NCCR Catalysis Trailblazers: Alessandra Toniato

We’re kicking off the NCCR Catalysis Trailblazers series on exceptional individuals breaking barriers and making waves in research! On International Women's Day, meet Alessandra Toniato (she/her), a PhD researcher at IBM Research in Dr. Teodoro Laino’s team. In her ~3.5 years of doctoral research, she contributed to over seven publications and became a mother twice.

Hi Alessandra, could you tell us about yourself and your research within NCCR Catalysis?
Sure! There is only one thing I like to discuss more than my work - my kids! In the context of NCCR Catalysis, I am a PhD researcher leveraging AI to solve complex chemical problems. In particular, I have been working extensively on data curation and retrosynthesis, the crucial task of inferring the building blocks needed to obtain a target compound.

Alessandra at the NCCR Catalysis Annual Event 2022 (left) and Y3 Annual Review Meeting 2023 (right). © NCCR Catalysis
What made you consider a career in science, and who got you interested in science in the first place?
When we make our choices, we are all influenced by our heroes. I have always had a strong bond with my parents. While my mother taught me how important it is for a woman to work, my dad got me into science. He is a mechanical engineer, and I have always dreamed of becoming like him. “L’uomo buono desidera conoscere” (The good man desires to know) he frequently says. Instead of buying a new dishwasher, he tries to fix the old one just to determine
which was the problem.

During your doctoral studies, you became a mother twice. How have you balanced work and family duties, and how did your environment support you?
It was not trivial. The balance between work and family is not stable. There are periods in which it is easier and others in which you need to hand in a project while your child is sick. In these moments, the support of my husband was and is crucial: we split the fatigue. On top of that, my manager was always sensitive to the situation: I never had to stick to fixed working hours or on-site work. Taking the kids to the doctor was never a problem.
When I became a mum, I knew that sending my children to the Kita (daycare center) was an investment for their social development and my career. Still, the Kita cost in Switzerland for two kids is more than my net salary. Thanks to th
e NCCR Flexibility Grant, I was able to alleviate that cost.
It is absurd how little support families (women) receive in the most challenging years of parenthood.

What advice would you give other female early-stage researchers regarding parenthood?
First, don’t wait for the perfect moment to have a family. If you desire it, just do it. Once you are in, you will find time for everything. And second, be clear about your priorities. Of course, you will not be able to work overtime, but this does not mean you cannot do your job. You will always feel as if you are not working enough or spending enough time with your kids: that’s normal; it’s part of the game.
But remember, no perfect mum or situation exists.

Alessandra and colleagues of the RXN for Chemistry Project Team received the 2022 Sandmeyer Award from the Swiss Chemical Society at the Swiss Chemistry Science Night 2022. © Swiss Chemical Society
You recently obtained your doctoral degree - congratulations! What will be your next adventure?
Thank you! I still haven’t realized it yet! I am open to different opportunities, possibly still in the technical field of Artificial Intelligence. My only condition for my future job is flexibility: I love to be a mum and spend time with my kids, and I will not renounce this. I believe the world is slowly understanding that it is not important how many hours you stay in the office, but how you work.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience! We wish you the very best for your next steps.

Learn more about Alessandra’s research here and connect with her on Twitter/X and LinkedIn.

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