Old Light Microscope. Wikimedia Commons

The Everything in the Small

He studies things on a "nano" scale that promises great changes in medicine. He has already seen such changes in his lifetime, together with the "miracles of every day." Mauro Ferrari explains what forgiveness has to do with work.
Alessandra Stoppa

He couldn't have known that among all the poor wretches he saw struggling up that road, among all those condemned to death, one was unlike the others. There, in the midst of the crowd, he couldn't have known, couldn't have imagined, even when the centurion told him to help precisely that one. "But he did it. He didn't have anything to do with the situation, but he took the Cross and carried it. This is why I've always felt a bond with Simon of Cyrene." The closeness of two such men is audacious. One was returning from the fields, passing through the streets of Jerusalem, under the reign of Tiberius. The other is changing the face of clinical research, applying nanotechnology in medicine. As a young professor at Berkeley, Mauro Ferrari lived in the environment shared by the many Nobel prizewinners who have passed through Silicon Valley, as one of the biggest experts in the field of nanotechnological research to cure cancer. His path along the way has been marked by numerous adjustments and sudden changes of direction.

Because of an injury, Ferrari had to give up a career in basketball, and his work as coach ended when he was fired. In the meantime, he left Engineering for Astronomy, but got bogged down in his third year of college in Italy and moved over to Mathematics. He arrived at UC Berkeley when he was 24, with a scholarship and Maria Luisa, his bride. After earning his degree, he taught a year in a course for business secretaries, then began a Master's in Mechanical Engineering, once again at Berkeley.

Their three children were still small when Maria Luisa became ill. She died of cancer within only a few months of diagnosis. He left the theories on the evolution of the universe and dedicated himself to the challenge that her illness set before him: the cancer was discovered too late and had metastasized. There were drugs to treat it, but they failed to reach the right points. This meant that a way had to be found to bring the treatment to the sick cells. He started working on all fronts–engineering, mathematics, physics, clinical and pharmacological disciplines, molecular biology, and… a new sector was born: nanomedicine, which addresses the need for early diagnosis and effective treatment.

"If they had told me 15 years ago that we would reach this point, I would have laughed." This from a fellow who was advised in high school not to pursue studies in the sciences–the same one whom NASA has asked to create something that resembles human glands to enable astronauts to live in space. But this is only a sneak-preview of his story, in which suddenly something different surfaces, like the words Fratello Dolore [Brother Pain] from the mouth of a scientist who dedicates his life to curing people.

How did you come to reconsider your career path and dedicate yourself to medicine?
It isn't that one fine day I set out like Don Quixote. It didn't happen that way. When Maria Luisa died, I felt called in a direction. At that moment, I couldn't have imagined how things have turned out. For that matter, you don't start out thinking of a precise plan: you feel called, and so you do what you can. One step after the other. You also begin to recognize the opportunities. You recognize the road. In the beginning, you have a gut feeling, but you need time for it to mature. Years are needed. It is a journey, long and difficult. What you have in the beginning is only the suggestion of a call. After what had happened to me, continuing to do theorems on the evolution of the universe no longer did anything for me. And, following this, I understood better another very important step.

And that is?
What it means to do things for yourself, or to do them for yourself and for others–that is, for the meaning of life. The big things, in research as in life, always happen when you "let yourself go." When you pass from "I'll do everything myself" to the need to do everything together. Things done by yourself, ends unto themselves, rarely give results. In science, we limit ourselves to advising students: "Spend the next three, four years on a very specific subject, very reduced, and become the best in the world in that. This is how you will have a successful career."

Is it a mistaken method?
If important things happen at the interface between the various disciplines, this has something to teach us, right? When I was a teacher at Berkeley, I told my students, "If you know things you can only do alone, maybe they're not so important. Learn to work with others." But today, it's even clearer for me: if you do things that you can do alone, they are not important enough. What's needed is collaboration. Psychologically it's a fundamental step, because "I can do everything myself" is a handhold that gives you security. Instead, you need to "let yourself go." And in order to do this, you have to keep in mind that, by far, most of the things I need I don't know how to do myself. So I have to trust, to open myself. You pass from "science for yourself" to things that have a totally different horizon and importance. This is why work has a lot to do with the experience of forgiveness.

In what sense?
You have to forgive yourself for the things you don't know, and forgive others for the things they don't know, and we do know. Working with others, who are different, is difficult for everyone, but above all for scientists who, contrary to what is thought, are very conservative, so much so that "entrusting themselves" is not only a psychological passage, because it perfectly maps out the relationship between one's own science and the usefulness of one's own science. This usefulness involves the awareness that it's not about me. I'm not the important thing here. I'm an instrument of a greater operation. There's no other way of living the meaning of the things you do, if not offering them, putting them at the service of others.

