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From Research to the World of Diplomacy

Nicola Sasanelli

When Nicola Sasanelli was a teenager growing up in the south of Italy, many of his friends spent their summer days on the region's beautiful beaches. He spent his days in the physics department of the University of Bari, where his father worked as a technician. Sasanelli recalls that as he helped his father he would often say, "Dad, I come back in 5 minutes"--then disappear for hours. He says he spent those hours "running around all the labs," asking researchers about their work: "I was fascinated by this new world where nothing seems impossible."

"I need to know more people. I need to know new contexts. I need to measure myself in a new environment." --Nicola Sasanelli

Yet "to become a researcher ... was not for me," Sasanelli says, in retrospect. Although pictures of particle collisions captured his imagination, what impressed Sasanelli most was the equipment researchers used to take those pictures. A few years later, Sasanelli decided to study electronics at the University of Bari. After graduating, he joined a public-private research venture, working in the lab for a while. But in this new environment, he soon discovered a talent that would form the seed of his current profession. His knack for fostering collaborations eventually led him to become a diplomat.

Shifting interests

Sasanelli obtained a 6-year degree in electronics engineering with a specialization in telecommunication and microelectronics in 1987. He then spent a year and a half with the Italian navy in Rome--his mandatory military service--producing reports describing the properties of different naval weapons. In August 1988, he returned to Bari to join the Microelectronics Laboratory of Tecnopolis CSATA (now InnovaPuglia), a nonprofit organization supported by the regional government and the University of Bari to promote information and communication technologies and to serve as a company incubator. Sasanelli stayed there for 11 years, working at first on designing application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) that were resistant to interference from electromagnetic radiation.

Sasanelli's role started to change when his laboratory succeeded in producing ASICs for military and space applications in 1995. Whereas once he had been a pure researcher, he soon became a researcher with a focus on marketing, he says. His job, he adds, was "to go around Europe and the Mediterranean area in order to sell this innovation, the capacity to integrate an ASIC instead of the big electronic board." Sasanelli also helped Italian companies incorporate electronic innovations into their products and processes as part of European Commission–funded programs Tecnopolis had joined.

Rather than saying, "No, I'd like to stay here, to have a quiet life," Sasanelli seized every opportunity to represent Tecnopolis abroad. This eventually won him an offer to become the marketing manager of the Microelectronics Laboratory in 1998. A couple of years later, Sasanelli became the deputy director for international relationships at Tecnopolis.

Sasanelli's career reached a turning point during one of the regular trips he made to Cairo, Egypt, to develop new partnerships between his organization and North African countries. He had gotten to know Italian embassy officials in the region quite well, as they used to come to his meetings. In 1999, one of them suggested that he should take a job at the Italian embassy. "Why [don't] you come with us in order to present our [national] skill in research and development around the world?" Sasanelli recalls that person asking him. When a call for a position at the Italian embassy later came open in Australia, Sasanelli decided to apply. He got the job, flying over to Canberra in January 2001 to serve as a new science and technology attaché.

(Courtesy, Nicola Sasanelli)
Leonardo sir Piero Da Vinci 1452-1519. Nicola Sasanelli painted this tribute to Leonardo Da Vinci for his book What If They Never Existed?

Same job, different culture

As an attaché, Sasanelli's primary role was to promote scientific cooperation between Italy and Australia. The world of diplomacy was new, "with a different culture," he says, but the work was much the same as what he was already doing. "It's the same job but at a different level." Now, he was representing not one laboratory but all of Italy's laboratories, he says.

Sasanelli soon became interested in helping Italian researchers working in Australia. He managed a Web site and published a newsletter for the Australasia-based Italian scientific community. He set up the Association for Research between Italy and Australasia (ARIA), forming a local network of Italian researchers in every Australian state. He organized more than 70 conferences, workshops, and exhibitions for Italian and Australian researchers and entrepreneurs. He says he took what had been relationships based on ad hoc initiatives and replaced them with "a systematic approach" to supporting Italian researchers and promoting exchanges with the Australian scientific community. 

