Researcher Spotlight: James Ninia, Italy

Each month, Fulbridge interviews a Fulbright grantee from around the world to get a glimpse of what life is like in different placements. This month, we are featuring James Ninia, a 2017-2018 Research Scholar in Italy. The interview was edited for length and clarity by Lisa Gagnon, an 2017-2018 ETA in Latvia.

  1. Why Rome?

I had my sight set on Italy from the get-go, being a reasonably capable Italian speaker and, like many from suburban New York, having familial and historical ties to the country. Ending up in Rome, however, was more a product of the research project I put together than it was a product of a desire to live in Italy’s capital. I proposed to study experimental drugs for potential therapeutic applications in Muscular Dystrophies, and the lab and mentor who agreed to take me on were both based out of Rome. So even though I’ve admired this city from afar for many years, I came here because of the opportunity it afforded me to do the research I wanted more than anything else.

  1. How is Rome different from the U.S.?

Aside from being a lot older than the U.S. (and having the monuments to prove it), Rome and the U.S. are quite different in a few ways. One thing – that may be perceived as a negative by many Americans – is that things just tend to take longer here. Banks are closed on weekends and tend to only be open exactly when one would also be at their own job. They even close for an hour or two for lunch every day! Same goes for government agencies; they are almost always only open Monday through Friday. While I don’t feel this is such a bad thing, it did take some getting used to, especially after coming here right from NYC where nearly everything is at your fingertips 24/7. In fact, I’d probably enjoy this schedule more if I were living here as a member of a family rather than on my own.

Another difference between Rome and the US is that everything is way more spread out in the United States (even in cities!). Here, I feel like most everyone I know has a grocery store, a park, a bar, a barber shop, a convenience store, and virtually everything they need less than a block from their apartment, and that you can stroll or ride a bike to get virtually anywhere. In the U.S., this isn’t the case.

There are also all these little idiosyncrasies that separate Italians/Romans from Americans. For example, Italians never get their coffee “to go.” They will always take the 3 minutes and drink it at home or at the bar they order it at. This may be because Italian coffee is all variations of what we would call “espresso,” so it takes them less time to drink it, but having a to-go cup of coffee in Rome screams “tourist.” Speaking of Italian coffee habits, people will look at you strangely if you order a cappuccino after noon or so; try substituting a “caffè macchiato” if you’re craving a coffee drink with milk in the afternoon.

Also, this is more of a warning: if you have to use a public restroom in certain places like the metro, certain train stations, or other public locations, be prepared to potentially have to cough up a few cents to a Euro.

James and the other grantees in Italy received a special card for free admittance into state-run museums from the local Fulbright Commission.

  1. What does a typical workday look like for you?

I wake up early in the morning and get my things together for my day in the lab; I collect my laptop, a lunch, and a book for the commute. Sometimes I whip up a coffee and a breakfast at home, but many days I like to head to a local bar for breakfast; you can drink a really nice cappuccino and have a pastry the size of your head all for under €2.

The lab I work in is far on the periphery of Rome, near a military base but also kind of in the middle of nowhere. My commute goes like this: I walk on over to the metro, and take it all the way south to a large bus terminal called Laurentina. From Laurentina, I take bus 776 all the way to the end to get to the labs of the Fondazione Santa Lucia. The commute isn’t so bad, and I pass the time with books, music, podcasts, or games on my phone.

Once at the lab, I get to work. On a typical day, I spend about half the day at the bench running an experiment and the other half the day processing data on my computer and trying to make it presentable and attractive graphically. Lunch is pretty sacred to Italians so usually between 1 and 2 PM I’m expected to put my work on hold and eat together with my friends and coworkers.

I remain at the lab until the evening and leave to head back to my apartment, following the reverse of my morning commute. On my way back, I usually stop at the supermarket and pick up some food for lunches later that week or dinner that night. For dinner, I usually whip up something quick in my kitchen or grab some take-out from a place near my house — perhaps a personal pizza or one of the delicious Roman pastas that are a bit convoluted for me to prepare on my own. From there, if it’s not already too late, I can have a bit of fun; sometimes I look into ways to spend the weekend, sometimes I clean the apartment and do laundry, and other times I meet my buddies at a local bar for a chat and a quick drink.

