The Fire Ants, Valentina.

“The Fire Ants are a horrible pest: they are hard to detect, difficult to kill and spread like… well… fire. They are one of the world’s most invasive species.”

Valentina Di Marco is a mother, a world citizen, a Geelong local, and a scientist, whose skills are currently helping to solve one of Australia’s largest environmental problems caused by a relatively small pest; Fire Ants.  If you haven’t heard of Fire Ants before, Valentina explains just how much of a risk they pose.

Fire Ants Valentina to use

“In highly infested areas, all outdoor activities, such as barbecues, picnics and sporting events may no longer be possible. Their bite is really painful, and this is where their name comes from as the sting sensation is similar to a burn. They are aggressive and push away other species that are a useful part of the ecosystem. They can also cause serious damage to electrical equipment. I think it is a lot of fun applying some very theoretical mathematical knowledge in getting rid of such a menace!”

Valentina has found a research project that could have an immediate and positive impact on our environment.

“My research focuses on devising more informed plans to help in the eradication of invasive species in general, but has a first application in the Fire Ants problem. I am developing an algorithm to predict the expansion of the invasion, (where the nests are going to be next), so we can help develop more informed and effective eradication plans. If we know where future Fire Ant nests are going to be, we can search the area and destroy the ants before they have time to establish new nests. The beauty of this methodology is that it is versatile and could be applied to other similar problems, like the spread of bushfire, or of diseases.”

Originally from Italy, Valentina lived in Ireland for ten years before moving to Australia.

“My husband brought me to Geelong for a long weekend and I fell in love with the place.  I have three young children, and, like every mother, I want to give them the best start in life. I believe that growing up in a place where there is such a strong sense of community, where people still care for other humans and help each other is much more important than having three degrees and a lot of money to spend on unnecessary things. Perhaps because I lost my mother when relatively young and had nobody left (my parents separated, and I have no siblings). I was left alone in a big city (Milan) when I was just over 20 and it was horrible. Geelong gave me back a lot of faith in humanity.”

Despite discovering an early love for science, Valentina was discouraged by others who didn’t believe her average maths and science school grades destined her for success in this field. Instead, she was steered towards an Arts path. But, staying true to her passion, she chose to challenge herself, and study physics at University.

“I struggled every single day but eventually I succeeded.  I got my degree with top marks, while working, and won an award as top student of the year.”

Valentina’s determination to learn more about the world is inspiring, and her words of encouragement are for all.

“Never stop believing in yourself. Some people will see your short memory, your inabilities, your uncertainties. Some will have to assess you, judge you, steer you in what they think is the right direction, they will discourage you. There is this belief that mastering a subject is only for people that have a natural inclination for that subject. Do not believe them. To be good at something depends on how badly you love and want that something.”

We are lucky that Valentina chose to pursue her love of science and subsequently improve our world, and we hope her research will help solve the Fire Ant problem soon. But of course, there’s always more to discover!

“I just love learning new things and tackling new problems that nobody has solved before; problems that can help other people live a better life. Now that I have kids, I want to show them every day how much fun it is to be passionate about something and that we can make a difference in so many ways to the world we live in.”

Story: Sarah Treacy. Photo: Supplied