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Chemical engineering professor Fausto Gallucci on the perks of open access publishing

January 21, 2020

Prof. Fausto Gallucci, PhD, pictured at the Eindhoven University of Technolog

Chemical engineering professor Fausto Gallucci talks about his top career goal, his biggest challenge, and the perks of open access publishing

As a highschooler living in the heel of Italy, Fausto Gallucci(opens in new tab/window) was determined to go into electronics. However, the lack of ambition of his classmates at the time made him change his mind .

“I wanted to give myself a chance to excel, and that wasn’t going to happen in that electronics class,” Fausto explained.

His move paid off: Fausto went on to study chemistry, and today he is a professor of chemical engineering with 250 publications to his name. He leads a team of 22 people at the Eindhoven University of Technology(opens in new tab/window) in the Netherlands.

Fausto is passionate about making a real-life impact with his work. Of course, as with any research, there are challenges. In a fast-paced, competitive research landscape, it can be difficult to manage time efficiently. Fausto said it helps that he can rely on his team, while various tools help him optimize his workflow and keep up with new research.

A struggle he hasn’t yet found the best solution for, however, is how to explain his work to his friends and family.

As the head of the Inorganic Membranes and Membrane Reactors(opens in new tab/window) research group, Fausto is used to having to go to great lengths to explain his work in lay language.

“In short, I research new types of chemical reactors to improve their efficiency,” he explained. “My relatives sometimes think that means I work on nuclear reactors, but that’s not the case!”

Chemical reactors are vessels that are used in the chemical industry to turn two or more raw materials into other substances. A separator does the opposite: it converts a specific solution into two or more substances.

“That doesn’t help,” he recalled with humor. “Once when I told someone I worked on separations, they thought I was a divorce lawyer!”

Fausto and his team are trying to integrate the functions of chemical reactors and separators into a single unit. This is much more efficient: you need less material since you only need a single reactor, and it conserves energy.

Recently, Fausto and his colleagues received a grant for the biggest ever European project on membrane reactors. These reactors use membranes to either add or filter out a substance to or from a chemical reaction. For example, membrane reactors are used in wastewater treatment plants.

This all may seem very technical and abstract, but what excites Fausto the most about his work is that it’s the opposite. A big part of his research is to scale up new reactors, taking them out of the lab and testing them in real-life industry settings:

Back in Italy, I had a professor who was called the pope of membranes. He showed us big plants in Japan where they were finding new ways to clean water with membranes. I was fascinated to see highly innovative techniques being used in real-life settings. It is my personal aim to see something I developed applied in the industry before I retire. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m also far from being retired!

Time management for research

With so much on the schedule, managing his time is Fausto’s biggest challenge. Aside from doing his research, Fausto also teaches and manages his team.

We can make a bigger impact if we collaborate, but that requires management. I enjoy working with my team and enjoy talking to them to find out where they’re at and what they’re coming up with. I always say: In the first year, a PhD student has to learn a lot from us, and by the final year, we have to learn from them.

Every morning, I check up on my students(opens in new tab/window) before diving into meetings about ongoing research projects. Sometimes I have so many meetings in a day, I only get to start my work when I’m back at home!

To keep his research group going, another large chunk of time goes to finding new funding sources.

The success rate to get funding in Europe is about 15 percent, so to get one grant, you have to submit seven proposals every year. Some years you get two or three proposals approved, and other times zero, so it’s hard to plan long-term.

Fausto wouldn’t want it any other way. “Doing research is difficult, but it’s what I like to do,” he said. “I enjoy the challenges that come with the job.”

A lot has changed since he started out in academia. When Fausto submitted his first paper as an MA student, the team had to send several hard copies of the text to the journal by post. Those then were sent on to the reviewers, who sometimes just wrote their comments on the paper.

“Things are definitely easier now that the whole process is online, but what happens is that people just work more,” Fausto said. “Since everyone is working more, I can’t decide to do less. You have to stay on top of everything to remain relevant. I don’t mind the competition: as long as it is fair, it makes us better.”

Tools of the trade

Fortunately, there are tools that speed up some of the work, Fausto said:

To stay up to date with new research, I always use ScienceDirect and Scopus. Generally, I just search for the last new papers in my field. I also get alerts through Mendeley when there’s something new I should read. I don’t read everything that comes out, but it’s good to know what’s there. It can be a challenge, as there are new papers that come out on a daily basis.

He stores all his references in Mendeley.

When it comes to workflows, I always tell my master students they have to take notes continuously during their work, and always explain each step of what they are doing. Generally, the most important thing students have to learn is how to solve problems. They don’t have to be experts on a single topic. A solid foundation is more important since that can always be supplemented by reading new literature. What you need is a combination of creativity and a solid theoretical foundation.

The value of open access

Fausto’s papers are increasingly being published under an open access model – 11 last year and 15 the year before. His choice is driven by the requirements for the European funding his team received, as well as the push in the Netherlands to publish either green or gold open access. To Fausto, it’s a positive evolution:

The more open access, the easier for others to read and refer to research. In the past, I would receive many requests from researchers all across the world, who didn’t have access to specific journals. Many were from developing countries, but some even came from countries like Spain or the United Kingdom.

That problem is solved when papers are accessible to all. Equal access also levels the playing field for researchers across the world. “The main purpose of publishing open access is not necessarily to make research available to the general public, since they wouldn’t understand the language used, but to get a wider reach in the scientific community,” he explained. With the open access model, however, come article processing charges (APCs):

Luckily, thanks to the agreement between the Dutch association of universities and scientific publishers, we don’t have to pay for the charges from our research ourselves. If we would have to pay from our own budget, we wouldn’t be able to publish so much. Nevertheless, I always aim to publish in the journal that best fits my paper, regardless of whether it offers gold open access or not.

With so many benefits to living in the Netherlands, does he never miss Southern Italy? “I definitely miss the weather,” Fausto said and laughed. “I initially came to stay only a year, but it’s been 12 so far! Here in the Netherlands, we benefit from being surrounded by competitive people. It keeps us on our toes. That’s not always the case in Italy. Apparently I like doing research here. I like that Dutch people are direct; so am I.”

Read Prof. Fausto’s Galluci’s research

Here is a sample of recent open access articles Fausto published in Elsevier journals:

Chemical Engineering Journal, Dec 2019 - Effect of CO2 on the performance of an electrochemical hydrogen compressor(opens in new tab/window)

Chemical Engineering Journal, Aug 2019 - Experimental and modelling study of an electrochemical hydrogen compressor(opens in new tab/window)

Chemical Engineering and Processing – Process Intensification, June 2019 - Synthesis of luminescent carbon quantum dots by microplasma process(opens in new tab/window)