Dr Giuliana Di Martino

Dr Di Martino has been curious about how the world works for as long as she can remember. Today, that curiosity could drive huge advances in low-power, sustainable devices thanks to her widely acclaimed research.

Giuliana in front of a hedge the colour of autumn leaves. She has her hands clasped in her lap and wears a floral white shirt, with a black blazer, plus red lipstick.

To reach Net Zero, the world needs electronics that are low energy and sustainable. Giuliana's research develops technology to investigate cutting-edge materials such as novel semiconductor and dielectric interfaces, magnetic and superconductive thin films, and plasmonic ceramic materials. By studying how light interacts with these innovative materials, she and her research group could transform the digital devices we know today.

The potential impact of this research on industry and everyday life means Giuliana’s work has been recognised in publications, conferences, and the media.

As well as her many successful grant applications, editorial roles, outreach activities and mentoring, Giuliana has also started a family, raising two children and navigating childcare and work during the pandemic.

And perhaps the most impressive of all? All these achievements have happened in the ten years since her PhD at Imperial.

Giuliana in a lab, she wears a lanyard around her neck and is with one colleague who is wearing a yellow shirt

Giuliana with a colleague working on her PhD experiment

Giuliana with a colleague working on her PhD experiment

Destined for academia

Giuliana’s interest in physics began at an early age.

My family members tell me that when I was six, I said that I wanted to study physics. Some were laughing at me: ‘You don’t even know what physics is!’ But my grandma said: ‘She is going to become a researcher.’ She was the first one to recognise that I could do what I do now. Luckily, I was a curious, studious child who was good at school.

Giuliana began her academic career in the University of Catania in her home country of Italy. Here she had the opportunity to fast-track her research career.

Through a competitive selection process, she was chosen to study extra degrees alongside her bachelor’s and master’s, with an opportunity to conduct research in Boston, USA.

While in the USA, Giuliana was reading an introduction to plasmonics, written by Professor Stefan Maier. Seeing that he was based at Imperial College London, she applied to join his research group. She completed her PhD at Imperial, and her career has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Fast forward to today and Giuliana is an associate professor at the University of Cambridge. She is principal investigator of the DiMartinoLab and Head of the Device Materials Group and has helped establish the university as a centre of excellence for low power and sustainable electronics.

Giuliana sitting in front of a whiteboard filled with working and symbols. She is holding a pen with the same hand that is touching her chin as she poses for the picture smiling.
Headshot of Giuliana against a lab background with blue lighting. Her hair is down and tucked behind her ears, she is wearing a white floral shirt.

World-changing work

“During my time at Imperial, I worked on quantum communications, and I now work on low-power electronics. When I became a principal investigator, I worked on optical characterisation of devices. Today, with the confidence of this knowledge, I look at the problem of making devices better in the round.”

Giuliana’s time at Imperial helped launch an impressive career. After moving to the University of Cambridge, she started to diversify her work and develop an even more impressive reputation. She has won awards, such as the American Physical Society (APS) Award for outstanding achievements by women physicists in the early years of their careers. She has been recognised by peers, for example becoming a Winton Advanced Research Fellow to develop an independent research career in the Physics of Sustainability. And she has received significant funding, such as the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant.

I head a group of fifty people, working across physics, materials science, and engineering to make devices better. This work has commercial applications, of course. So, as well as our grants from the academic institution, we have funding from industry.

Balancing responsibilities

Giuliana’s work could have far-reaching consequences. But her family responsibilities are just as important. She explains that: “My days are very challenging – I’m not only an academic leading a research group, but the mother of a baby and a four-year-old!”

“I have to be very efficient. I don’t sleep very much with a ten-month-old baby. And the four-year-old has to get to school. After the madness of getting out of the house, I have a whole research group to guide, managing labs and technicians.”

Balancing a busy career and a young family can feel overwhelming, but Giuliana knows it is temporary.

