Woman Scientist of the Month: Costanza Bonadonna (04/2020)

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 Prof. Costanza Bonadonna, Full Professor with the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, vice-dean of the Faculty of Science and the Head of the Program for the Assessment and Management of Geological and Climate-Related Risk


Contact: Costanza.Bonadonna@unige.ch


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.)?

I have always been fascinated by nature since I was a little kid! One of my favourite games with my friends at elementary school was to play natural park rangers saving forests and animals from human attacks and poachers! In fact, I realised early on that there was something wrong with the way we live on our planet. Growing up, I decided to go into science with the idea to explore new ways of relating with nature. Being born and raised in Italy, I was also exposed to the importance of better managing our territory to face various natural risks, namely earthquakes, floods, landslides and volcanic eruptions.

In particular, I was always fascinated by the dynamic interplay between our communities and the raw expression of nature through volcanic eruptions that includes negative impacts (e.g. death and disruption) as well as beneficial aspects (e.g. fertilisation of soils and tourism).  In this context, I realised the importance to develop strategies for a sustainable development of our planet where people and nature can coexist and support each other. On one hand, it is important that our communities are better prepared to face natural hazards, but on the other hand we also need to establish brand new plans of actions to inhabit our planet that minimize our destructive impact on the ecosystem. These holistic strategies can only be based on a solid multi-disciplinary scientific approach.

My first role model that inspired me through life was my mother who taught me not to give up, even when faced with difficulties, resourcing on a great inner strength, passion and enthusiasm. In addition, my father, also a geology professor, inspired me to pursue my studies as a way to gain freedom from conventional thinking and create my own personal outlook on life. My male primary school teacher also had an important role in supporting me to be myself and follow my aspirations regardless of societal expectations (such as playing football in a male dominated sport at that time in Italy!). However, the first input and inspiration to be involved in the science of risk reduction was provided by Prof. Franco Barberi who came to my high school in Pisa (Italy) describing the successful effort in mitigating the impact of lava flows associated with the eruptions of Mount Etna volcano in Italy. I also had the opportunity to attend his classes at the University of Pisa during pursuit of my bachelor’s degree. The University of Pisa was an excellent environment for exploring various aspects of physical volcanology and volcanic risk. There, thanks also to family support, I was inspired to study abroad to learn different languages and different cultures.


CERGC field trip to Vulcano (Italy) – Teaching on top of La Fossa volcano (May 2015)


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

I am a researcher in physical volcanology and professor of Geological Risks in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Geneva. My responsibilities include research and teaching (at Bachelor and Master levels), the supervision of doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers as well as the development, writing and coordination of international research projects. I am also the director of CERG-C program (Specialization certificate in the assessment and management of geological and climate-related risks; http://www.unige.ch/sciences/terre/CERG-C/) and vice-dean of the Faculty of Science of the University of Geneva.

The main objective of my research is the characterization and description of volcanic phenomena based on the integration of field, experimental and numerical approaches. A multi-disciplinary understanding of volcanic processes is, in fact, key to develop effective strategies of risk reduction. Part of my mission as a scientist is also to transfer key scientific knowledge to stakeholders involved in risk and crisis management in order to optimize risk reduction strategies and contribute to the resilience of communities and a more sustainable development of our planet. In particular, I devoted most of my research to the modeling of particle dispersal and sedimentation from volcanic plumes and clouds, to the exploration of new methodologies for characterizing volcanic ash deposits and eruptive source parameters and to the development of probabilistic analysis for hazard and risk assessment. As an example, I contributed to the development of new strategies to mitigate the volcanic threat in the field of civil aviation following the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano (Iceland) (www.unige.ch/sciences/terre/CERG-C/international-conferences/workshop2) and to gain a better understanding of the widespread, long-lasting and impactful volcanic hazard associated with the remobilisation of volcanic ash by wind especially emphasized by recent eruptions (www.unige.ch/hazards/international-conferences/ash-remobilisation-2019).


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?

