Part of Giovanni Volpe’s research involves developing and using laser beams as optical tweezers to grab and manipulate particles.

Choosing freedom as a researcher

After three months in industry, physicist Giovanni Volpe was bored, said thank you very much and chose to begin postgraduate studies. Today he leads a group that is working to develop microscopic robots that can transport medications to individual cells in patients.

In the summer of 2016, Giovanni Volpe sat in his office at Bilkent University in the Turkish capital of Ankara and pondered his future as a researcher. Since he came to the country in 2012, much had changed. Turkey was then a country where the number of active researchers had gone from 30,000 in 2002 to 80,000 in 2013. The number of universities had more than doubled from the late 1990s, and the country was in negotiations with the European Union for membership. Turkey seemed to have a bright future as a research nation. Three years later the conflict between secular and traditional Muslim interests made life as a researcher more difficult. Several researchers had had their funding withdrawn by the regime, and many had chosen to leave the country.

‘I contacted various universities across Europe to see if there was interest’, says Giovanni. ‘I got a positive response from the Department of Physics here in Gothenburg, and because my girlfriend is a researcher at Karolinska Institutet, I knew what I was getting into when I moved to Sweden.’

Giovanni was born and raised in northern Italy. As a child, he was interested in science, and he did his undergraduate studies at Padua’s venerable university, the second oldest in Italy after Bologna. After completing his master’s degree, he began working in the business world.

‘But I got bored’, he says, smiling. ‘The only goal was to make money for the company and for yourself. I got an offer to begin postgraduate studies, so after three months, I quit my job and began postgraduate studies instead. I liked the idea of being a researcher. I thought it would be more fun, for one thing, and I liked not having a direct financial goal at the other end of what I was doing.’

He did his postgraduate studies at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, and after a postdoctoral period at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, he came to Bilkent University. Towards the end of summer in 2016, he left Turkey for Gothenburg and the Department of Physics. Today he leads a research group with close to ten people and has a wide network of collaborations with other universities in Europe and the United States.

The group’s research includes both basic research and applied research, and the team works in a variety of fields. One of the major areas has to do with ‘micro swimmers’. In simple terms, micro swimmers are biological and artificial objects of microscopic size that have the ability to get around on their own. They offer a number of opportunities in both basic science and technical applications in nanoscience and nanotechnology. One of the potential areas of application is sending them into patients to cure diseases.

‘They can deliver medications to exactly the right cell in a body’, says Giovanni. ‘Another area of application is for remediation of contaminated lands. We can send out the robots to clean up the land and then control them by means of sound waves. These applications were considered pure science fiction only a few decades ago, but nowadays they are actually an area of work in many of the world’s leading laboratories, including my own.’

In addition to research at the University of Gothenburg, Giovanni Volpe has a far-reaching collaboration with Karolinska Institutet to study the brains of people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. When a person gets Alzheimer’s, the disease has already developed in some cases for up to 30 years without it being noticed in the person. The group has developed a series of tools that apply network theory to data obtained from patients using various techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional MRI.

‘The brain is incredibly good at adapting when damaged. It’s possible to be fully functional with only half of the brain intact, which is why neurodegenerative diseases may be undiagnosed for several years. If we can detect the early signs in them, we can also treat them much more effectively.’

He often returns to the creative freedom of being a researcher and the fact that he sees it as something of a hobby, although it often involves very long days.

‘But there is no point in being a researcher from nine to five. In that case, you could get a better paying job. As a researcher, I have the freedom to be able to start with an idea and pursue it without having to explain why.’

Giovanni Volpe

Age: 37
Occupation: Researcher at the Department of Physics.
Family: Girlfriend, who is a researcher at Karolinska Institutet.
Leisure interests: Work out, eat good food, read, watch a movie, ‘preferably early Woody Allen films’