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Finding her way through challenges

Support from family and from SOLS professor helps Francesca de Martini complete doctorate

ASU doctoral graduate Francesca de Martini and her family

Francesca de Martini and her family. Photo by Pris Ronan

May 09, 2016

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

In 2013, Francesca de Martini was 32 and halfway through her graduate program when she decided she couldn’t wait any longer — she wanted to start a family with her husband.

She had it all planned out so the birth of her daughter wouldn’t interfere with her comprehensive exam. Despite that, de Martini’s daughter threw her the first of many curveballs that would force her to adapt to new circumstances.

While still pregnant, de Martini suffered a case of appendicitis that was misdiagnosed by her doctors. Then, a month before her exam, her ruptured appendix became infected and threatened her baby’s life. Forced to deliver early and recover from a dangerous infection, de Martini knew she had to push back her exam.

Thankfully for de Martini, she had amazing support from not only her husband and family, but also from School of Life Sciences professor Susanne Neuer — her faculty mentor. Fully understanding de Martini’s situation, Neuer allowed her to delay her exam a few more months.

It was the first of many challenges de Martini would overcome, both on her own and with help from Neuer, on her way to earning her doctorate in biology. De Martini learned to balance her responsibilities as a graduate student and a mother.

“The first year was really hard to find that balance,” de Martini said. “And it was really hard to find the passion to keep going. I had to ask myself, ‘Is it worth it to finish my program?’”

Now, not only has she finished her doctoral program successfully, she did so without taking any extra time and while accomplishing everything she set out to do at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: During an internship in Pisa (her hometown in Italy), I realized I wanted to study marine ecology — possibly plankton ecology — combining traditional techniques with DNA-based techniques. Also, while I was working in a pharmaceutical industry I realized that I really enjoyed teaching scientific material.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: To be honest, I learned so many things here that it is really hard to just pick one. Coming from another country, everything was new and for a long time it felt like I was in some American movie, in a good way. I will say that being able to go on three research cruises with Susanne Neuer was one of the best experiences in my life.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was really interested in working with Susanne Neuer because of her research, but it also had to do with how much I loved the graduated environment when I visited during recruitment weekend. I really liked how all the grad students were interacting between each other, and I felt that was a positive, creative and dynamic environment.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: That is normal to feel lost or frustrated at times, to not give up or to not think that they are not good enough. The life of a grad student goes through waves, and it is the same for everybody. Talk and share your experiences with others. Be focused; travel for conferences as much as possible. Always try to write proposals to get more funding, even if you don’t need it. It’s good for your CV. Also, being a grad student is not only about your own research, it is being part of a community. And, of course, have fun!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Secret Garden where Dixie Gammage Hall is.

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: I really enjoy teaching. I would love to be able to keep sharing my passion about education and biology with new generations of students.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Global warming without a doubt. That’s probably not enough money to solve it, but I would invest the money in research that had the ultimate goal to find more sustainable way to live on this planet.

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