The best of both worlds
Annalisa Manera’s career has taken her through half of Europe and to the USA. Now she is a nuclear researcher at PSI and a professor at ETH Zurich. She exudes enthusiasm for her subject and never loses sight of the big picture.
Anyone who thinks it’s just the same arguments that are always trotted out in the energy debate has never talked with Annalisa Manera. “There is no energy source that doesn’t generate waste. And none whose risk is absolutely zero,” the researcher says.
Manera, in her late 40s with curly brown hair, works as a scientist at PSI, where she has been leading a group for over a year now in the Nuclear Energy and Safety Division that focuses on fluid dynamics and heat transport. She is also Professor of Nuclear Systems and Multiphase Flows at ETH Zurich. In short: she knows all about nuclear energy.
But anyone who expects that nuclear power takes precedence over everything else for her is wrong again. “We should put as many solar panels as possible on the roofs of our houses! Photovoltaics are perfect for covering most of our personal needs,” she says. She speaks briskly and clearly, in perfect American English with a trace of an Italian accent – Manera was born in southern Italy.
What quickly becomes clear: if you move away from accepted viewpoints, things can get complex. And it’s then that Manera’s eyes sparkle happily – here she’s in her element. She approaches complexity with a sharp mind and pragmatic attitude.
This is already evident in her choice of a major: “I fell in love with physics and mathematics. I just wanted to be able to understand and explain everything. But the career prospects in physics at that time, in the 1990s in Italy, were not so good.” So she enrolled at the University of Pisa to study engineering. “Here nuclear engineering had the most to offer me in terms of physics and mathematics, and I was still able to get a master’s degree in engineering.”
In 1998 she went abroad for her master’s thesis, to the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. And evidently she did well in academia: she was immediately offered a PhD position, which she accepted, and then an assistant professorship, which she declined. “I wanted to experience a different scientific environment and broaden my horizons.” She went to Germany for two years and worked as a scientist at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf.
I wanted to experience a different scientific environment and broaden my horizons.
The next stage in her career brought her to Switzerland for the first time, in 2006. She was curious to see if a job in industry was something for her, and started at a consulting company in Dättwil, Aargau. One of her projects was to evaluate the different types of nuclear reactors on the market, in order to develop recommendations for interested countries. “But in the first three months I realised that this work didn’t challenge me enough,” she says matter-of-factly, as if that suggested nothing about her ambitions.
She stayed in Aargau but went back to research: at PSI. Here Manera’s career again took a steep turn upwards, and after just six months she was head of the group conducting research into the behaviour of nuclear systems. She remained in this position for five years.
Her next position was a professorship, but again abroad, at the University of Michigan in the USA. “In the USA, Michigan is number one for nuclear engineering research,” Manera says. “And I liked the atmosphere there.”
She stayed ten years in Michigan, where her child was born. Today Manera is a single mother with a ten-year-old son.
Manera has been back in Switzerland since the summer of 2021, with dual status at ETH Zurich and PSI. And she feels she has really arrived in Switzerland. “I now live with my son in a small town near Baden.” For her, it is ideally located between ETH Zurich and PSI. It’s also a good starting point for excursions. “We often do something on weekends, go hiking with other families or visit a museum.”
It also seems as if one aspect of Manera’s work has become something of a hobby: the researcher is in demand in the media, as an expert on energy security in times of climate change. “I get a lot of interview requests. And I try, as much as possible, not to turn them down.”
What motivates her above all is the chance to challenge popular but unfounded claims: “I often see misleading statements in the media.” Naturally she is keen to correct them. For example, she explains that neither an accident like the one in Chernobyl nor the one in Fukushima can be repeated in Switzerland: “Chernobyl was a totally different reactor. This kind of accident can be completely ruled out in Switzerland on the basis of physical laws.” A catastrophe like Fukushima will also be prevented by the continuous improvements which local reactors underwent. Something else is important to Manera: “In my interviews, I try to translate technical concepts into language that is easier for the general public to understand.” And she adds: “I just don’t want decisions to be made on the basis of misinformation.”
A table full of electronics
Even in a period when nuclear energy is being phased out, Manera is convinced that research in this area must be continued. “In Switzerland, we will need specialist knowledge on nuclear issues for decades to come, especially when it comes to dismantling the plants. And as long as other countries continue to have nuclear energy, we should not leave future advances in knowledge to them alone.”
She also feels at home because the Swiss research landscape appeals to her. In the USA there is no basic funding for science, Manera says; everything has to be raised through third-party funding. This in turn can be achieved primarily through collaborations with other researchers. So Manera has built up a network of her own. “And now I have the best of both worlds,” she says. “I benefit from my many contacts. And because I can now rely on stable funding for my laboratory here in Switzerland, I have more time for actual research.”
She finds the atmosphere at PSI to be a good mix of aspiration and constructive freedom: “Here, if necessary, I can pause and take time for in-depth reflection.”
One of the topics she and her group are currently working on is passive cooling – that is, how it might be possible to operate a reactor whose cooling liquid would circulate solely on the basis of physical principles. “When you have a pump, the behaviour of the liquid is quite predictable. Simulating and understanding passive flow behaviour, on the other hand, requires much more complex computer models.” In parallel with these theoretical calculations, her research group at ETH Zurich is conducting experiments that reproduce flow behaviour on a smaller scale. The work at the two institutions appears to go hand in hand: at PSI, Manera points to an office table that is covered with colourful electronic components. “We design and build our own ultrahigh-resolution measuring devices for the experiments.”
Manera has to run. She’s about to have a meeting two buildings further down the PSI campus with representatives of the European Space Agency ESA. “A Mars mission will not be feasible without nuclear energy,” she says on her way out.
It would be great to listen to her some more and be infected by her enthusiasm for applied physics. Manera has so many numbers and correlations at her fingertips, yet she never talks down from a superior position. But both of her calendars – for PSI and ETH Zurich – are full. She waves goodbye and disappears in the direction of her next meeting.
Text: Laura Hennemann