Dr. Paola Dama is a researcher at the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Ohio State University. She holds a PhD in Molecular Oncology obtained at the University of Ferrara and one from Ohio State University.
You were born in Naples: how did your city influence your life?
Naples can be described with two words: Heaven and Hell. I have loved and will continue to love a city that sometimes makes you regret it. I am a powerless witness of the way our city is treated, and I feel betrayed by an ingrate population that is unable to take care of such a treasure because it does not understand its value.
To grow up in a place like Naples with its daily dose of pain and suffering, the kind that nurtures deep souls, means to develop an extra-ordinary personality. Naples gave me everything and, at the same time, took away everything because it formed my personality, my “napoletaneità”, but it did not award my merits. That is the Naples I identify with, the one populated by mortified people.
To be successful and competent is not always considered a merit. To be a sensitive and loyal person is not necessarily considered a virtue. Humility and kindness come with a price. You are forced to compromise, to go against your principles; it is a reality that overwhelms you.
One of my FaceBook pages is called “Io Napoletano perbene” (I, an honest Neapolitan) to give a voice to the majority of people that truly represent Naples and appreciate its beauty and treasures.
When did you realize that Science was your field?
I started studying science because I have an innate curiosity to learn and know new things. I was not very ambitious; I had other expectations, reason why I did not follow a straight path. Today I am in a place doing a job that was my secret dream when I was studying at the University of Naples. Somehow, I knew it would happen. I also have an eclectic personality; I was often distracted by other interests until I reached the right determination and the means to finish my studies so I could work in research. My mother often tells me that I used to say “I would be a researcher even if I have to work for free”, and for a long time I did.
One of your projects was very original: bringing scientific research in dance clubs.
A friend of mine who is an event planner gave me that chance. In 2009, after I created a fan page on FaceBook that in less than a month reached 2,000 fans, Starry Nights Events (Gaia Riccio e Giuseppe Argento) and Neapolitan designer Fabrizio Crispino organized an event at the Living Club in Varcaturo. I spoke to 1,000 young people that night, and many other nights in Neapolitan clubs. One time I was invited at the Festival Scienzearteambiente in Pordenone, and that same year, 2009, I received the award Premio Donne all’Opera (Ercolano). I had the opportunity to work in places that are usually full of disoriented young people, a key factor of my project, and they were interested. To prove that if you encourage people with the right approach, even if it is an unusual approach, you can reach important goals. Young people need to feel the joy of growing up, of bettering themselves, using their own ways to reach their goals, not necessarily the ones pushed upon them by society and the media.
What are the differences between working in research here and in Italy?
It is all about having the opportunity of doing your best; right now, in Italy, the lack of funding is making it impossible for bright minds and qualified researchers to do their job.
You research the worst of all killers, cancer.
The main requirement for a researcher is enthusiasm. You need to believe in what you do. Once, I was working at a project and I was told that the result of our present research was needed immediately because a woman who was dying of a rare endometrial cancer could try a new therapy based on it. She was waiting. Her loved ones were waiting. A researcher does not have a nine-to-five job, you do not go home and forget. A responsible researcher is the one that never forgets the project, not for ambition but for the project itself.
How do you deal with the psychological aspect, the expectations and pain of the patients and their loved ones?
Life is meaningful even when we are dying. Unfortunately, as many people I know, I have been touched by that pain more than once. There are situations that are hopeless, others where you can intervene immediately because there was an early diagnose. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and she had surgery five years ago. She never lost hope, her strength, her good disposition toward life. Today she is fine, her life is serene and, knowing I research cancer, she asks all sorts of questions, many questions. I would like to tell women that it is important to make an informed and personal decision on the treatment but that they also need honest doctors. Sometimes we are the victims of greedy, cynical people, other times we meet the right professionals and that was the case for my mother.
Are you working at any other project?
I opened a FaceBook page called Guida alla Divulgazione Scientifica (www.facebook.com/newscienza) to help honest researchers - who are demotivated by the distrust of the general public toward science – publish their work in the proper form, and for people to get closer to science. To fight the media that talks about research only when, to them, it is scandalous, deserving censorship or it is the miraculous cure we were all waiting for. Big titles, never the truth. My concern is to collaborate with the researchers who have been victims of this modus operandi both personally and professionally, and ended up with desperate cancer patients who believed the headlines begging them for help. The dissemination and promotion of scientific news must be regulated, and it cannot be written by people who know nothing about it. Guessing and approximating are not part of science.
We are organizing an event in Naples: the goal is to start a series of events that would be scientifically accurate and interesting for the general public. We are determined and hopeful; we will bring basic subjects and we will discuss them with the audience.
Interview by Nicola Di Fiore, June 24, 2013.