Few days ago I was reading one of my favourite Italian columns and I found this nice piece by Edoardo Segantini, a journalist at Il Corriere della Sera, a main national newspaper. I love to read about successful women in science and management, and this story about Alessandra Sala talks about both. I translated Edoardo's article into English in this post, but if you can read Italian, you can find the original here.
Important disclaimer: this is my personal (and not professional) translation. Please keep in mind that the quoted expression were originally expressed in Italian language, so do not give too much weight to shading of meaning that I may have affected with my translation. If you have any suggestions to improve this translation, feel free to comment below or contact me.
By scrolling down the names of the few jurors of the Bell Labs Prize, assigned on last December 8th in the famous Murray Hill labs, New Jersey, one can find Alessandra Sala's name. The Bell Labs know well about awards: they are a legendary "knowledge factory" which hosts eight Nobel laureates and to which we owe the credit of key inventions of contemporary technology, such as the transistor or the laser.
Last year, the Bell Labs Prize winners have been heavyweights: Emmanuel Abbe (Princeton University), Patrick Reynaert (Leuven University) and Matilde Sanchez Fernandez (Università of Madrid). However, the spotlight here is on Alessandra Sala, especially for those who are used to successful Italian people: 36 years old, originally from Salerno, she is in charge of the European unit of Bell Labs in Dublin. Born in Milan but grown up in Amalfi, with a degree in computer science from University of Salerno, the scientist-manager leads 65 technologists, who are between 30 and 40 years old: a team of mainly men, who work on developing advanced software for communications and analyse real-time a huge mass of data.
Sala moved to the Irish department in 2011, called by the multi-awarded Markus Hoffmann; in 2013, she became technical manager. Her profile is the one of a senior researchers, with great experience, who lived always in the middle of academia and business: after the master and the doctoral degree, she moved to Zurigo as a visiting student at ETH (18000 people from 80 countries). Afterwards, she was hired by the University of California in Santa Barbara to work in Professor Ben Zhao's group, where she stayed for five years.
All these experiences, she claims, made her appreciate two strengths, great and undeniable, of the American system: the excellent structure of the doctoral programmes and the fruitful relationship - almost interdependence - between academia and the business world, a link based on the regular check of the practical implications of the studied subjects. With rich fundings which never stopped, not even during the economic crisis.
Her peculiar trait is her management, the way she deals with her collaborators, who define her as "tough but with a human touch". She smiles and comments: "There are two kinds of career women: the ruthless one, who mistreats her team, and the one who defends it, still leading it. Definitely I do not belong to the first kind. I try to understand the people who I work with. They feel it and do not take advantage. It takes more time, sure, but it pays off".
Surely it is crucial to understand people from different cultures when you lead a team which includes European, Indian, Chinese people. "To play the game of understanding each other", she says, "I did this wherever I worked. Maybe less in my family when I was younger, with my older sister, who graduated at Bocconi University in Economy: she was the diligent, I was the rebel".
With her technical background, she is used to work-environments with mostly men, but she claims she never "suffered any discrimination". As many other Italian people who emigrated, she is happy she moved back to Europe, to Ireland which she likes. "I wanted to make great things without being forced by economical or bureaucratic limitations which still affect our country. I am succeeding".
Read about the Bell Labs Prize 2015 winners here. Congratulations to Alessandra for her success and to the winners of this year!