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Interview with ISSI-BJ International Team
“Chemical abundances in the ISM: the litmus test of stellar IMF variations in galaxies across cosmic time”
BEIJING, CHINA - The meeting of the International Team working on “Chemical abundances in the ISM: the litmus test of stellar IMF variations in galaxies across cosmic time” was held at ISSI-BJ from November 11 to November 15, 2019. 
On this occasion, the two team leaders - Dr. Donatella Romano (INAF, Astrophysics and Space Science Observatory of Bologna, IT) and Prof. Zhang Zhiyu (formally Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, UK; currently School of Astronomy and Space Science, Nanjing University, China), together with their team members, answered some questions on their project as well as their experience at ISSI-BJ. 

Where the interlocutor is not specified, the answer reflects the view of the whole team. The full list of the team members can be found here

How did you first learn about ISSI-BJ and about its International Teams program? And is it your first time at ISSI-BJ? 

Dr. Donatella Romano
: It is my first time at ISSI-BJ, but not the first one using ISSI tools, as I had already taken part in some other activities at ISSI Bern both as a team member as well as team leader*. During these experiences at ISSI and thanks to Prof. Maurizio Falanga (ISSI-BJ Executive Director) and other members of ISSI Bern, I got the chance to learn about the establishment of a partner institute in Beijing as well as about the opportunity of applying for a joint International Team in Bern and in Beijing. As time went by, we thought of expanding our research team and look for new collaboration opportunities. Since many of my colleagues were Chinese, while Prof. Zhang’s ones were mainly European, the ISSI/ISSI-BJ joint International Team program seemed the best solution for us. In fact, this would have allowed all our team members - both the European as well as our Chinese colleagues - to attend at least one meeting on either side of the world — Bern or Beijing.

Prof. Zhiyu Zhang
: Apart from Prof. Chao [Prof. Chao Liu, National Astronomical Observatories, Beijing, China], who visited ISSI-BJ a couple of years ago, it is the first time here for most of us and I must admit we are gladly surprised by the organization and the facilities provided here at ISSI-BJ, similarly to ISSI Bern. 
Can you briefly introduce your team, your research proposal and how you reached the conclusion that using ISSI-BJ tools would have helped you make progress in your work? 

Our team members come from six different countries, including China, Italy, Greece, Czech Republic, Germany, and UK, and we are a colourful group not only in terms of nationalities but also in terms of study focus. As a matter of fact, we combine different expertise, ranging from stellar evolution to chemical evolution, molecular gas, and star formation. As interdisciplinarity is one of the key characteristics of ISSI-BJ International Teams and as a multidisciplinary approach is essential for the positive development of our research, we decided to include several fields of astronomy to better understand how our universe and our galaxy evolve. We use chemical abundances in molecular gas to discuss how stars are formed, how they are distributed and how they develop, the Stellar Initial Mass Function (IMF). Therefore, we need to join efforts from different areas to make significant improvements, and we must admit it is working quite well as we had a lot of inspiring ideas. Furthermore, thanks to ISSI-BJ facilities and support, we canconcentrate on our scientific agenda and this is invaluable. 

How is your research of considerable relevance for the scientific community? 

We are achieving very important results as we are trying to find new tools to determine 
indirectly the Stellar Initial Mass Function (IMF). This is measured locally from star counts, it cannot be assessed directly in high red-shift galaxies though and therefore, we rely on some indicators, i.e. chemical abundances in galaxies. We need to combine different expertise because we need scientists able to observe all these elements. In fact, it is already not easy to derive the chemical abundances for the indicators from the observation we have of high red-shift galaxies, and then, we need to interpret what we yield from observations. Thus, we have experts in different fields, such as computing semi-analytical models in full cosmological framework and detailed chemical evolution models, among others. We are trying to put together all pieces and we actually already have a good number of papers in favour of the variable IMF theory. We got some cool results. 

What are the main challenges you are currently facing in your research? 

The main challenge we are currently facing is the proper understanding of some systematic effects that could affect our comparison of models and observations. This is something that makes us feel uncomfortable because it seems to us we still don’t have a sound grasp of it. We are aware of the fact that the problem is complex and therefore, these interdisciplinary, face-to-face brainstorming sessions are really helping us find some missing pieces in our research. Nonetheless, we still have to make a clearer outline of these “disturbances”. 

Is there a specific highlight or some finding that stands out or a breakthrough of some kind which happened during your stay at ISSI-BJ? 

Honestly, it is still hard to tell. Thanks to the fact that we have many different experts in our team, we have several creative ideas every day; nonetheless, it takes time to analyze and elaborate them thoroughly; we need time to determine if they are worth being developed further and how. There can be no ‘sudden enlightenment’ without a careful examination of each idea and its potential. 

How would you describe the scientific landscape in China? And could you identify some major differences in the scientific approach among your multicultural team members? 

Dr. Romano
: It is actually not only my first time at ISSI-BJ, but overall my first time in China, and that makes it quite difficult for me to answer this question. I believe that in order to get familiar with the Chinese scientific community, I should spend more time here [in China]. Nonetheless, as our team somehow represents a multicultural “micro-cosmos”, until now we have noticed no major difference in our scientific approach, there is a strong chemistry between our team members and this is of great importance. 

What advice would you give to early career scientists looking to pursue a career like yours? 

Prof. Zhang
: In my personal experience, my first advice is to publish more scientific articles since it is not very easy to find a job if you haven’t released many studies. I am not a very active publisher myself; nonetheless, I think my relatively few contributions had a strong impact on the scientific community and this helped my career considerably. It is difficult for early career scientist though, and more attention should be paid to publishing. However, at the same time you should try to avoid low-quality, shallow articles.

Dr. Romano: I agree. I think nowadays, the pressure to publish scientific articles is pushing down quality, and as a referee, I sometimes receive very disappointing papers. I think this publishing race is the cause of such poor submissions: Scientists feel an immense pressure to publish and that, of course, is affecting quality. So, my advice to early career scientists is to dedicate more time to each paper, be detail-oriented - always double-check - and avoid short, shallow papers. Last but not least, another advice is to speak your mind, be open, do not be shy, and share your ideas. No idea is a stupid idea.

Prof. Zhang: Indeed. Very often, the most important scientific achievements derive from so-called “stupid ideas”. Dare to ask and share your views.

* Dr. Romano was involved in ISSI Bern activities in 2005 for the first time, as she was part of an International Team led by Prof. Johannes Geiss. 


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