pisa, on a lovely sunny day. I am looking forward to going out for another long walk in a park. Everything will be alright. Andra’ tutto bene.

Posted March 22, 2020 by andrecatte in career

back to the future   Leave a comment

After all I can really say that I’ve been very lucky in my journey to find a new position. About ten days ago I’ve signed a new contract to work as a postdoctoral researcher (assegnista di ricerca in italian) again in the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and on a very exciting project devoted to the study of prebiotic molecules involved in the development of life in space. It’s gonna be a challenging and learning experience at the same time because of my limited experience in Quantum Mechanical calculations to develop Molecular Mechanics force fields. Anyway, I’m going to be guided by and work with real experts in the group of Prof. Vincenzo Barone at Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa.

Coming back to live and work in Tuscany in such a short period of time seems like a dream. I’m also very grateful to Prof. Giuseppe Brancato, my previous advisor, for making this possible and allowing me to continue the collaboration with his research group. So, I’ll also be able to keep performing Molecular Dynamics simulations of larger systems as well. Since I’ve spent these first few days of the new job mainly reading the literature, I’m really looking forward to working on both new small molecules and new larger proteins.

Posted December 27, 2019 by andrecatte in career

guess what?… I’m unemployed again   Leave a comment

In my almost 20 year long professional career, I’d have thought that getting fired/worn out 4-5 times could have been enough, but of course I was completely wrong. So at the not so old but not so young either age of 47 I find myself in one of those unemployment segments of my life. Although I’ve been dealing with different health problems this year, it’s been still difficult to accept the current status for many reasons. However, I’ve kept working on the same project, which I was contributing to before going to the unemployment sector of my research activity, and other research projects as well. Somehow, I’d say that I’m on a sort of long partially paid holiday because I’m getting the support for unemployed researchers from the national institute for the retirement. Moreover, the fact that I’m posting this late announcement of my job loss on my semi-professional blog means that I’m still working on something, which is a good thing both for my brain and my spirit.

Apart from some serious financial problems, it hasn’t been such a bad situation either. I’ve filled my free time with long hours in the garden (not sure I could call gardening what I was actually doing), endless watching of youtube videos (those on gardening tips almost equalizing those from American late night tv shows) and Netflix series, and long reads of good books (ending up reading more than I used to do on a real holiday). I didn’t listen to as much music as I’d have liked to, but I still have two more months of unemployed status to catch up with that.

During these first four months I’ve been questioning my career goals, which have been kind of silent and made me think that it was probably the right time for a career change. Despite that, I’ve kept sending those job applications hoping to find an occupation soon. Anyway, I thought about sharing my knowledge of some beautiful places of my hometown Cagliari with tourists using my passion for cycling. At the beginning of this month I’ve become a local friend on guidemeright.com with a posted activity, https://www.guidemeright.com/en/things-to-do-in/cagliari/cagliari-vista-da-una-bicicletta-en, which hasn’t been very successful so far. So, at this stage, it couldn’t be considered a long term solution for buying groceries either. I’ve also joined the bike sharing community of Cagliari as I did in Pisa and I’m looking forward to using this eco-friendly service.

Wherever my job will take me, I’ll definitely keep lovely memories of Pisa, Siena, Florence and the wonderful Tuscany. Here are pictures of some beautiful places that have become familiar for about two years.

Palazzo della Carovana, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa
view of the Leaning Tower of Pisa from Palazzo della Carovana
The Basilica of San Domenico in the lovely Siena
Pisa’s Cathedral and the famous Leaning Tower in Piazza dei Miracoli
Battistero di Pisa and on the background the Cathedral and the Leaning Tower
Santa Maria Novella’s church in Firenze
Neptune fountain in the wonderful Giardino di Boboli in Florence
Keith Haring’s mural Tuttomondo in Pisa
A lovely view of Siena’s Duomo from Piazza del Campo
One of those amazing sunset views from Ponte di Mezzo in Pisa

Posted October 25, 2019 by andrecatte in career

Remembering my father and my grandmother   Leave a comment

It has passed about fourteen months since my father’s departure, but it still feels like he started his journey to the sky yesterday. ¬†I have been thinking about him every day, I have been feeling his presence and love in all the good things life can offer and his good soul has been giving me the strength to cope with the difficulties of those days in which I did not have too much energy left to work and to live. ¬†Dad has always been extremely supportive and proud of my career even when I was not able to find too many motivations. ¬†His constant support and his love have always given me so much positive energy to recharge myself in those days the bipolar disorder was bringing me down and to keep never giving up. ¬†All those positive emotions have always been present in the passion I have been putting in my research work, cooking, gardening, cycling, playing football, volleyball and all activities I enjoyed doing. ¬†We could not be more different from each other. ¬†My father has always been a very patient and extremely sociable kind of person, while I’m easily irritable and not as communicative as him. ¬†Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I miss him so much.

