Maria Betti, director, Marine Environment Laboratories, International Atomic Energy Agency, Monaco

Passion to eradicate pollution brings marine scientist to Monaco.

Maria Betti might have expected to follow her family's tradition and study language, art or literature. Instead, she opted for chemistry, biology and physics, studying the effects of pollutants on human and environmental health. She would go on to develop novel techniques to detect trace pollutants in the environment. As she assumes the directorship of the Marine Environment Laboratories at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), she says her background will help her forge new studies of the marine environment. See CV

Fascination with algal movements in the Mediterranean Sea led Betti to a degree in marine science at the University of Pisa, in her home town. She later received a PhD in chemistry there too, investigating trace metals in marine ecosystems — part of an environmental project at a national park. There, she found her niche. “I dedicated part of my research to implementing new instrumental techniques to detect inorganic pollutants at trace levels,” she says.

At the Institute of Instrumental Analytical Chemistry, part of Italy's National Research Council, Betti collaborated on research in the Antarctic Zone. Then, in 1991, she moved to the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU), part of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. She says that changing her focus to the detection of radionuclides in the environment was the defining moment of her career. Since then, she has monitored the clean-up of nuclear accidents as well as analysing samples collected during United Nations inspections.

Betti's laboratory was the first civil installation in the world to use mass spectrometry in the analysis of radioactive microparticles, one of the tools used today by the IAEA and the European body Euratom to detect undeclared nuclear activities. That brought her to the attention of the IAEA and led to consulting and advisory roles there, says ITU spokesperson Gabriele Tamborini.

In her new position, Betti hopes to strengthen the links between European Union research organizations and the IAEA on a host of environmental matters. She plans to promote nuclear techniques to study the ocean, climate change and sustainable development of marine resources. For example, she hopes to use radionuclides to model phytoplankton and trace-element dynamics in the ocean — an ill-defined part of the global carbon cycle.

“This position,” says Betti, “is the culmination of all my scientific and human experiences over the past 25 years.”

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Gewin, V. Maria Betti, director, Marine Environment Laboratories, International Atomic Energy Agency, Monaco. Nature 455, 1004 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7215-1004a

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