Sasanelli has also raised money from the Italian and Australian governments, universities, and private sources. To date, about 150 students and researchers have participated in exchange programs he set up between Australia and Italy. One recent achievement is the funding of a joint nanotechnology research project between the University of Rome "Tor Vergata" and the Queensland University of Technology, with $1.2 million AUD from the Queensland government. "We move a lot of people. ... We create a lot of projects," Sasanelli says.

Constantly facing a paucity of resources, Sasanelli had to be creative. In addition to seeking and coordinating the patronage of public organizations and private and corporate donations, Sasanelli offered his own patronage. A successful painter with canvasses in private collections throughout the world, Sasanelli donated 10 of his paintings to NICTA, Australia’s Information and Communications Technology Centre of Excellence, which allowed this organization to promote its own scientific cooperation with Italy. Sasanelli also created a fund with the proceeds from What If They Never Existed?, a popular science book he published last year. He donated $15,000 AUD from this fund and secured further support from the Australian Academy of Science ($15,000 AUD) and the Australian universities of the Group of Eight ($40,000 AUD), using the money to offer young Italian and Australian scientists 14 scholarships of $5000 AUD each. The program, which is administered by ARIA and the Australian Academy of Science, is targeted at researchers from the Italian region of L'Aquila, which recently lost its university to an earthquake.

Alessandra Iero, an Italian scientist who is seeking a Ph.D. in ecochemistry at the University of Canberra, worked with Sasanelli for "almost 8 years," she says. In an e-mail to Science Careers, Iero describes Sasanelli as "very motivated." Sasanelli, she says, "is good at seeing smart ways to frame issues and projects ... [and] usually tries to get people directly involved."

(Courtesy, Nicola Sasanelli)
Sir Alexander Fleming 1881–1955. This tribute to Sir Alexander Fleming also appeared in Sasanelli's latest book.

Keys to the job

Sasanelli says he has developed the ability to quickly get a handle on scientific topics. He enjoys interacting with people and has become skilled at developing and maintaining long-term relationships.

Pragmatism is also an important quality in his line of work, Sasanelli says. You have to aim for a specific outcome to every project, because it's "easy that you talk a lot without producing anything," he says. Self-motivation and self-assessment are also important: If you are a civil engineer and the bridge you designed collapses, everyone will tell you that you did a bad job, he says. But if you arrange a meeting as a scientific attaché and it doesn't go well, "nobody [will] say, 'Look, you are unable to manage this meeting.' " In the world of diplomacy, doing well is largely left to you.

Over the years, Sasanelli developed a good professional reputation in Australia--another key to his success. In 2003, he was appointed adjunct professor of science and technology at the University of Canberra. In 2007, he became an honorary member of the Order of Australia.

After 8 years in Canberra, he was invited by the government of South Australia to join its Department of the Premier and Cabinet in Adelaide. Sasanelli commenced his service as special envoy for higher education and trade to Europe in January this year. "Instead of ... represent[ing] the research centers in Italy here and vice versa, you just represent the South Australian research centers in Europe. So it's changed the environment, but more or less it's the same" job he had before, he says.

In his new position, Sasanelli lives in Adelaide but travels to Europe often. He thinks he may return to Italy for good some day, perhaps when his current 2-year appointment is up. But, he emphasizes that his ability to return home depends on his continued success in Australia. In jobs like his, your worth is entirely based on the connections you have, which makes it "a very delicate job. ... You can work well for 10 years," have a couple of bad experiences that damage your professional reputation, and "lose everything," he says.

Sasanelli has never been intimidated by career-related risk. Indeed, each of his career moves was animated by a certain professional restlessness, a discomfort with safety and security. "I need to find a new challenge day by day, to identify new goals day by day. I don't like to stay there and to remain with the same thing. I need to know more people. I need to know new contexts. I need to measure myself in a new environment," he says.

One of the most important keys to success, Sasanelli says, is believing that what you are doing really matters. "If you come in the office just ... to take the money at the end of the month, you [will] not reach your goals because you need ... something more, and this something more is enthusiasm, the passion ... to do something good," he says. Another key is believing in yourself. Don't be put off, he says, by scarcity of jobs in the career of your dreams. "One position for you, if you believe, if you are good, is ... good" enough.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.  

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