Finding a job in Italy last year and going back to my home country to work in Pisa at Scuola Normale Superiore, which is such a prestigious academic institution, are products of his love.  He would have been so happy for me to see I finally succeeded in getting a job in the same region of the city of Florence, where he worked and met my mother, the love of his life.  Florence is only a bit more than 50 miles far away from Pisa.  Although I have visited Tuscany, especially Florence and Siena, several times in the past, visiting again Florence last January after almost eighteen years since my last trip to the city where my parents met has been a lovely, magic and difficult experience at the same time. I would have really loved visiting Firenze with my parents. We have been making plans for our special trip to Tuscany so many times, but we have kept postponing our vacation for different reasons. Although I have never lived in Florence (if we exclude the time I spent there when my mother was pregnant), I feel like there has always been a strong bond with the city and its people. The city is simply a magical place and it seems like I am time traveling when I walk down its streets.

My dad was a devoted football fan since he was a young kid.  After the war football had become almost a second religion for many Italians, and my dad started cultivating his passion for Cagliari, the team of my hometown, Fiorentina, Italy and football in general.  When he used to work in Florence he was also the president of the Cagliari football team supporters club.  In the late 60s early 70s Cagliari was one of the strongest teams in Italy thanks to a great coach, Manlio Scopigno, and many talented players, such as Gigi Riva (the most prolific striker Italy has ever had) Albertosi, Tommasini, Domenghini, Nene’, Niccolai and others, who were also playing for the national team.  My father had the pleasure of seeing that extraordinary team playing and winning the Italian championship in the season 1969/1970 (the first and so far only scudetto for Cagliari in about 100 years of history) and those players made it also to the Mexico 1970 World Cup final, loosing it only to the extraterrestrial Brazil of Pele’.  He managed to know and to hang out with those players and he kept being involved in so many charity games they played after they retired.  These men, who became heroes of the entire region of Sardinia for that stunning victory, had a great consideration of my father, who has alway been a very sociable, constantly smiling and easygoing person.  I remember him being able to start a conversation with everyone.  I was always surprised of how many friends he had.  I wish I had inherited half of his social skills and his patience.

Last March Davide Astori, the captain of Fiorentina, who also played for Cagliari, passed away suddenly overnight.  His early departure has been such a deep loss for his beloved young family, his close relatives, the city of Florence, the football teams of Fiorentina and Cagliari, the national team and everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him personally.  I remember my father talking about him so many times when he used to play for Cagliari.  On the same month there has also been another big loss in the world of science with the passing of the great scientist Stephen Hawking, who has defeated so many adversities during his wonderful and full of love life.

At the beginning of last week my grandmother, my father’s mother, passed away at the age of 99 and for my family it was like reliving the same sad experience of last year. ¬†She was a lovely, peaceful and strong woman, who helped so many people throughout all her long and happy life. ¬†I will never forget her love for all her grandchildren, which she expressed in so many beautiful ways. ¬†She used to prepare delicious meals for me when I was still attending the university, she was really an excellent cook, and she supported me a lot during my years as a student. ¬†I will always remember her patience, she was as patient as my father, ¬†her smile, her peaceful blue eyes, the same color of my father’s eyes, and so many good things she did for me, my family and all the people had the pleasure to know her. ¬†Now she is reunited with grandpa and dad in heaven. ¬†They have become our guardian angels and, hopefully, we will see each other again in a higher dimension. ¬†I also like to think that now my father, my grandmothers, my grandfathers, my relatives and friends are now hanging out with other beautiful and good people, and all of them are helping the Lord in bringing peace and love to our world.

