Before AstroSamantha Cristoforetti, the Italian flag at Nasa was flown by Cinzia Zuffada who, in the late 1980s, thanks to a scholarship in California, approached the American space environments. From Pavia to the scholarship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena to the current role of Associate Chief Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it has been a 28 year-long journey. A pioneering experience that also earned her the 2019 Ghisleri Prize.
Zuffada has been working at Nasa for 28 years. She first did ten years as a researcher and now deals with management, managing funds for research programs. Initially in one section, the Science Division, and now in the Office of the Chief Scientist. “It’s important to manage the funds well in order to keep the lab competitive,” she says. “A slice of this is allocated based on the proposals that the researchers submit to my office.”
Her team is a research community of a thousand people, out of a staff of six thousand employees. Four thousands of them are engineers, scientists, technologists. “Researchers are the ones who, by trade, write the proposals we are asking for funding for. The others are responsible for developing the projects. They are two different worlds,” says the engineer, who curates two research programs. One program is grassroots, the other is collaborative with universities. “We finance small projects that allow us to catalyze larger collaborations,” Zuffada says.
One of the most important ones was the CubeSat, a miniaturized satellite in very small sizes that allow to carry out scientific research in space at very low costs. A revolution, for a laboratory like the JPL, accustomed to the large and very complicated space missions – one example among many: the deployment of the Galileo probe, which reached Jupiter. “But small satellites were needed,” she points out. “And a decade ago we started a collaborative program with academia: universities are better suited, than we are, to build these types of system in a competitive, low-cost way. However, we have added our knowledge of miniaturized scientific instrumentation (which universities do not have) and some services, such as radio instruments for telecommunications”.
There is a reduction in the Earth’s surface waters for a number of reasons. Many are attributable to the action of human beings, and among them the main one is the construction of cities
At Nasa, however, they also deal with the environment, as Zuffada recounts. Another great success of the Internal Research Programme was the development of a model, now accepted by all experts and highly appreciated, which allows the description of the behavior of glaciers on very large scales. “With this tool we are able to map all relevant processes in the cryosphere,” Zuffada says. “What’s interesting is that it was created as an engineering model, that is, based on fluid mechanics and used to analyze deforming structures. But through a process of reworking – our community is always in turmoil, full of ideas and initiatives – it has become, while still preserving the same original bricks, the most advanced of all”.
The same scientist deals with the environment in her daily work. “The right application is to measure the topography of the surface of the seas and the distribution of surface water on Earth,” she says. “In other words, we deal with the mapping of swamps (and by “swamp” I mean, in a technical sense, an ecosystem where surface water is present). The data we acquire allows us to grasp the scale of the changes that happen on planet Earth.”
The most relevant evidence collected so far is that the swamps are changing, there is a reduction that is happening very quickly, for a number of reasons. Many are attributable to the action of human beings, and among them the main one is the construction of the urban network, with which many natural ecosystems have been destroyed. Other reasons are due to global warming. This is why Zuffada has been agreeing on the data presented regarding the climate emergency, for a long time now and in a very organic way, through the groups of the Ipcc – among whom are Nasa scholars. “With this data you have the overall and global picture and, if you will, you can quantify what is going on. So I fully agree,” she says.
The numbers of female presence in scientific subjects have not changed significantly compared to Zuffada’s generation
As for Italy, on the whole, the researcher’s assessment of the Italian scientific education system is positive from the point of view of training. “For at least ten years, in a very proactive way, I have been trying to develop projects between JPL and Italian universities. I got to know and observe several young Italians and appreciate their preparation. But that’s more theoretical and academic,” she says. Too much theory, then? According to the scientist, the ability to absorb young people into work is what is most lacking. Many graduates, despite having a good knowledge base, go to work in places where this same background is not put to good use. “It’s a very rigid, bureaucratic system that has a huge limit: it doesn’t teach you to want to work in an innovative way,” she admits.
In various ways, the engineer is also committed to equal opportunities in the scientific world for women. But, compared to when she was studying, she admits that things haven’t improved that much. “The numbers of women in science have not changed significantly compared to my generation,” she says. “There are so many reasons behind it. Some are related, if you will, to the education of girls, different from that given to boys. The roles that are suggested – and those that you then end up taking on – do not sufficiently support the idea that a little girl can take an interest in the scientific world, or that a woman can do well in science. I remember as a child there was a big difference in expectations for girls and boys. One of the great stoppers, when entering such a masculine environment, is also a strong lack of gratification.” And this applies not only to Italy, but also to the United States.