NEANIAS inside. A chat with the NEANIAS Space Leader.

NEANIAS is not only research and technology, but also the people who make it possible and put it in value. This time we present Eva Sciacca, the scientific leader at NEANIAS Space.

Eva Sciacca, is an IT researcher working at INAF in the Astrophysical Observatory of Catania. She got her master’s degree in computer science and a PhD in Mathematics for Technology at the University of Catania. During her PhD she spent half time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Computational Biology. Afterwards, she got a two years Post Doc at the University of Turin working in Bioinformatics for green biotechnologies.

Thanks Eva for your time.

  • As a Computer Science researcher, why are you interested in space/astrophysics?

Since 2012 I have been working at INAF focussing on the development of innovative platforms to easily and efficiently handle archiving, processing and visualisation of large-scale and complex astrophysical datasets coming from cosmological simulations or observing facilities. As a computer science researcher, I was always interested in applied sciences moving from the computational modelling of biological systems to the analysis and visualisation of complex astrophysical phenomena. This allowed me to interface with different scientific fields (that usually speak different languages) and to learn from each other resulting in very interesting results.

  • How did INAF get involved in NEANIAS?

INAF has long experience in distributed computing infrastructures including High Performance Computing, Grid and Cloud Computing. We have collaborated in several EU funded projects such as ViaLactea, EOSC-Pilot  and  Indigo-DataCloud, we have also established long lasting collaborations with some NEANIAS partners such as  UoP, ALTEC, SZTAKI and  UNIMIB and we were  looking for sharing experiences with planetary scientists and other  communities such as the Underwater and Atmospheric to share common needs in cloud service development and improve our software  and services to reach higher technology readiness levels.

  • What’s the role of INAF within NEANIAS? What’s your role in the project?

INAF has a quite important role and is involved in almost all work packages, especially is leading the WP4 on Space research services and is highly involved in the core visualisation services (WP6) and in the delivery services (WP7). My role in the project is leading WP4 and coordinating all activities related to the deployment of the Space services within the EOSC starting  from the collection of the user requirements to the service development till the final delivery including all the activities related to the service validation and assessment.

  • Astrophysics is living a revolution. How do you think new observing facilities like the Square Kilometre Array or the Vera Rubin observatory will impact the way of working of the astrophysics community?

Indeed, Astrophysics is entering uncharted territory. With the LSST, SKA and other next generation observing facilities, researchers are facing a revolution. The data deluge caused by these new instruments will represent an unprecedented scientific and technological challenge, by far exceeding the current data access, visualisation and analysis capabilities and imposing dramatic changes in the way of working of the astrophysics community.

  •  Which technological challenges will come with these new instruments?

Successfully adapting to this new reality requires a paradigm shift, built upon the adoption of Open Science practices and the development of innovative solutions. Within NEANIAS we shared a survey and got more than 300 answers for collecting major technological challenges that will come in future astronomy. The results highlighted that significant advance in methodological transparency and sharing of processing scripts and data products are indispensable. Also, data findability and interoperability emerge as two crucial aspects in the future of astrophysics research. Equally compelling is the wide demand for Visual Analytics tools. Lastly, the apparent gap in the adoption of Machine Learning outlines a unique opportunity, considering that a significant part of the community is involved in large scale statistical studies of stellar populations, galaxies and other sources. The overwhelming data volumes expected in next-generation surveys will soon render traditional approaches impractical, and therefore Machine Learning is expected to become one of the spearheads of scientific discovery in the next decade.

  • How do technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing developed in NEANIAS help space research?

NEANIAS already delivered and onboarded in EOSC state-of-the-art solutions integrating data visualisation and analysis (such as ViaLactea and ADAM-Space) and enhanced data accessibility (such as  in Astra Data Navigator and by the ViaLactea Knowledge Base). NEANIAS Machine Learning services are specifically tailored to automate the extraction, characterization, and classification of compact and extended sources from all-sky surveys. All these services are implementing FAIR principles (Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability and Reusability), which indeed are pillars of the NEANIAS project, into the astronomical data life cycle.

  • What are the connections that you find between your field Space and the other two thematic sectors of NEANIAS Underwater and Atmospheric? Are the user requirements from these different sectors really aligned?

The connection between the three thematic services is related to the challenge of Open Science and similar needs in the management and visualisation of data, for example in the generation of multidimensional maps and in the creation of image mosaics. A key activity is to identify the commonalities between the sectors and provide "transversal services", designed to be used in the project and reused by future services, even in disciplines that are only apparently very distant. For example, data visualisation and mapping services or the classification of particular patterns in images using Deep Learning could be of interest to communities such as bioinformatics and medicine.

  • At NEANIAS, the management team and many tasks are led by women. Do you think that the representation of women in science and research is sufficiently achieved?

Women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. The gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, like computer science and engineering.  This is also reflected in the NEANIAS  project, there is  a 26% of women in research  but it is important to highlight that many WP leaders (like in Space, Underwater and Innovation) are very qualified women  and the project manager and the principal investigator are two women professionals, highly focused and motivated.

  • After 2 years of NEANIAS life, what’s your view about the progress and achievements?

Less than one year is in front of us  to complete  the project. We successfully presented the mid-term results to the EU commission and we are now finalising the latest release of the services, finalising the onboard to EOSC and designing our plans for sustainability of the developed software, services and products. We have achieved very interesting results already published in  prestigious journals such as Sciacca et al. J Grid Computing 20, 7 (2022) and Riggi et al. Astronomy and Computing 37 (2021)  and presented in the most popular conferences such as EAS, SPIE and ADASS. We are now organising one hackathon (HACK SCIENCE) to involve university students in employing our services and an  international conference (ML4ASTRO) held in Catania to bring together researchers actively involved in the fields of machine learning applications to astrophysics use cases.

  • Finally, any wishes for the future?

My final wish is to keep up working to enlarge and  populate the EOSC ecosystem promoting Open Science and FAIR practices to all scientists and researchers. I am currently involved as  chair of the EOSC Task Force related to  the Technical Interoperability of Data and Services and I wish in the  future science will be easily available  and accessible to everybody thus speeding up the process of making science.

 Thanks Eva for letting us get to know you a little more.


EU Flag  NEANIAS is a Research and Innovation Action funded by European Union under Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme via grant agreement No.863448.