The last time I was in Rome, I was 20.  I arrived on Good Friday. I spent my first night in a park because I could not find an empty room. Easter weekend is not the best time to be a tourist in Rome. The museums, stores, shops were all closed. I went to the Vatican hoping to see the Sistine Chapel but it too was closed. So I stood with the thousands gathered in Vatican Square and was there when the Pope came out and blessed the crowd. That was cool, but I left a few days later feeling as if I hadn’t really seen Rome.

So when I received an InMail on LinkedIn with the Subject: “Possible Trip to Rome” from Susannah Gold, a person I had never met I was intrigued. She asked if I’d be interested in an all expense paid trip to cover the International Balzan Foundation Prize Ceremony for the sciences and humanities.

Interested?  You bet I was interested. I write about science and medicine as my profession The Balzan Foundation Prize is a very prestigious award with a cash prize of  $750,000 Swiss Francs (approximately $790,000 USD.) that have been given to people such as Pope John XXIII, the writer Jorge Luis Borges, and Shinya Yamanaka who won the Nobel prize in Medicine this year.

So last week, I went to Rome. And it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

I realize most Americans are not familiar with these prizes. I certainly wasn’t. I learned that The International Balzan Foundation was founded in 1957 by the daughter of Eugenio Francesco Balzan, who was a journalist  born in 1874 in Italy. He fled Italy for Switzerland to escape prosecution by the Mussolini regime who did not like his politics. He became quite wealthy and when he died his daughter Lina started the Foundation in his honor.

The prizes were given at a ceremony at the stunning Palazzo del  Quirinale, the home of Giorgio Napolitano, the President of the Republic of Italy.  I was the only American journalist/science writer there. All of my colleagues were from Europe.  As I watched the ceremony, I thought of my grandparents who were emigrants to the United States from Russian and Poland.

I am alive because they decided, like Balzan, to leave their homes and take their chances in a new country where they would not be prosecuted for their beliefs. And I thought how proud they would be that their grandson was invited to the Presidential Palace to watch the President of Italy, who helped to establish Democracy in Italy hand out prizes to great men of science and the humanities.

Having just witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Sandy weeks ago, I was especially pleased that one of the winners was Kurt Lambeck (Australia), a climate scientist and immediate past president of the Australian Academy of Science.

The next day, the prize winners spoke about their work at the Accademia Nazionale Dei Lincei, the oldest Academy in the world. Galileo was a member. This is where he laid the foundations of  modern astronomy with his observations of the moon, sunspots, the phases of Venus and the moons around Jupiter. I imagined him presenting his findings to his colleagues and thought of my father who was one of the founders of NASA.and assembled a team of physicists that figured out how to get man to the moon. I called to tell him I was walking up the very steps that Galileo did to the Assembly room. “I wish I was there with you,” he responded.

As a journalist who writes about science and medicine, this was truly a dream come true. My possible trip to Rome became a reality. And as I walked up the steps that Galileo once walked on all I could think about was how lucky I was…all thanks to an InMail from LinkedIn.

Photo Credit (Bottom Right): Balzan Prize 2012

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