3 years ago

Paola Bonfante

What inspired your interest in plant science?

My family lived in the countryside in northern Italy: nobody in the family, nor from the village where I lived, was interested in science. Therefore I had no external motivations. Deciding to go to the Lyceum (a high school meant to prepare one for university) in the 1960s was not an easy choice, since every morning I had to travel to Turin (about three hours in total, by bike, train and bus) just to arrive at a very strict and severe ‘Liceo Classico’. The study of Greek and Latin (at the core of the educational approach at that time) was very tough for me. In this Lyceum, sciences were subjects at the margin, but I remember that the life cycle of the ferns was displayed in great detail, with nineteenth‐century care by my science teacher. Nevertheless, she was considered by everyone to be a mortal bore – the whole class used to fall asleep – but I found a certain masochistic fun in thinking about ploidy change. They were hard years: on the one hand I suffered a lot, since I felt I was not fully adequate to the required standard, notwithstanding my relatively good scores, on the other hand I learnt the strict discipline required to keep up with the very competitive school curricula. Despite my major interest in art, literature and theatre, I began to read in the newspapers the great news of the discovery of DNA, how this was changing the study of genetics, how in Italy new important laboratories were under construction (the International Laboratory of Genetics and Biophysics (Ligb) created by Adriano Buzzati Traverso): this was one reason why, in the spring of 1966, I choose to enrol in the biology course at the University of Torino. The second reason was that I felt myself prepared to undertake this type of study that I evaluated was simpler than Greek, philosophy or physics. Biology as a discipline, and as part of the University curriculum, was in its infancy in Torino; this was only a few years after its initiation and its format was still basically that of the more traditional natural sciences with a strong descriptive approach. After the Lyceum these studies seemed to me very easy, too easy. My experimental work for the dissertation required for me to graduate was on spermatogenesis in newts(!) and was an in vivo pharmacological study. For me it was very exciting, it was the first opportunity to set up an experiment, and to verify a hypothesis. Certainly I had no specific interest in plant biology at that time. Love for plants came later, but it was love at first sight. Therefore, my path towards science was based on rather weak motivations with uncertain choices, but it turned out the best fit for me.


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