In Focus: Paola Masuzzo

Taking Open Science from academia to industry

Continuing our series of written interviews with researchers at IGDORE: Dr Paola Masuzzo developed a passion for Open Science while doing her bioinformatics PhD in Belgium. Now she works as a data scientist in industry and continues to advocate for Open Science and Open (Government) Data in her spare time, which includes being a member of IGDORE’s Global Board.

1. Tell us a bit about your professional background.

I am a biomedical engineer with a PhD in Health Sciences / Bioinformatics. I finished my PhD in 2016; after that, I did a postdoc for one year, then decided to take a break from academia, paused the postdoc for one year and moved to the private sector, but actually never went back to academia (not in the traditional sense, anyway).

2. Why did you join IGDORE?

I joined IGDORE when I started realizing that the ‘traditional’ academic world (with traditional I mean the one we’re used to) was too narrow for me, too tight. There were a lot of things that I realized were not putting me in the conditions to express myself at my best, and that at the same time were making me feel uncomfortable. I looked around for an alternative (even before I officially left my university position), and the answer came from a dear friend (as it usually happens in life, right?). That friend was Jon Tennant. I clearly remember him telling me on the phone: “girl, you’re going to love that space!”. So I did my research and was impressed with the two values that IGDORE was promoting: independent research and open research. I sent in my application, and here I am now :)

… my industry experience has taught me that Science does not happen only within the academic walls, and that Science does not belong to this or that part of society. It is for the common good, and it should leave nobody behind. For me, this is Open Science. No matter where or how you practice it.

3. Has your industry experience led you to any insights that apply to Open Science?

Yes, I believe so. When I left academia I thought that joining an industry position was going to be a shock for me, something completely different, that I had to slowly adjust to. However, it was nothing of the sort. Of course, it’s not the same thing, but, ultimately, an R&D position in the private sector, in a for-profit organization like the one I work for, also aims at answering questions, making better and more sustainable products, improving services and processes, understanding what can be done better. It seems like I am not answering the question, right? But here it comes: my industry experience has taught me that Science does not happen only within the academic walls, and that Science does not belong to this or that part of society. It is for the common good, and it should leave nobody behind. For me, this is Open Science. No matter where or how you practice it.

Of course, my industry experience has also confronted me with the sad reality that still a lot of research articles are published behind a paywall. Working in the innovation branch of my company, I need to read dozens of articles per month, and I hit the paywalls quite a lot. I’m grateful to the OA movement and the immense resources out there to overcome this (like the Unpaywall browser extension). We need to do better, still.

Citizens, journalists, policymakers, politicians, researchers, you name it, people are talking about open data, people are starting to realize the enormous possibilities behind this, and the campaign has been absolutely crucial in this advocacy work.

4. You launched a campaign last year to ask the Italian Government to use open standards for COVID-19 data reporting. Was this the first time you’d been involved in policy advocacy? Did it achieve what you hoped to?

To be honest, I did not launch the campaign, onData (of which I am an associate) did. onData is an Italian association that promotes the publication, sharing and use of public data. The campaign you are referring to is #datiBeneComune, which is the Italian for: data, public goods. In short, it asked (and still asks) the Italian Government to release the data around the COVID-19 pandemic, and publish them according to open and FAIR standards. If you are curious, you can read about the campaign on the datiBeneComune site (in Italian, ask Google Translate to help you out ;-) ).

It was not the first time for me to be involved in something like this, but it was definitely the first time I participated in a campaign that turned out to be this successful: more than 50k people have signed, and a couple of hundreds of organizations have supported it. Did it achieve what we were all hoping for? No, not really. There is still a lot of work to be done, and we are still far away from what should be a real Open Government, but, and this is a big but, the campaign has definitely shifted the conversation towards the need for open public data. Citizens, journalists, policymakers, politicians, researchers, you name it, people are talking about open data, people are starting to realize the enormous possibilities behind this, and the campaign has been absolutely crucial in this advocacy work.

5. What would your ideal work-life look like? Where would you live, where would you work, and how many hours would you work per week?

I am an Italian living in Belgium, and I am absolutely in love with Gent, the city I have lived in for the past 10 years. I would never change that :) My working hours right now are pretty flexible, and usually, I do two days per week at home and three days in the office (this was before COVID, of course). Being now stuck at home for many months (I am not counting anymore), I cannot wait to be back in the office. It gives me the energy to be around people (sometimes, at least). I would definitely love to work a bit less (who wouldn’t, right?): four days a week would be ideal, for me, and I also think would increase my productivity (though I don’t really like to talk about performance in these terms). I also do a lot of Open Science advocacy, and this usually comes on top of the regular workweek. It can be a bit too much sometimes, but I have learned something super important for me: sometimes it’s more than OK to say NO, and take a break.

6. What are your professional plans for the next few years?

I won’t hide the fact that this question triggered a bit of anxiety :) Would it be OK if I said I have absolutely no clue? I realize only now that I haven’t mentioned yet that I am a full-time data scientist, and it’s a job that I truly love, so I think I will definitely still be a data scientist in the coming years. Perhaps, I would love to have a little team to lead, work with people and for people, watch them grow, inspire them, take steps together. I hope I will be good at it.

The from-the-bottom-of-my-heart answer would be: to build a real, safe and inclusive alternative to the traditional academic world. A place students and researchers can turn to when looking for independence, yet companionship

7. And what would you like to achieve while part of IGDORE’s Global Board?

The from-the-bottom-of-my-heart answer would be: to build a real, safe and inclusive alternative to the traditional academic world. A place students and researchers can turn to when looking for independence, yet companionship (is this a word? you know what I mean, I hope). For the shorter term, I would like to put together a catalogue of educational resources and courses that would enable people to do research, even if they did not want to go to university and pursue a PhD, for example. But enough spoilers for now ;-)

8. Any last thoughts?

I am very grateful to IGDORE and to the people that shape it up, and I look forward to many more years of collaboration, and growth together.

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