  1. How do you connect with your community outside of your formal responsibilities?

I have been communicating and collaborating regularly with a patient advocacy group called Parent Project ONLUS here in Rome, who helped support my application for the Fulbright based on my prior involvement with causes related to a specific Muscular Dystrophy called Duchenne. Nicoletta Madia, their head of fundraising, events, and communications, has been very supportive of my work and we have been regularly in touch about events and other ways I can lend a hand to the organization over and above my research. Involvement in a patient advocacy group is important to me to give my preclinical research some perspective and so I may come to know the patients and families who are the drivers and motivation for my work. Having a familiarity with the community my work ought to serve has been especially valuable.

Also, I regularly host trivia night at a local bar. Europeans call it “pub quiz” but in my heart it’s still trivia night. Before embarking on my Fulbright, I regularly participated in trivia night in my hometown and it’s really cool to continue the tradition as a host rather than a participant. I have a lot of fun coming up with categories, questions, and challenges for an audience consisting of local Romans, folks who moved here from all around the world, and even the occasional tourist.

  1. What have been some of the highlights of your grant?

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: the food, the wine, and the sights that the Eternal City has to offer. The Fulbright Commission here in Italy also got all Fulbrighters a special card for free admittance into state-run museums; the ability to go in and out of them at will without paying has itself been a highlight.

Another real highlight of my time in Italy was meeting Senatore Mario Monti, the former prime minister of Italy who was appointed by the President to fill the vacancy left after Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation in 2011. He gave a talk about the future of the European Union to a small audience of graduates from a few American universities including my own alma mater, Brown University. Afterward, I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly, thank him, and pose for a picture. That was a really fun night.

One highlight of James’ grant was the opportunity to meet Senatore Mario Monti, the former prime minister of Italy.

  1. Why should prospective grantees apply to work in Rome?

In many ways, the city speaks for itself. Who wouldn’t want to live in a city where you leave the metro on a weeknight only to be immediately greeted by the gently illuminated Colosseum across the road, or where you can walk down the street and find yourself surrounded by three millennia worth of history with ruins from the Roman Republic on your right and a medieval church on your left. Not to mention all the pasta you can eat.

What people may not be aware of, however, are the resources, opportunities, and potential that this city holds. Rome has Sapienza, one of the top universities in Europe, along with multiple other universities that each carry opportunities for work and research across a variety of disciplines. Not only is Rome the seat of the Italian Government, it’s also the seat of the Holy See – the governing body of the Catholic Church. This brings opportunities to enhance one’s research in some fields by getting access to their semi-private library through the U.S. embassy.

Finally, Rome is in this unique position of being a cosmopolitan city with immigrants from all around the world living here, while still being a distinctly Italian city. For example, Fulbrighters in other corners of Italy have been lamenting the lack of decent non-Italian food in their towns or cities, whereas on the other hand my apartment is directly above a pretty good Sushi restaurant. In Rome, it’s possible for one’s Fulbright experience to be both global and uniquely Roman, by making friends with people from all over the world, and getting to know the locals.

  1. How have your experiences in Rome changed you?

I’ve begun to accumulate a nice collection of new memories that I’ll cherish forever, whether it’s spending Christmas with my friend from university’s family in a town called Ronchi Dei Legionari in northern Italy or simply going to a beer festival and grabbing a snack with new friends at Eataly, a multi-level mega-store here in Rome. These new memories are changing me in their own way, as I accumulate experiences that are outside of the norm for a home-grown American guy like me.

I’m better at speaking and reading Italian now. The difference, especially with respect to reading, from when I first got here is definitely noticeable.

I’ve also become a little more thoughtful of my own place in the world as well as that of the United States. For example, there are a lot of parallels between what is going on between European politics and American politics right now. Paying attention to the Italian news and thinking about some of these big-picture issues has helped give some perspective on the U.S.’s role in the world, and reflecting on this and my conversations with Italians have helped me think more critically about my own career and future, and where I can make a positive moral contribution to the world while navigating some of these larger international forces.

  1. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship twice; the first time I didn’t even make it past the first round of applications, and the second time I was selected! If anyone is reading this who has been rejected by Fulbright or is afraid their application won’t go the way they want the first time around, do not lose hope. Be creative with your application and, if your eye is set on a Research scholarship, your proposed project. It may feel like a waste of time to reapply, but I am living proof that it is not; if a Fulbright is something you really want to do, give it a shot!

James Ninia is from East Setauket, a suburban town on the north shore of Long Island, New York. He graduated from Brown University in 2016 with an A.B. in both Chemistry and Philosophy, and later completed an M.S. in Bioethics at Columbia University in 2017. At the conclusion of his Fulbright, his next stop will be the Motor City (Detroit, Michigan) in order to study medicine at Wayne State University.

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