Researchers without borders: Greece

Valentina Polini

Taglierini al nero di seppia and mussakà

Despoina is a PhD student working in the group of Smart Materials under the supervision of the PI Athanassia Athanassiou and the Team Leader Despina Fragouli. The aim of her PhD project is the development of “Smart indicators of alterations in the metabolic activity of microorganisms”. She was born in Athens, now living in Genova, with a big love for both Italian and Greek food, contaminated by an artistic side as a singer and musician.


Ciao Despoina, could you please explain me what is the importance of these indicators described in your PhD studies?

With the worldwide population continuously growing, the increased environmental pollution and the lack of resources, the identification of good quality for food, water and health factors has become extremely important. Among the categories of quality evaluation, the immediate acquisition of information concerning the microbial growth within a specific macro and micro environment, indication of the food spoilage, of non-drinkable water, but also of various skin infections is of emerging importance. Therefore, the need for microbial growth monitoring is essential for modern societies. Since the metabolic activity of microorganisms can alter the pH of the environment in which they live, pH indicators are the number one priority of scientists to cope with this situation. In fact, when the pH indicators are introduced in the environment in which the microorganisms live and multiply, they can provide qualitative or semi-quantitative information through visual colorimetric changes or through comparison with standard references.

 And what do you find beautiful in your work?

As an artistic person, I love the fact that I have to work with colourful materials that present colour changes – the latter can really make my day when they come out nice! I also like the fact that, since I work with materials that derive from edible sources such as curcumin and fruit/vegetables, I have learnt a lot not only about their pH-indicating properties, but also about other beneficial properties that they have, such as antioxidant activity and other nutritional benefits, and this helps me a lot to eat better!!! The most important thing of my research, though, is the fact that I create materials that are biodegradable and can contribute to the plastic-free society we are dreaming of, and that can help in the food packaging sector, in order to eliminate food waste.

What do u like about the place where you actually work?

IIT is a really nice place, with lots of opportunities and I feel really lucky to have the chance to work here for a period of my life. It offers you the privilege to work with lots of instruments and become familiar with lots of different techniques, doing high-end research. It is an international work environment, something that can really broaden your horizons and open your mind: lots of ideas coming from people from different countries and different backgrounds can result in amazing projects and in a brand new way of thinking – both in a work and in a personal level. In the group of Smart Materials, we are around 50 people from all over the world: Italy, Greece, Spain, Poland, Turkey, India, Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Argentina…We are a really international and multidisciplinary group!


Despoina is also a a singer/musician. When she is not in the lab she is either rehearsing, doing singing lessons, playing the piano, writing/recording songs or performing either in the streets of Genova or in concerts. Her enthusiasm for life seems contagious.

 Thank you Despoina for your enthusiasm. Let’s make a leap into your past and into your origins. Could u tell me about one memory of your past u really love and why?

The best scene I remember from my childhood is a Sunday or festive lunch at my yard in Athens, with lots of relatives and friends. Sun, nice food and music (I come from a music family, so you can understand…). This is something I would always want to come back to, even just for a moment.

 Would you share with me any sentence in your language and the meaning of it?

Instead of a sentence, I will choose a word that is really difficult to translate in other languages. Φιλότιμο (filòtimo) is a word that has been used since the ancient years and it means “love for the honor”. It loosely translates to a feeling of altruism, hospitality and mutual respect. It has a personal and emotional virtue, considered to be the highest of all Greek qualities, the standards for family and social living; to a Greek it is actually a way of life. The core concept is that of respect and walking in right paths. In its simplest form, the term means doing good without expecting good also from the other side (unconditionally), and do actions that ensure that one’s behavior be exemplary and demonstrate one’s personality and the manner in which one was raised. If everyone lived with filòtimo, I think that the world would be a better place to live…

 As a last question, have u ever thought about coming back to your hometown one day? Why?

Well, of course I have thought about it…I don’t know if it would be my hometown or Greece in general, but for sure it could be beautiful to manage to return and have the chance to develop and grow there. However, the world is continuously changing and distances are becoming smaller, so even if I don’t manage it, I know that I can always somehow return.


Good luck Despoina. May you live with filòtimo for the rest of your life!