Francesca Santoro

The project: Researcher Tenure Track @ Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

Francesca, 34 years old from Naples. She is the first Italian researcher appointed by MIT 35under35 Innovators in Europe in 2018 for her studies on a 3D photovoltaic patch: “chip for skin regeneration”.  She returned to Naples from Stanford in order to direct the bioelectronics research group at the Italian Institute of Technology which investigates from solar smart patches to bio-hybrid synapses. A brain drain that returned to Italy. This excellent brain through its international caliber’s research has achieved the sustainable development goal n.9.

From Stanford to Naples

I knew that the experience in the USA would be the best I could ever wish for from a work perspective but I always knew I would come back to Europe and I have always tried to realize this desire. At the end of 2016, the IIT (Italian Institute of Technology) opened a call for research specifically looking for new projects to bring to Naples with a focus on biomaterials, on the interaction between synthetic materials and the human body: a multidisciplinary and highly technological approach. I participated by proposing a project on a solar smart patch based on a photovoltaic panel that converts sunlight into pulses with the aim to accelerate skin wounds’ healing, stitches, but also ulcers – characterized by long-term recovery. They chose me, so I returned to Naples. Against all odds, I returned to the neighborhood where I was born.

After being abroad, you return with a different point of view, with new baggage and with many experiences. In my own way, I feel I brought back to Italy a piece of every experience I made outside.

This is something I recommend to new young researchers since mobility is what feeds our creative process. I think that talking about brain drain is somewhat outdated. First of all, I recommend creating opportunities and looking for them: you will find them. Above all, I suggest living an abroad experience and then bringing back to your country the know-how.

Let’s take a step back: how did you get to Stanford in the first place?

I studied biomedical engineering in Naples and graduated in 2010. I already knew I was interested in bioelectronics hence microchip development, microdevices that interface with the human body. I was particularly interested in the brain and so I moved to Germany, where this particular field has developed. I did a PhD in Aachen on Electrical Engineering and Information Technology for three half years. In this period I also studied some materials engineering and biophysics, in order to understand how human body cells can interact with electronic synthetic materials.

From Germany, I decided to move to the United States where for 10 to 20 years it developed a different bioelectronics’ school. This school aimed to be less theoretical and more practical, it was trying to understand the possible applications of these technologies: how to use electronic fields to cure particular diseases. Hence I decided to move overseas to gain those skills. This is how I got to Stanford, in the Chemical Department.

What do you do now at the IIT?

It has been three years since I came back to Naples; nowadays there are 10 of us from PhDs to expert researchers in the research group I lead. Our field other than microchips for skin regeneration includes the development of microchips that emulate neuronal behavior. 

Recently we developed our first hybrid synapsis, which allows the communication of a biological neuron with an artificial one. In this way, the connection generates a memory, as it normally happens inside our brain. Hence we put the first building block for a new generation of microchips that can be implanted and that actively communicate with brain cells. This opens to new research in the neurodegenerative field, for example.  

All of this is still at the beginning and this year a study was published on Nature Materials. In September I received funding from the ERC (European Research Council, the European community agency that deals with research fundings) with Starting grants of around 2 million Euros. The funding will allow the advancement of the project on hybrid neural networks for the next 5 years.

Nature Materials. Credits ©IIT

Considering the historical moment in which we are living – where the very idea of a European community is at stake and where it is not always possible to find strength in diversity – how much do you think it is important that European grants exist? And in your opinion, how important is the role of the European Union for research in Italy?

It is fundamental. Most of all for Italy: we need these European competitive funds’ support.

The funding reflects the identification of common issues worth pursuing: from sustainability to the advancement of the IoT, to machine learning, to medical issues, and to the support from a central institution. This kind of support allows you to gather, fetch and collect all the ideas coming from various countries and to create common guidelines on common issues. If everyone did as they please, it would be a nonsensical waste of energy and resources: in the field of research, you create flagships and hot topics precisely through cross-country calls.

Each and every country can come up with its opinion and the plan becomes effective if and only if share and participation come from everyone (even with Covid).

Talking about SDGs, your work falls into SDG number 9 and in the target 9.5 which aims to enhance scientific research, including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and increasing the number of research and development workers per 1 million people. How have things changed for scientific research in Italy before and after Covid?

Research became the main protagonist: many people understood that it is an objective necessity “we need a vaccine, hence we need research” and they have seen the outcomes. 

