An interview

The Italian newspaper Il fatto quotidiano just published online an interview with me, part of a series about Italian expats.  You can read it in English by pasting it into Google Translate. Please do not take every sentence, including the opening, as absolute.  Besides what is lost in translation, some thoughts have been de-contextualized, without my opposition, I think to make the narrative more gripping.

The main difference? “That in America, the degree you buy it. In Italy you must deserve it “. Emanuele Viola left Italy in 2001, during his doctorate at the Sapienza University of Rome. “I gave up a scholarship for a PhD at Harvard – he recalls -. Then I moved to Princeton, Columbia and Boston. ” Today he is a professor of theoretical computer science at Northeastern University in Boston. Return? “Yes, I hope to come back one day”.

Emanuele, born in 1977, was born in Rome. At 14, he programmed the video game Nathan Never, followed by Black Viper. At the age of 24, he traveled to the United States for a doctorate in computer science at Harvard University, followed by a postdoc at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton and one at Columbia University. “Then I became a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, where I received my professorship a few years ago.”

The typical day may vary based on academic work. “Personally, I work better if I spend a lot of time at home in almost complete isolation – explains Emanuele -. If I do not have to teach, I usually stand in front of a blank sheet trying to solve some problems – continues – until finally it’s time for my walk in the woods, so at least in one thing I can feel close to Einstein and Darwin, “he smiles. “I go to university a few days a week to teach or to attend various meetings. But I often connect via Skype “.

Italy misses him a lot, has less time to visit and the difference with the American academic world is drastic: “American universities are direct as companies in competition with each other, constantly looking for more money, better teachers and better students. Here, after you’ve been admitted, it’s almost as if you already had a degree in your pocket. It’s not exactly like this in Italy: of the 200 of my course – he recalls – I was the only one who graduated in five years, that is, not going out of course “.

For Emanuele then, the academic world and Italian research has not only fund problems. Rather. “A hundred years ago, it was typical for an American scholar to spend a period of training in Europe – continues Emanuele -. In a few generations, the situation has exactly reversed “. In this sense the problem of Italy is also that of the rest of Europe and other parts of the world. “America has amassed so many brilliant minds from all over the world that it is very difficult for another nation to be competitive, regardless of funding. Indeed, those in the European community are substantial and competitive. Right now “in America there are not many funds – he specifies – especially for the theory”.

The situation is reversed for the doctorate. “Here it does not have a fixed duration: if you do not throw yourself out, you go out when you have competitive publications, so it can take you even six or seven years. In Italy, the pre-established duration is three years, once absolutely insufficient to produce competitive publications “. This difference is also due to the fact that in the United States the salary of the student comes from the advisor, in Italy mainly from a government grant.

If we talk about training, in short, the subject changes. “Personally, I consider the instruction I received almost gratuitously at Sapienza, much more solid than the typical American preparation. This however reverses completely for advanced studies. Here there are more chances for deserving students. In Italy there is very little research in my field “.

The most beautiful memories? The rare moments when the clear sensation of solving a mathematical problem arrives. “It happened to me once while rolling on my ball and three times while walking through cemeteries,” he smiles. The goal for Emanuele is to return to Italy, even if with the family in America it is not easy. “For some time I have been planning a sabbatical year in Italy. I hope to get in touch with the contacts and that maybe one day not too far they will translate into a return “.

The environment in a private university where taxes exceed 50 thousand dollars a year is completely different from “what I remember from my student days”. Yet Emanuele is keen to say something: “No, I do not want to give the impression that money makes a big difference. The fact is that America has succeeded in attracting the best minds from all over the world – he concludes -. And no other country has succeeded “.

 

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