Bridging worlds together to create a working application

Bridging worlds together to create a working application

Francesca Leonardi

Biochemical engineer

portrait of Francesca Leonardi

Francesca Leonardi is an imec Biochemical Engineer at OnePlanet. In her natural laboratorial environment, she studies how molecules interact with one another and creates new ones. “The lab kind of feels like my second home. There’s always something to do.”

Francesca studied chemistry and conducted her PhD in her native Italy. In 2015, having never left her homeland, she moved to Spain “to try and get to know a new culture”. There, she worked for four years at the Institute of Materials Science in Barcelona. Eventually, love would bring her to the Netherlands, and to imec at OnePlanet. There, she is working on an ingestible smart pill. Francesca sees the sensors that imec is developing for this purpose as a large chemical and electronic machine. “Combining these two worlds into one working application, I think it’s brilliant.”

“I honestly had a great time in Spain. While the long-distance relationship was working, the Netherlands was also calling to me. So I took the plunge. A friend forwarded me the link from OnePlanet for an open application. I wrote a letter expressing my passion for my work, and within two weeks I was hired.”

“That was quite a victory for me. While the people interviewing me seemed very interested in my work, they naturally also made sure to challenge me greatly. I would later discover that this is typical of the culture at OnePlanet.”

“I find every encounter with a new country to be an incredibly enriching experience. In Spain, I grew into an independent scholar. Here in the Netherlands, I am learning to share my knowledge with fellow scientists and students. For example, my colleagues often want to know my thoughts on certain things and value my opinion. I can definitely say that I have reached a certain level of maturity here.”

“Teaching is equally a passion of mine. Due to our partnership with Wageningen University, Radboud University and Radboudumc, I am constantly interacting with students. It’s very inspiring to work with students, plus it saves work if you want to make progress. I’ve only got two hands, after all.”

No barriers
“The beauty of OnePlanet is that there are no barriers. Here, you are free to explore other domains. Currently, I am working on an application within ‘Ingestibles for Gut Health’. OnePlanet also counts agri-food as a research area. Over the last year, I have learned an awful lot about nutrition. Exploring this domain has given me new ideas to play with, such as perhaps eventually, applying sensors in greenhouses.”

“At OnePlanet, I have complete freedom to figure out whether something is a good idea or not. If you are receptive to innovation and have an open mind, you can do so much here. My manager doesn’t tell me what to do. If I want to test something out in the lab and I have a good enough reason to do it, I can.”

My second home
“My curiosity pushes me to keep going and want to learn more. I want to experiment, explore, and see how things work. As a result, I spend most of my time in the lab, which has come to feel like a bit of a second home to me. I love applying my findings to real-world applications.”

Francesca also applies her knowledge in her everyday life. “During my studies, there was a professor who said that to be a good chemist, you first had to be a good cook. For me, it’s the exact opposite. I studied chemistry first, and only then did I learn how to cook. I see cooking as one big chemistry experiment. It’s my passion. I cook every day, sometimes even for my colleagues.”

Her favorite dish is pizza. “It’s amazing to see how the bacteria cause the dough to rise. While my pizza may not yet be as good as my mother’s, she says that making better pizza simply comes with age.” One of her and her partner’s favorite hobbies is discovering new pizzerias. “We already have a long list of some really good ones.”

Another passion she discovered in the Netherlands is that of cycling. “Living in Wageningen, I ride my bike to work every day. As I pedal through the farms and meadows, I am able to reflect on my research, which in turn brings me complete inner peace.”