The part that I like the most about my work, and that I also consider my greatest success, is the group I built at the University of Geneva, the research we carry out together, the interaction with my post-graduate students and postdocs and the collaboration with my colleagues on topics that have important implications for society, such as geological risk. This includes also the capacity building that we are promoting with the CERG-C program which allows me to work directly with scientists and risk reduction practitioners from all over the world and the outreach activities we carry out with children in various contexts and countries.

Being an academic mentor provides many opportunities of great personal satisfaction. Every time one of my students successfully defends their PhD/Master and/or acquires more self-confidence to go and be what they want to be in life …. is a great personal satisfaction; every time one of the CERG-C participants obtains their certificate, grows as a scientist or practitioner and contributes to increasing the resilience of the community…. is a great personal satisfaction.


CERGC field trip to Vulcano (Italy) – Teaching on top of La Fossa volcano (May 2017)


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

I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Italy and completed my master and PhD projects in UK. Then, I moved to Hawaiʻi for my postdoctoral research as a SOEST Young-Investigator, to Florida for a position of Assistant Professor and to Geneva, Switzerland, where I am now Full Professor. My research was first based in the Caribbean on Montserrat and in New Zealand during my PhD, and Hawaii and Central America during my postdoctoral research. My active projects are currently mostly in South America, Iceland and Italy. All these projects gave me the opportunity to work with scientists and stakeholders from international to local level. On several occasions, I worked with communities exposed to risk, gaining useful insights not only into volcanic phenomena but also into how people live with risk.


EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?

Unfortunately, my research agenda, as is the agenda of most academics these days, has been seriously affected by the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. University buildings and labs are now closed, and international travels are banned, so it is currently very uncertain. All field trips, trainings and international conferences that were on my agenda of the next few months have been cancelled. Everything is working through Zoom and Skype. On the bright side, I have an opportunity to spend extra time supporting the Master students, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in my group during these challenging times as well as brainstorm new effective educational and research strategies in this rapidly changing world.


Field trip to Askja volcano, Iceland (August 2017) to study the pyroclastic deposits of the 1875 eruption


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

I did not meet many barriers during my path as a scientific researcher as I was open to travel to different countries and continents and to invent and reinvent my life every time. Even though I had a few disillusions in my early career due to inappropriate behaviour of some senior male scientists, I was also fortunate to have a very supportive family and group of close friends, colleagues and mentors that helped along the way. In particular, I was largely inspired by my Master and PhD supervisor at the University of Bristol (UK), Professor Steve Sparks, an amazing person and an exceptional scientist who brought quantitative ways of thinking from physics to the field of volcanology. With him I learned to conduct science applied to societal aspects, namely volcanic risks.

I also had the chance to do part of my PhD on the small island of Montserrat in the Caribbean during the eruption of Soufrière Hills volcano in the late 1990s. It was there that I acquired my first real disaster experience as a professional and I observed that volcanic disasters depend as much on social, cultural and political factors of the population as on the physical and chemical characteristics of the eruption. I then broadened my perspective on numerical modelling, physical volcanology and volcanic risk through the interaction with other key mentors during my early-career years, such as Prof. Gianni Macedonio and Prof. Mauro Rosi (University of Pisa, Italy), Prof. Bruce Houghton (University of Hawaii, USA) and Prof Chuck Connor (University of South Florida, USA).

Since I arrived in Geneva to become the director of the CERG-C program, I quickly developed my interests in natural disasters by passing from the evaluation of volcanic hazards to other important aspects for the evaluation of natural risks, such as economic, social, physical and systemic vulnerability. Integrating all these aspects of risk assessment and management has been a real challenge! However, it allowed me to develop solid and enriching multidisciplinary collaborations with operational agencies, such as civil protection agencies, international organizations, and local institutions dealing with risk reduction that inspired me and motivated me to go deeper in this path.


