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Fields & Applications Gas Chromatography, Food, Beverage & Agriculture

La Dolce Vita

The 2018 ISCC meeting in Riva del Garda saw the presentation of the inaugural “Giovanni Dugo Award” – how did you feel?

It is always rewarding to be recognized by your peers. But what makes me proudest is to feel that I have made a contribution to the successes of students and colleagues who now occupy high-level positions within the scientific community. Carlo Bicchi, recipient of the Award this year, perfectly embodies the qualities of a good researcher and good professor, and, in addition, he is a true friend.

And what makes a good researcher?

Curiosity, passion, willingness to make sacrifices, and intellectual honesty. A good researcher should be able to study and work hard, should not fear comparison, and should not be self-righteous or protective of their own skills. Their personality needs to combine modesty, nerve and courage. They should also be happy knowing that their students are successful in their careers, and be ready to discover that they have been surpassed.

What piqued your interest in food chemistry?

My career in this field started by chance, when a professor I knew predicted that gas chromatography would eventually be applied to food analysis and suggested I work in this newly developing field. I’m happy I took his advice; it was the beginning of a long, successful and satisfying career. I’ve always considered myself lucky to be working with GC instruments, because I feel that scientists using GC have a close link with the instrument – a more intense, intimate interaction than with spectroscopy, for example. My research has been focused on essential oils, olive oil, wines, and other local foodstuffs, which are important to the Sicilian economy.

The people of southern Italy, including Sicilians, suffered after Italian unification in 1861. Sicilians were seen as people to be dominated, rather than being understood and integrated into the newly born Italian nation. As a result, the wealth and skills of the south were transferred northwards, and while we now live in a more democratic nation, the economic legacy of those times still persists. So it is important for me to be able to support the local economy.

Lucky are those who never stop ‘doing’ – once you give up your dreams, your spirit slowly falls asleep.

How has food analysis changed over the decades?

In Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, food chemistry was mainly studied in numerous non-academic public labs devoted to research and routine analysis. Limited attention was dedicated to research and teaching in this discipline within the universities. It was regarded as the “Cinderella” of chemistry, neglected by the chemical academic community. At that time, I was a pioneer – I felt brave and enterprising enough to commit myself, and ultimately I contributed to the foundation of the Italian group for Food Chemistry, an inter-division of the Italian Chemical Society. I also chaired the first two conferences on food chemistry. Nowadays, there are several outstanding academic research groups active in this field.

What are the highlights of your academic career?

My career has been very intense and varied, and I have fulfilled many different objectives, but my commitment to everyday life in the lab never faltered. I went into the lab every day and spent most of the day there, exchanging ideas with researchers and students. Most of all, I am proud of the development of a research group that has grown over time and now occupies a prominent position within the scientific community. When the research group was first formed, students from Messina went abroad to be trained or to pursue doctoral research. It is now the opposite – we have more requests to study here than we are able to satisfy. Students, professors and PhD/postdoc students come from all over the world. In recent years, I have been gratified to see that the two people who now coordinate the laboratory and the research – Luigi Mondello and Paola Dugo – are among the most influential people in The Analytical Scientist Power List.

What drives you?

Playing, dreaming and desiring. Lucky are those who never stop “doing” – once you give up your dreams, your spirit slowly falls asleep. In 2014, I decided to stop doing research and commit myself to a new dream – writing. Since then, I have published eight or nine books on Sicilian food and other topics, which I write in verse.

What appeals to you about writing?

I like spending time with friends and family, but I’m a very private person and find it hard to share my feelings – my deepest emotions, my disappointments or delights. Writing poetry has become cathartic, permitting me to put into rhyme what I cannot describe in normal words. After writing, I feel a sense of “release” and contentment. Poetry says what I cannot express, and cooking is the same.

What is your greatest passion?

Everything related to Sicily – the language, the customs, the cuisine, the history, the cigars, the wine – and my family.

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