Life has many different phases. She reflects: “In research and in a family, the problems are different as the years go by. Being a group leader is like having a family – being responsible for people of different ages, different abilities.”

Giuliana standing in a garden outdoors, the leaves on the trees are blurred but are an autumnal colour. She wears a black blazer over a floral shirt, her hair is down

Motivations for success

People choose their fields for many reasons. For Giuliana, research was a childhood passion that has evolved into a rewarding career. But her six-year-old self could hardly have imagined the various ways she could use her interests to make a difference in the world.

What we do here will have an impact on all our lives.

Giuliana explains that her work will make devices more sustainable – using less power and performing better. Her research is at the boundary of physics, materials science, and engineering.

But as worthy as these goals are, they’re not the only things that drive Giuliana in her work. She explains how she is motivated by three things: “The first is the overall topic - doing something with an impact on society. The second is simply doing research and helping the group become better researchers themselves. Finally, a big motivation is being an inspiration to others from an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion perspective.”

Giuliana working with physics equipment - she is wearing a lanyard around her neck as she touches the pieces on display

A typical day of optical alignment in the lab at Imperial

A typical day of optical alignment in the lab at Imperial

Giuliana with two colleagues in a lab space, they are gathered around a table of equipment. She is wearing an orange top with a black outside shirt.

Giuliana pictured with two of her mentors, Dr Yannick Sonnefraud and Professor Mark Tame, in the labs at Imperial

Giuliana pictured with two of her mentors, Dr Yannick Sonnefraud and Professor Mark Tame, in the labs at Imperial

The value of diversity

Giuliana recalls being a junior researcher and thinking that the many challenges she faced were simply a consequence of being junior. “But as you grow in the role, you recognise that the challenges may be more to do with being a woman, and being a foreigner, as well as, yes, being young.”

Science has historically been a male-dominated field. It takes people like Giuliana to challenge the accepted ways of doing things, drive change and show the value of different perspectives.

Things are changing. We just need to press on. I am involved a lot in being an ambassador for equality and diversity. My own research group is fifty-fifty gender balanced. And I have people in the group from various backgrounds.

As Giuliana observes: “There is a lot of push from society to embed these principles in systems of working. But there’s a lot still to do. For example, I’m often involved in conferences that promote the debate around the issues of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.”

Giuliana at her desk in a lab lit with blue lighting.
Giuliana at her desk in a lab lit with blue lighting.

Giuliana believes that for diversity in science to happen, the culture in research departments has to change. Strong role models are extremely important to counter the fact that the stereotype of a scientist is still an Albert Einstein lookalike. Celebrating female scientists is key: “the Royal Academy of Engineering is keen to showcase young women researchers – through interviews on websites and so on.”

Government legislation can also make a big difference to female researchers considering having children.

Maternity leave is important. Coming back from a break can be a huge setback for your career. I’ve seen people in research just give up on the idea of having a family. As a young researcher, you’re happy to work nights and weekends. That’s not possible when you have a baby.

Thankfully, many workplaces are more open to flexible working today than in the past.

Advice for new researchers

Given how far Giuliana has come, geographically and academically, what message would she send to her younger self? “I would say that you must persevere. Even if you think you’re not going to make it, you are going to make it – if you believe you will.”

I was writing a proposal to secure European Research Council funding for a research project, one of the hardest to get. It was during COVID-19 and nurseries were shut; my little kid was at home. I thought I’d never get it done. But I did. Push on, punch back. You have to believe in yourself, as a woman, as someone young.
Portrait image of Giuliana standing in front of a whiteboard filled with working and symbols.

Finally, Giuliana stresses the importance of mentors.

As for help on my academic journey, I had not just one, but several good mentors, including at Imperial. They can teach you the ‘soft skills’, like resilience – how to keep going when it gets tough. Even now, running my own research group, I still have a lot to learn from the senior academics in the department.

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Landscape closeup photo of Giuliana, smiling to the distance to the right of the camera. She is wearing lipstick and you can see the collar of her floral blouse and black blazer

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