'You must know the right people in the right place'

The Local Italy
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'You must know the right people in the right place'
Matthew Peirce, a research scientist at the University of Perugia.

Expats don't just move to Italy to grow olives or make wine. Some, like 46-year-old Matthew Peirce from the English town of Reading, have come to study the blood-feeding insects that blight our summers: mosquitoes.


So tell us about what brought you to Italy..

I first started coming to Italy during my university years to visit my wife Rebecca and was always drawn like many, to the style, the language, the cuisine and the warmth of the people. Rebecca has English parents but was brought up, from the age of less than a year, in Italy so she speaks like a native. Because of Rebecca’s Italian connection we started looking for what initially we planned as an Italian bolt-hole, somewhere to go for weekends and holidays. But after six years of restructuring the house we decided we were ready for a change and moved here permanently. It was clearly a move meant to be because everything just fell into place.

How did you find your job?

The job arose through a friend, who introduced me to professor Flaminia Catteruccia,  who ran a lab studying mosquitoes at Imperial College in London and at the University of Perugia, which was only about 40 minutes away from our home in Italy.

I wrote to her to see if there were any vacancies in her group. While I had a lot of lab experience in the field of biochemistry, I knew nothing about mosquitoes. In spite of this she seemed keen to have someone with my background in her lab and, more remarkably had money, to hire people. 

So tell us about what studying mosquitoes entails...

The aim of the lab is to understand the processes involved in reproduction, with the idea of intervening chemically (with insecticides) or genetically (using genetically-modified mosquitoes) in these events to reduce their fertility and thereby reduce the mosquito population.

I am a post-doctorate research scientist supervise a group of three PhD students designing, performing and analysing experiments as well as more mundane things like feeding the mosquitoes blood.

As yet I don't do any teaching to undergraduates as my Italian needs to improve. A lot of the job involves writing grants and trying to publish articles in the academic literature.

For whatever reason the University of Perugia has had strong interest in malarial mosquito research for many years. Professor Catteruccia received assistance from the Italian government to set up the lab as well as generous funding for her research from the European Union.

What has been your biggest challenge while working in Italy?

Professionally, the journey has not always been smooth.The issue that I have encountered is related to the legendary Italian bureaucracy. It seems to take an unusually long time for things to happen once a decision has apparently been made and it appears that there is no way to identify a person/office on which pressure could be focussed to try and push things forward.

The only thing that helps in this case is knowing people in the right place who can unblock things. As an expat this is especially challenging, since developing a network of friends and acquaintances who might be in a position to help means a lot of time spent in the bar drinking coffee and obviously, being able to speak Italian.

As luck would have it, through Rebecca’s language skills, we had made a lot of Italian friends, one of whom turned out to be perfectly positioned to solve my problem (a stalled building project in the university on which the productivity of the lab was absolutely dependent) with a personal visit to the right place in the organization. The project was activated within days of his intervention after having waited several months with no movement. I should say that all my colleagues at the university have been absolutely charming and extremely welcoming and friendly. While not everyone speaks English, they have been uniformly tolerant and encouraging of my imperfect attempts at Italian.

What were the challenges you faced when trying to learn Italian?

In terms of the challenges posed by learning the language I think my biggest problem has been a combination of age and energy. I find my brain these days takes longer to absorb new words and even though I use Italian every day, and had been going to evening classes for several years before living here, my progress has been painfully slow. Also, I get back from work at the end of the day and just struggle to find the energy to keep speaking Italian, which is a mistake on my part, but speaking a foreign language is tiring!

I think this is the biggest challenge that faces expats here because without being competent in the language you really miss out on a lot of what makes Italy such a joy. More than most places in my experience, Italy is a country that runs on personal interactions and relationships and without speaking the language at a decent level you miss out on the great pleasure of making Italian friends, but also on the support, practical and personal, that they can provide. Pragmatically and personally as an expat, you need Italian friends to help navigate what can feel like another planet.

What would you say to any foreigners thinking about moving to Italy?

The good and bad of Italy are well known and nothing we have experienced here - good or less good - has been a surprise. As Italians in London constantly told us, holidaying in Italy is one thing but working there is another. This is true - the bureaucracy is a nightmare and the driving is mad - but people don’t come to Italy to see a model of perfect government or exemplary road safety in the same way as people don’t go to London for the weather.

Like anywhere, Italy has its faults, which any Italian given the chance will list at great length and with alarming passion, but if you speak the language you will find people falling over themselves to share with you the 'work arounds’ to these problems that they have been perfecting their whole lives. Three years in, I would say the move has been more or less what I expected, a rejuvenating and revitalising adventure.

By Ellie Bennett


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