Gianluca Bianchin spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder, working with Assistant Professor Emiliano Dall'Anese from May 2020 to August 2022. Bianchin started his first faculty position at Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium this fall.
As we prepare to celebrate National Postdoc Appreciation Week Sept. 19-23, we asked him to share some of his experiences at CU Boulder and what he looks forward to in his academic career.
What made you decide to pursue a career in academia?
My interest in academic research dates back to when I was pursuing my master’s degree at the University of Padova, Italy. In my second semester at Padova, I registered for a course called Control Systems Design, taught by Prof. Angelo Cenedese. This course was structured around Prof. Cenedese’s research topics, which, at the time, were focused on networks of multi-agent systems and geometric applied to control. By exposing me to open research questions, this class made me visualize for the first time some of the boundaries of human knowledge in the field of control systems and inspired me to contribute to expanding these boundaries.
After finishing my master’s studies, I was extremely fortunate to join the group of Prof. Fabio Pasqualetti at the University of California Riverside. Prof. Pasqualetti has been an extremely inspiring advisor, constantly instilling in me a desire to explore new research directions and motivating me to pursue impactful research problems. One of the most important things I learned from Prof. Pasqualetti is that a key to conducting outstanding academic research is to make sure that “your research project feels your own.” After conducting research on general problems in controls for two years, I finally narrowed in on “my own research goal” that, to date, is to accelerate the transition to a sustainable society through the electrification of transportation systems, the use of shared mobility, and their integration with renewable energy. My exposure to such a stimulating environment and research topics made me fall in love with the academic career.
As a first-generation college student, what advice do you have for others who are starting in a similar place you did?
As a first-generation college graduate, pursuing a career in academic research has not been a smooth path. Beyond this, pursuing studies internationally several thousands of miles away from a familiar environment has required great career focus and constant sacrifice. For instance, it is often difficult to explain to family members the true importance of academic research and its impact on society. To persevere as a graduate student and later as a postdoc, I proactively sought out help, encouragement, and support from my peers throughout my academic studies. My greatest advice to incoming students and postdocs is to do the same: there are many people, friends, and peers out there who are happy to help you! I would also like to impart to them that many other students and researchers often face similar challenges, and it will become exponentially easier to overcome difficulties collectively than individually.
How did you choose CU Boulder for your postdoctoral work?
For me, CU Boulder is a university in a league of its own for two reasons: its academic quality and its unique geographical location. Most of the faculty members in the College of Engineering & Applied Science conduct cutting-edge research of world-leading quality, and the quality of research is fostered through many collaborations with local organizations. For instance, in 2022 I have been involved in a collaborative project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). In this sense, my decision to pursue a postdoctoral position at CU Boulder was inspired by the quality of research and the endless number of opportunities that CU Boulder has to offer. In addition to this, Colorado's world-famous landscape paired with the university's unbeatable location at the foot of the Rocky Mountains sets CU Boulder apart from any other school in the world!
Tell us about your experience co-leading your lab's AB Nexus project about data-driven COVID policies.
Interestingly, the first mask-wearing and stay-at-home mandates to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the United States were issued precisely the week I moved to Colorado – and one week before my start date at CU Boulder. As for many of us, this majorly impacted my life and my initial months as a researcher at CU Boulder. Because my postdoc started entirely remotely, I had not met any of my labmates or other CU personnel in person for over a year. Though these initial months were very challenging for me, they also served as a great inspiration to utilize some of the mathematics we had developed at CU Boulder to study the spread of COVID-19 in Colorado. The project explored how the state of Colorado could safely relax social restrictions, such as mask mandates, limits on indoor dining, and a range of other restrictions. Since the conceptualization of this research topic, my advisor at CU Boulder, Prof. Emiliano Dall'Anese, immediately and consistently showed his strong support for this initiative. It was only thanks to Prof. Dall’Anese’s help and effort that I had the opportunity to collaborate with epidemiologists at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus (Dr. Andrea G. Buchwald and Prof. Elizabeth J. Carlton). Today, I am very proud to say that, at the beginning of 2021, our work in Scientific Reports correctly predicted that a return to normal would not have been safe until the early months of 2022!
You’ve had some impressive research accomplishments already in your career. Is there one that you’re particularly proud of, or something that you want to continue working on as you start your own lab?
Thank you! Several of my recent works stem from one of my projects that focuses on furthering the transition towards energy sustainability in human societies via sustainable transportation. Sustainable transportation refers to the outstanding challenge of seamlessly integrating transportation systems (e.g., public transport, networks of highways, mobility on demand systems, etc.) with renewable energy resources (e.g., solar power, wind power, etc.) with the goal of bringing global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero. During the past two years at CU Boulder, together with my postdoc advisor Prof. Dall’Anese, we have created a framework called Online Optimization for Feedback Control that I believe has the potential to achieve these goals. This framework, constructed by combining techniques from control systems and optimization theory, encompasses an emerging class of control techniques that can help us effectively coordinate complex and heterogeneous systems such as the power grid and modern transportation systems.
As you start your faculty career, what impact do you hope to have, either on students or your research field (or both)?
To me, being an academic researcher and an educator is a challenging and yet very rewarding responsibility because of the huge potential for impact on future generations of individuals and engineers. In order to make the most impact that I can on my students, I aim to be an effective, engaging, and inspiring educator as I start my position as an assistant professor at UC Louvain, Belgium. Throughout my education, I have observed the differences between my more and less effective teachers. In reflection, I have come to realize that effective teaching relies on three main qualities: expertise (in the subject area), dedication, and most importantly passion for the subject and field. Because of this, one of my main goals as an educator is to be capable of communicating my passion to new generations of engineers and scientists.
At the same time, I strive to have an impact on the research field of control theory. I am mesmerized by how much the field has changed in the past 60 years. In the late 1960s, controls systems were enabling the flight of spacecraft for the first time in human history; now, control systems have achieved whole new frontiers and are adopted worldwide at a societal scale. Looking ahead, I would like to push the capabilities of this field even further!