 

 

 

Posted May 25, 2018 by andrecatte in personal

Some thoughts on the Liposomes, Exosomes, and Virosomes Biophysical Society thematic meeting while dealing with different forms of rejection and pressure   Leave a comment

About two weeks ago I attended a very interesting Biophysical Society thematic meeting entitled Liposomes, Exosomes, and Virosomes: From Modeling Complex Membrane Processes to Medical Diagnostics and Drug Delivery held in the beautiful Monte Verita’ in Ascona, Switzerland.

It has been a vey intense and enriching professional experience, and being a guest blogger of the meeting for the Biophysical Society blog has also been challenging and demanding at the same time. Apart from the highly interesting talks from extremely talented and successful speakers, I also had the opportunity to socialize with new and old friends during breakfast, lunch, dinner and poster presentations times. Fortunately, we also had some time off to enjoy the wonderful lake views, to hike, and to visit Ascona, Locarno and other nearby amenities.asconabpstm2016

All the positive energy I collected during the week long meeting lasted long enough to give a decent talk, which was on the same research topic of the poster presented ten days before, at the 52nd Annual Chemistry Research Colloquium at John Innes Centre in Norwich. Unfortunately, it did not last too long because last Friday we got a rejection for a manuscript, completely based on the research of the talk, submitted to the Biophysical Journal at the beginning of this month.

Anyway, we received very good (still negative) comments by all the reviewers of the paper and we will, hopefully, find a way to improve the manuscript to make it publishable in another journal sooner or later…

 

Posted September 27, 2016 by andrecatte in career

managing discipline … across fieldworks   Leave a comment

As all the good things even the course on developing teaching skills had to come to an end. ¬†It ended with an optional module entitled managing fieldwork across disciplines. ¬†We were only two attending this optional module. ¬†So the lecturer had the opportunity to let us talk and discuss a lot, although given my lack of experience in terms of fieldwork I didn’t have too much to say.

Anyway, it was interesting to learn how to handle different situations with my more experienced colleague.  The lecturer covered all the aspects of the risk assessment and all of the details that need to be considered before undertaking a field trip with students.  The role of the teaching assistant in the fieldwork was also clarified very well.  Although the responsibility is mainly on the academic leading the fieldwork and lecturing the students, the role of the teaching assistant(s) is also very important.  In few words some vivid students can do things that can make a field trip kind of entertaining.  So the academic needs the help of the teaching assistants to make sure that the students do not injure themselves more or less severely and to help the students in their learning experience by showing them equipments and by interacting with them in different ways.

It has been a very enlightening and enriching experience to attend the course on developing teaching skills at UEA.  Now I have to focus on the writing up of the 3,000 words essay we should submit next month.

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Posted November 25, 2014 by andrecatte in career

teaching international students .. can be stressful sometimes   Leave a comment

This morning I attended another interesting optional module of the course on developing teaching skills at UEA.  The lecture was about teaching international students.  I knew the lecturer, Chris Bishop, from a previous lecture on academic writing I attended more than seven months ago.  Chris Bishop works as a Learning Enhancement Tutor at UEA, he is really an excellent lecturer and he has also worked in other countries.  More information about his past jobs and his current activities at UEA can be found in the following link: https://portal.uea.ac.uk/dos/learning-enhancement/about/chris-bishop

So he is extremely experienced in teaching international students.  I really enjoyed the way he introduced the topic with questions, a short video and a brief open discussion.  I appreciated a lot his jokes and anecdotes as well.  We initially discussed the definition of international students in the UK.  If I understood it correctly students coming from the EU are not considered international, while a student coming from any other country outside the UK and the EU has the status of international.

Then, we focused on how to deal with the different kind of problems international might face in an education system different from the one of their country origin, from the marking scheme to the language difficulties. ¬†When we were working in groups, it was kind of enlightening to deal with different possible scenarios a lecturer might encounter when teaching international students. ¬†In every group each of us had to pick a card with a probable case of a student generating and/or ending up in some sort of trouble. ¬†Some cases involved lack of effort in assessments, more or less appropriate and expensive presents for lecturers, students complaining loudly about a low mark etc. ¬†“My student”, who had written an unnecessary two pages long introduction before hitting the topic at page 3, reminds me of someone I know quite well ūüôā

We also familiarised with some numbers regarding the international community at UEA (about 3,000 people, the majority of them coming from China) and the size of the personal vocabulary of a non native English speaker (from 3,500 to 5,000) and by a native English speaker (from 20,000 to 40,000).