The step forward that we must do is understanding that research lays the groundwork for an important technological advancement, not only for medicine or vaccines but in general for any technological field. This evidence is always understated: the spotlight is always turned on to businesses and big companies, while the basic and fundamental work happens in Universities, in the research centers of our country. Then, in the very unfortunate situation of the COVID emergency, those involved in medical research certainly also found a fertile moment, as a lot of funds were made available from scratch for those topics.

We have been forced to a complete shutdown of our lab. So, what does a researcher do when he or she cannot reach the laboratory? As a researcher, you have to reinvent yourself, and if your practical and experimental activity can not go on, you stay at home, studying and preparing to resume with many new ideas. This is what we did: luckily, we already used digital platforms such as Microsoft Teams. It took a minimal effort to reorganize ourselves and we used this tool in order to keep talking, arguing, and confronting: these are our core activities beyond the experimental ones.

For those who work in the Covid field, it was certainly hard, even practically because it was not easy to enter the laboratory. It was not easy to receive a supply, even gloves! I think that those who did not stop have worked day and night to carry on the experimental activities. We worked a lot as well: differently, from home, through creative processes but mostly trying to keep up the spirit, cheering up young researchers that have undergone a noticeable change of pace. 

In 2018 you were the first Italian researcher to receive MIT’s nomination for being one of 35under35 Innovators in Europe. What kind of experience was it? Which impact had?  

It had a kind of impact that no researcher expects, I have to be honest. We are far from these media dynamics and at one point I found myself on the news. Obviously, there are a lot of good researchers, and rarely we have heard their stories. I think that this award had an impact for several reasons: because of my homecoming because I was an Italian representing Italy and obviously because I am a woman. Moreover, I am a biomedical engineer, a profession that has a legacy from the past. And I am from Naples. As for everything there is a bright side and a dark side. 

The bright side is that excellences remind us that research exists: most of all in Covid times, researchers became almost like superstars, think of virologists. The dark side is the same one: we still need to remember the society that we exist, and in particular female researchers. We deal with a persisting cultural heritage, even in 2018/2020. 

There are many STEM events that I took part in made for encouraging young women to embark on this career. The mere fact that we need to dedicate a space to this activity highlights how much work is yet to be done. IIT is an excellent gender balanced center: particularly in robotics and in engineering – not such female-friendly environments in popular belief.

A question upon your research: what is your opinion on the relationship between tissue engineering and technology? What do you think of Neuralink, Elon Musk’s start-up? 

Our technologies can be the starting point for new applied researches in the medical field i.e. In our lab we created the first hybrid synapsis, but it is just one: we have billions of them in our brain and we are not even sure that all of them are needed, maybe we could implement just a hundred. 

Elon Musk is proposing undoubted advanced technologies. Though he is moving in a delicate field, I suggest caution even on a communication level. Our research is basic, curiosity-driven: it has to explore all the possibilities and the most promising field can undertake technological transfer. They are leading product-oriented research, it is a different world. 

Speaking of communication, what is the relationship between the media and researchers? I guess it is not that easy to communicate a scientific discovery without generating fake news

We face an uncontrolled phenomenon. In addition to fake news, which is deliberately in bad faith, often even where there is good faith the results are served to the general public in a misleading way. For example, if you say “it has been made a new artificial synapse” the news is relaunched with oversimplification as “it has been made a new hybrid brain”: which is actually something else.

Sometimes the media do not realize that their deconstruction of scientific news can a) become a conceptually different thing, b) in medicine, have a negative impact on the patient giving him or her false hope, c) have a huge impact on the researcher, even a negative one. Things are changing though: masters in scientific communication and specialized figures are springing up, because these kinds of news need time to be understood and, above all, because of the difficult task that the science journalist has of translating a scientific concept into everyday news.

Which words would you use to describe your work?

It generates insomnia, it is exciting, and a little bit of madness is always needed.

Which is your superpower?


If you could have another one, which one would you choose?

I am in doubt with ubiquity or patience.

Actually, I would love to have more impact on young thinkers, be able to help their creative process: this is fundamental to me. I came back to Naples and to my quiet neighborhood but there are always some not easy neighborhoods and there are people with no idea of what research is, what discovery is. I would like to engage more: we already do a lot, but I would like to reach a social impact. A researcher knows how to explain what he or she does in an understandable way, but I think that something more is needed: planting a seed is what creates a change.