Woman Scientist of the Month: Eleonora Moratto (09/2023)

In regular intervals, EPWS interviews a distinguished woman scientist in 10 questions.

In this section, we are interviewing European women of various ages and disciplines, recognized by the scientific community for their achievements, who are also concerned by the gender-equality goals of EPWS. They are true role models and a source of inspiration for the future for other women scientists.

Read all the Interviews here

This month EPWS gives the floor to Eleonora Moratto, PhD Student at Imperial College London, London, United Kingdom, biologist and professional ballet dancer involved in women in STEAM activities and in SciArt projects.

(shot credit: courtesy of Ben Evans)






EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?

As a polymath, i.e. a person whose expertise spans different subjects, choosing a subject to study at university was a challenge. I attended high school in Udine in Italy, specifically the Liceo Scientifico Marinelli, which enabled me to study a variety of scientific, literary, and artistic subjects up to the age of 19. While I had always been interested in STEM topics, my love for biology was ignited by Prof. Franca Gallo who allowed me to see how the complexity of the biological world could be broken down and understood using the scientific method. So, I decided to apply to Imperial College London to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. I owe my interest in plant-microorganism interactions to Prof. Martin Bidartondo’s lectures and my two internships in his lab. He introduced me to the fascinating world of fungi and their role in plant evolution as both friends and enemies. After this, I decided to pursue a Research Master’s degree in Plant and Microbial Sciences that led me to the work on the pathogens that I am doing today. I would like to stress that this choice was a very gradual one, resulting from the fact that I tackled a broader subject and followed my interests as they arose. If you had spoken to me as a child I would not have mentioned science as a career.

I discussed being a polymath on this podcast: “The Biology of Life and Polymathy with Eleonora Moratto” [The Polymath PolyCast, https://pod.co/polycast/the-biology-of-life-and-polymathy-with-eleonora-moratto-the-polymath-polycast] – “The Polymath PolyCast with Dustin Miller – Podcast.co” (https://pod.co/polycast/the-biology-of-life-and-polymathy-with-eleonora-moratto-the-polymath-polycast)


EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?

My PhD research focuses on the role of electric fields in plant-pathogen interactions. The growing human population requires an increased food production every year, however this must be achieved despite the effects of climate change, desertification and soil nutrient depletion that reduce the amount of cultivable land. So, we must rise to the challenge of increasing crop yields, and pathogens and pests are one of the main causes of yield loss in agriculture. However, the use of chemical pesticides and fungicides can often prove ineffective and have harmful effects on the surrounding environment and biodiversity. Understanding the biology of interactions between plants and pathogens enables us to find new solutions to fight pathogens more effectively and increase yields without harming the environment. My PhD project focuses on a specific tropical pathogen, Phytophthora palmivora, which affects plantation crops like cocoa, durian, and oil palm.

I am trying to exploit the biological phenomenon of electrotaxis, where this pathogen is attached to the positive pole of an electric field, to prevent infection of plant roots. In the past, I have also worked on understanding certain molecular mechanisms of the plant immune system.

Not only biology, my passion is also ballet and choreography. I pursue SciArt (the joining of science and art). People can wonder what do science and ballet have in common: my short answer is storytelling! The result of these two disciplines is a story, which explains how a phenomenon works or conveys the emotion of a human story. When put this way the two no longer seem so different. Both require exploration: of the natural world through the scientific method or of emotion through body movement. I think SciArt is a way to make scientific results more comprehensible to the general public and can also help convey the deep emotions that are involved in scientific discovery. Recently I have been able to perform a short choreography to explain my PhD research (Electric fields in plant pathogen interactions – Eleonora Moratto dances her PhD – YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHhN7wa-UoE). I hope one day to choreograph a whole ballet based on a scientific discovery and the human stories behind it.

Candid shot, shot in the laboratory at Imperial College London.

EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of? ? Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?

This is a difficult question because both research and ballet are focused on projects and change often. For the time being, being able to publish a first-author article with some of the results of my PhD has been a great satisfaction. For ballet, I recently had the opportunity to dance to live opera music at the Swiss Church in Covent Garden.  Being able to convey the incredible performance of a soprano through movement and feel the ground vibrate under my feet has been the high point of my dancing career to date. For SciArt, I am extremely pleased with the video “Eleonora Moratto dances her doctorate”, which reached the final of the international competition of the same name organised by Science magazine.


EPWS: In which country/countries have you been doing research?

For now, I have only done research in the UK but I hope to expand in the future.


EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?

The biggest challenge of the coming months will be writing my thesis and concluding my PhD as well as looking for science and ballet positions for the coming year. I will also be preparing and performing in several ballet productions. At the same time, I will be attending some conferences as well as taking part in outreach activities with Imperial College.


EPWS: Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?

 I was lucky enough not to meet strong barriers during my scientific career. I have found myself in the situation of being the only women in the room a few times and, while that is absolutely not ideal, I have been able to speak up and have my work appreciated. I want to thank Prof. Bernadette Byrne for acting as an informal mentor and, more recently, Dr. Claire Stanley for believing in my ability to carry out my own line of investigation and showing me the path to independent academic research.


Shot in the plant growth facilities at Imperial College London (courtesy of Alexander Yip, SciArt photoshoot collaboration).

EPWS: What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?

While I am not familiar with the statistics my impression is that in the UK biology is one of the STEM fields with less gender bias. This is more obvious in more junior levels since the number of women tends to decrease in more senior roles. I believe there are several gender equality policies in place, and I am sure I have experienced their effects; however, I am unable to point out specific ones.


EPWS: What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?

I believe that as more senior positions are filled by women the needs of women in STEM will be more heard and more specific policies will be put in place to facilitate women’s careers.

This should encourage young women to pursue academic careers.

I also think that the fact that STEM toys are not gendered will allow young girls to become passionate about STEM without thinking that it should not be their field. Raising awareness of scientists and portraying the role of scientists in the media also plays a fundamental role. I would like younger generations to associate the term “scientist” with “someone considering a career in STEM” rather than an older white man in a lab coat. Children should learn that an inquisitive mind and training in the scientific method are the only things that make a scientist: hobbies, gender, colour, sexual orientation, and the way you dress do not matter.


EPWS: Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?

I have only recently become aware of this possibility, and I am looking forward to taking advantage of it in the future.


EPWS: If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?

If I could start over I would not change anything! I have been able to pursue two incredible careers that I love equally, I would never be able to pick between the two, and I am extremely happy that I have been able to have them come together quite often. I hope to do more SciArt work in the near future as well as continuing to advance in both my careers.


EPWS: Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?

My main message would be: ‘follow your dreams, all of them!’. You do not have to pick your favorite passion, you might be equally passionate about multiple things and, if you can combine them, you will be unique and irreplaceable!


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