Working with a radar doppler during the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano (Iceland)


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

There are several female volcanologists at the doctoral and postdoctoral level. However, with some variations depending on countries and cultures (Switzerland and Italy certainly being the case), it is more difficult for women to become a professor in the geosciences due to a combination of factors. First, social conditioning and stereotypes often make women disbelieve in themselves and not to take positions of responsibility outside the household. In addition, gender stereotypes cause female students to be seen as less talented than male students in most scientific disciplines, and, in the context of geosciences, less fitted for physical work and long field campaigns. These implicit stereotypical beliefs clearly impact job and career opportunity both for men and women as well as their motivation and ambition to cover a counter-stereotypical domain (e.g. field geologist and/or professorship for a woman).

Second, the competitive university environment is typically more fitting for male scientists and success is measured in terms of everything that men do. Women are, therefore, invited to follow the image of stereotypical successful men instead of exploring and embracing alternative approaches and modalities. I believe that, in order to start a real work of integration, society needs to appreciate the intrinsic differences between men and women, even though these differences should not be magnified by gender stereotypes that are often used to justify social inequality.

Third, the most critical and delicate phase of the scientific career is just after completing the doctorate degree, and during the postdoc and tenure-track positions in the university. It is at this time when junior scientists are looking for permanent employment. Unfortunately, this phase involves a great need to publish, write research project grant proposals, and engage 100% in work to fast track the career, which normally coincides with the time when also women would like to build a family. In addition, an academic career normally requires many job and country changes, which also does not lend itself to building a traditional family. Society has unrealistic and sometimes unhealthy expectations regarding gender, and women often find themselves in a precarious situation. According to the consensus of society, women must “do everything”, which means “work-life balance” and the ability to multitask on many activities. This does not mean that it is impossible for women to build a family and pursue an academic career, but it is certainly very demanding and requires a combination of attention to many aspects of detail, including thoughtful planning and building a supportive environment of friends and colleagues especially when far from the original family.

A better implementation of gender equality in science would, therefore, require a variety of radical shifts in the societal paradigm. With small differences, this is true in all countries where I have lived and worked (Italy, UK, USA and Switzerland).

First, we need to become aware of our unconscious bias and acknowledge the existence of gender stereotypes in the workplace that limit job opportunities, choices and ambitions for both men and women.

Second, we need a shift in mentality since early age of education to push both young men and women to think outside the box to be what they ultimately want to be, regardless of social and stereotypical expectations.

Third, we should broaden the skill set required in stereotypical tasks of academic jobs to make them more attractive to both men and women.

Finally, more structured social support is needed to facilitate young scientists trying to build their career while also developing and raising a family (e.g. double parental leave is needed, as is access to state-funded nursery schools). Once more women will occupy positions of both scientific and administrative responsibility in academia and will go beyond stereotypical expectations, the general work environment will naturally become more balanced and more inclusive. A successful, enriching and healthy work environment, in fact, can only be an inclusive environment where all differences (e.g. gender, cultural, religious) are embraced and integrated.


Field work at Sakurajima volcano with a high-speed camera to picture ash sedimentation, Japan (August 2013)


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

Women networking is natural inside and outside the workplace. In a healthy environment, women naturally come together to support each other and grow together. I had the opportunity to support and be supported by many women friends and colleagues and I cannot imagine living my life without women networking and sharing. Nonetheless, my ideal work environment includes both men and women. In fact, I like to build and work within multi-gender and multi-cultural teams. I find it a lot more enriching, stimulating and inspiring.


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

I would certainly choose to be a scientist again because science allowed me to broaden my horizons, embrace different cultures and live and work in strong connection with nature. I would, however, strive to have a better balance between work and personal life. While this is often difficult to obtain in academia, young men and women scientists need to recognize the value for everyone in finding this balance.


Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?

Be the master of your own life! Enjoy being a woman, reach out to other women, never be afraid of being yourself (and therefore unique!), follow your intuitions and live your life with enthusiasm and passion beyond societal stereotypes!


Outreach activity at Sakurajima school, Japan, to teach about the construction and installation of home-made volcanic ash collectors (August 2013)


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