Finally we could choose the topic to let the lecturer close his lively and extremely entertaining lecture; we democratically chose to get a better understanding of the use of the language with international students.  It was very formative because we received many suggestions on how to deal with different more or less complicated situations.  Then, an enlightening slide showed us how stress and anxiety are inversely correlated to the language skills.  The joke about the expression of feelings while finding a parking spot was really funny.

I honestly thought that it would have been easier teaching international students, and it turned out I had also other misconceptions.. so it looks like that teaching international students can be stressful sometimes.

Posted November 18, 2014 by andrecatte in career

the importance of working .. in groups   Leave a comment

The topic of today’s optional module was designing and leading seminars to promote learning. ¬†Apart from missing the beginning of it because I misread the reminder, it was very enlightening to attend the lecture, to work in groups with other colleagues and to share with them my few dramatic experiences in the field of “delivering” seminars. ¬†Initially we interacted in two large groups. ¬†In each group one was playing the part of the tutor and another was working as the observer. ¬†The tutor of the group I belonged to played a nice name game to get to know each member of the group.

Then, the importance of the seating arrangement of the students and the tutor was also discussed thanks to the help of a couple of videos. From the videos we were able to appreciate the importance of creating groups of students to stimulate not only the learning experience but also to help the development of social skills and other skills as well.

Other equally important aspects of the design of a seminar were also introduced by the lecturers: the adequate use of questions (not supposed to intimidate the students), the understanding of different levels of engagement (the silent engagement of students can be tolerated because they are listening and learning that way) and the importance of mixing groups of different nationalities. ¬†Then, we were also provided with do’s and don’ts, such as avoiding some types of questions, and with some practical advices, such as preparing the seminar beforehand and knowing the number of students.

Anyway, it was very interesting for me to see how effective it can be a seminar in which groups of students, starting from smaller (just 2 students) to larger sizes, interact with each other and the tutor. The tutor is acting like a catalyst and he is supposed to speed up the learning process.  If I get to design a seminar in the future what I have learned today will be very helpful.

Posted November 11, 2014 by andrecatte in career

50 minutes   Leave a comment

Today’s optional module of the course on developing teaching skills was entitled giving an effective lecture. ¬†Victor Morgan, who is a senior lecturer in history at the University of East Anglia (UEA), gave a really entertaining and at the same time a very formative presentation. ¬†He has been giving lectures since 1967, so his presentation skills were right where they were supposed to be, and he made some jokes that were really funny too. ¬†Due to the interactive format of the presentation there was not so much interaction with other colleagues in single groups as in the previous modules; we worked as a whole group.

A brief introduction of ourselves in small groups, during which I learned a couple of new words, was followed by an open discussion led by the lecturer through the menu he prepared for us.  I took many notes and I should probably use them to write this post, but I will try to list the main points and some of the take home messages I can remember.  I have never heard before the term flipped lecture and I found it very appealing.  Moreover, Simon Lancaster, who is a senior lecturer in chemistry at the UEA, in collaboration with David Read, who is a principal teaching fellow in chemistry at the University of Southampton, have been using this concept of flipping teaching for some time.  If you are interested in it here is a link to some reading on this topic:

http://www.rsc.org/Education/EiC/issues/2013september/flipped-classroom-inverting-lectures.asp

now I am going to read more about flipped lectures and not only about that. ¬†We were also introduced to the importance of making jokes (the impersonation of Marlon Brando from the Godfather performed by the lecturer wasn’t so bad..), having breaks (and I am not writing about the coffee/tea break we had, although it was important to have that one as well) and changing the tone of your voice to stress some key learning points (using repetitions and without shouting at the students).

Then, we were introduced to how to deal with some aspects regarding the students’ discipline and the process of writing a lecture using different styles and software packages. ¬†Finally I learned that the UEA hour for a lecture has been fixed to 50 minutes, which makes the preparation of the structure and the rehearsal of the timings of the lecture very important. ¬†However, those 50 minutes can be reduced even to 45, making a flipped teaching approach to work more effectively.

The following link is kind of interesting

http://www.educatorstechnology.com/2014/11/excellent-graphic-feauring-10-powerful.html

Posted November 4, 2014 by andrecatte in career