Have you always faced work this way?
No. Before, I did other things, perhaps more elegant, certainly more "academic." I did well in mathematics and physics, and studied relativistic cosmology. Let's say that there wasn't an immediate benefit to the community: you need at least four hundred billion years before it's useful for something… But this isn't the point: the fact is that I was trying to make a road for myself, to be successful. Then I experienced the pain of my wife's death.

Is this the reason that, at 42 and already a successful professor, you made the sacrifice of enrolling in the first year of medical school?
I can't say that it was a sacrifice. They were very beautiful years. In many ways, it was a greatly humbling experience, but the humiliations make science reasonable. Without humility you don't achieve anything. You can't do science without feeling yourself exceedingly small. This is the same opening as that of prayer: you can't pray if you don't feel yourself exceedingly small. The sense of humility necessary for research is precisely the openness of prayer. The openness of research is the openness of prayer: the capacity for contemplation, for putting yourself in the right proportion. For this reason, for me, my work is prayer to the Almighty–research and prayer are the same thing. And I am amazed when people always ask me, "How can you, a scientist, be religious?"

How do you answer?
Precisely because I am a scientist, I can't help but be religious. How can I not be so? My life is all about looking at incredible things. For me, it is unthinkable not to see messages continually. So then they ask me, "But do you believe in miracles?" And at that point, they say, "Have you ever seen them?" And I answer that not a day passes without my seeing them.

Where did your faith come from?
I grew up in a Catholic family. We went to Mass on Sundays and received Communion. As a boy, I went to summer camps in the mountains, like many others. Then, like many others, during my college years, I drifted away from the Church and from religion. They no longer held meaning for me. But the Lord makes Himself be found when there's need, even when we have forgotten Him for a long time. That's what happened to me and Maria Luisa, during her illness: He made Himself be found, and we made faith the pilaster of our life.

And when Maria Luisa died?
Even more so. It didn't occur to me to doubt the faith. I never asked myself, "God, where were You?" because when I turned around and looked for Him, He was there. Always. He never was missing. Not even when the pain was so intense that it was unbearable. But there is no merit in this; it's only a great blessing that I received. It is a gift the Lord gave me, together with the discovery of pain.

What does this mean?
Visiting the Basilica of Assisi, I was struck reading the words of Saint Francis: Sister Death. It's difficult for man to approach pain with love. It's difficult for us to be grateful for pain, to see it as a companion on our journey. And yet life needs Brother Pain. It's similar to our eyes, which suffer from the light, but only then do they truly see. In the common consciousness, pain is something to flee, and that's all. I would never dream of thinking that you need to go seek it out! But you need to acknowledge a great gift: we have the instruments for transforming pain into good.

What do you mean?
This, too, is a blessing: the opportunity of translating your pain into good, for you and for others. I don't know what the meaning of life is, but I believe that it's very close to this. Putting together the gifts we have and the inspiration that comes from pain is not a merit, but it's what you have to do in order for life to have meaning. I don't believe one can live any other way.

Is this why you're fascinated by Simon of Cyrene?
What happened to him is what happens to us: it has to do with vocation, with every moment of our lives. Simon had nothing to do with the situation, and he was a foreigner to boot. But he didn't say, "No–why me?" He didn't say, "It's not my concern; I did not study these things…" We expect the Cross to appear in the sky as it did for Constantine. Instead, signs appear in everyday life, continually, and we're incapable of recognizing them. For me, the challenge is to have the courage and the heart to keep your eyes open and see things that happen every day, recognizing that they are the occasion for being at the service of a much bigger project. But it's very difficult to keep your eyes open.

What does Simon have to do with this?
There was no reason for him to realize that something important was asked of him. It wasn't written, "Look, this is the Son of God." For us, it happens millions of times that we see others and don't see the Son of God. This is my lack: not recognizing in everything the call. We wait for sensational manifestations, but because we don't look, we don't even see the big signs any more.

What helps you to keep your eyes open?
Pain. But it can't be only pain, because all of life, as in biology or nature, is balanced. And life needs pain and joy; there is no knowledge without both. Without pain, we wouldn't live long, because when we put our hand on the lit stove, we wouldn't feel anything. We wouldn't know that life has boundaries. So you can't speak of joy without pain.

Is this the method God has chosen to educate us?
Who knows? Who are we to say what God has thought to do? I don't know, but it's what I see: life is joy and pain. And without pain, there's no true humanity.

Is this why he's a brother?
He's a brother because Christ died and rose for us. We have nothing else to say.