Claudia Fiorini, PhD – Research Associate in Pediatrics
Boston Children’s Hospital
Division of Hematology/Oncology
When I was a child in elementary school back in Italy, I was often sick and had to stay home from school for a few days at a time. Pneumonia – you know, that sort of thing. That gives you a lot of time to think and plan for disasters.
When I was a little better, but not well enough to go to school, my mom would entertain me by letting me basically destroy the apartment as I wished with all sorts of experiments.
Also, lots of reading – and reading that was not considered appropriate for my age, such as Nobel Prize-winning poetry, algebra, and trigonometry. I remember feeling scared by the formulas, but I was fascinated with the shapes. My parents taught me not to be scared of things I didn’t know. You will eventually understand them and even learn how to love them.
My mom got me a scientific book and we tried to redo every experiment that was in it together. I had my live experiment on how to turn a worm into a butterfly. It worked – a beautiful red and green butterfly came out! I also made a water volcano. But my colony of ants did get a bit out of control. Doing these projects developed my love of observing live beings.
I have always been very eager to discover and try things. My parents let me paint too with watercolor and oil colors. Because of that, they had their curtains turned into a folk naive piece. My parents have always been good sports about my creations! I also used to play with clay at home and that experience made me a member artist at Feet of Clay in Brookline today. I also tried music, but that did not go anywhere. I am not musical. But I like music, and that didn’t stop me from trying!
“My main message is to experiment without fear and see where your passion and talent lies.”
After all my reading of poetry, I had a piece of my own poetry published in Italy on a painter’s program for one of her exhibitions. And some of my cooking recipes were aired on a cooking show at the Monaco Principato television.
My parents’ behavior was quite uncommon in Italy. My friends’ parents did not let them mess up their perfectly clean homes. Nobody was doing anything else at home besides math and Italian homework, politely sitting at a desk. I felt pity for their lack of freedom to explore their mind and fantasy. The great degree of freedom they had was playing soccer or running at the park, which I did sometimes too.
My main message is to experiment without fear and see where your passion and talent lies.
My parents both attended only elementary school because, at that time, that was the minimum level of mandatory instruction, and they both came from poor families. My father is a retired plumber, and my mom was a housewife. She died at age 50 of colon cancer. I was 24 and still at University. That was a moment when I thought about quitting studying. I thought I should just use my diploma and start working. But I did not stop, and my professors cheered me up all along until my final thesis discussion.
I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Bologna, the oldest university of the western world (established in 1088) and the first to allow women to study law and science. When I was about 8 years old, I remember my elementary teacher saying, “Bologna is the oldest University, but Harvard in USA is now one of the best in the world.” I remember saying to my teacher, “Then one day, I will go to work at Harvard!”
And here I am now, working in a Harvard-affiliated hospital.
My sister is an architect, and my brother is a computer analyst.
I developed a passion for genetics in high school, Agrarian technical school. My homes have always been jungles, by the way. That, combined with my passion for nature, brought me to graduate with a thesis on the genetics of oats. Yes, oats, like the kind in your morning cereals.
“I work on understanding how red blood cells are normally produced in our body and on what goes wrong when we see leukemia or anemia. We have made some serious progress.”
During my University training, I worked in forensic testing. That drove me to work in human genetics and. more specifically. to work on rare diseases with a genetic cause. I worked in the molecular laboratory of a pediatric hospital in Italy and I came to the USA to look for opportunity to grow my passion of discovering treatments and finding explanations for rare diseases.
I have worked on Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome that affects boys and on other immunodeficiency diseases, which are all those diseases that affect white blood cells. I worked on understanding how B lymphocytes normally work in producing antibodies to defend our body and how they interact with other white blood cells in some conditions. I earned a PhD in virology and immunology.
I currently work in Boston Children’s Hospital as a staff scientist and I work on understanding how red blood cells are normally produced in our body and on what goes wrong when we see leukemia or anemia. We have made some serious progress.
Science is fun and hard.
You often don’t see an immediate result or what you expected to see. You usually have a “great idea” to explain a phenomenon. You do some experiments to prove you are right and, 50 percent of the time, the results are different from what you would have expected. That makes you rethink the original “great idea.” So, you need to adjust your idea. It is a process where you must listen to the results to see where your direction is right or you need to change it.
“Science is made of connections and collaborations. You can’t do science alone. You always work in a team and often teams are International. That’s a great opportunity to meet cool people from all over the world and share ideas.
On a daily basis, I now work on growing in vitro human cells that serve as a model for red blood cells’ differentiation in humans. I work on human blood samples from all over the world. I also use a microscope to observe how much the cells are “babies.” If they are plump and round, they are healthy and growing. If they are stressed, they shrink, and so on.
I need to read a lot to keep up with other scientists’ discoveries. Science is made of connections and collaborations. You can’t do science alone. You always work in a team, and teams are often international. It’s a great opportunity to meet cool people from all over the world and share ideas.
I work many hours and also on weekends. People keep asking me why I do it – and for free? Sometimes, even if you love what you do, you are tired and think, “I’m going nowhere, I am wrong – It will not work.” Then you keep going until it works and, suddenly, you forget how much effort it took to get there because you made it.
[Reading] publications is just a tip of an iceberg of work. The fun of science is in the never-ending process of learning and understanding: answering a question, figuring out the explanation; and, while you do that, it raises more questions in your mind.
So, you need to have an inquisitive nature and perseverance.
Also the field is still mostly run by men. Things are changing, but slowly. We need more women and new ideas in science in powerful positions.
You can also advocate science, like on your [Raising Nerd] website. We need more street knowledge of science and of what scientists do. Many career paths are opening now. I have a girlfriend that is an attorney who works on helping funding researchers like me.
Start early to talk with as many people as you can that work in the field you are interested about. Ask what’s next in order to make an informed decision.
They make you rethink what you are doing and see the bigger perspective. They ask me, “Do you do this all day?” That’s very cool!” Or, “Can I eat the DNA after I worked so hard to get it? It is big and plumpy.” One once said to me, “Alcohol and strawberries? We can have a cocktail, I think my older brother called it a mimosa.”
You have to always see the funny side of what you are doing in life.
To read more about our tribute to the Women of Science, click here.