Please describe the courses you teach at DePaul.
I mostly teach numerical algorithms applied to science and finance. However, we have a course on physics for game developers that I taught this past fall for the first time.
Science and finance have something in common: they deal with numerical quantities that are continuous (distances, time, money, etc.) and the algorithms that work with them (think, for example, of solvers of equations and solvers for optimization problems). There are many areas in computer science that do not deal with continuous quantities (for example, databases, networking and computer security). Therefore, what I teach is quite specialized.
What concepts do you teach?
One of my favorite courses is Monte Carlo Algorithms. In this course, I teach how to make use of algorithms that use random numbers to solve problems that have exact solutions. We look at many examples but two are interesting because, although very different, they have a lot in common. We implement a simulation of an idealized nuclear reactor and we determine the critical mass required for a chain reaction (this was particularly interesting to understand what happened in Japan in 1945). We also implemented an algorithm to compute the probability of the default of a financial company (in our case, an insurance company). While the systems described in these two examples are very different, the mathematics is similar. I think if students learn from abstract, basic concepts, they will be able to apply them better in new and unexpected real-life situations.
Tell us about the book you’re currently working on, and your research with the Department of Energy.
Since earning my Ph.D., the one specific area I have worked on the longest is Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics. It is an application of the idea that describes the behavior of quarks, the basic constituents of 99% of known matter (for example, atomic nuclei). There is a mathematical model that explains them and I have worked on algorithms to perform these computations using computers. The outcome of these computations is usually numbers that we compare with experiments to verify the accuracy of the model.
In the last five years I have received funding from the Department of Energy
to develop visualization tools to aid this kind of computation. Some of the tools are web-based. As a byproduct of this research and also motivated by teaching needs, I developed a library for web development called web2py. This started out as a hobby but has become a very important tool for my research. I have written one book on the topic (now in its 3rd edition) and I am now writing a second one.
What is web2py?
Web2py was born because I wanted to lower the barrier of entry to publishing data online. I needed it for my scientific applications — to publish real-time plots about running computations and allow people to search and retrieve data more efficiently. But I also needed it as a teaching tool to enable students to be productive sooner rather than later. Web2py is not the only tool to build web applications nor it is the most popular, but it is the only one where the main focus is ease of use. For this reason it has increased in popularity and I am better known for this than for any other work I have ever done.
How important is the city of Chicago to your research fields?
Chicagoland hosts two of the most important laboratories in the U.S.: Argonne
. No other metropolitan area is located so close to two major labs of this size. Scientists at these two labs are both involved in state-of-the-art research in physics and their primary tools are numerical algorithms. They are world leaders in developing and utilizing these algorithms. Argonne and Fermilab host some of the most powerful supercomputers in the U.S. dedicated to these kinds of computations. Some of my students have found jobs at these labs.
At the same time, Chicago has the largest number of the financial exchanges. Because of the increasing emphasis on algorithmic trading (i.e., computers making decisions about buying and selling goods), trading is becoming faster and faster. Being physically close to these exchanges means faster communication and constitutes a competitive advantage.
For these reasons there is a flourishing industry of big and small trading companies in Chicago that use sophisticated, numerical algorithms to trade commodities, stocks and derivatives. The majority of my students find employment in this industry.
Coming to the U.S. from Italy, you understand what it might be like for international students to come to DePaul from a different country. What advice do you have for these students?
I know it is hard for international students because they might not know anybody here and because there are cultural differences between their country and the U.S. I would encourage these students to become members of student organizations and professional associations. Having a social life is important and will have a positive effect on their academic life and their professional careers. When I say social life I do not mean partying, I mean talking with other people with similar interests.
As someone who has come to Chicago fairly recently, what’s your favorite thing about the city?
You cannot be bored in Chicago! There are many events, including music, theatre, conferences and trade shows. I personally like to listen to classical music but I do not do it as much as I would like.
Do you have a favorite Italian restaurant here in Chicago?
I do not go often to Italian restaurants in Chicago because I can cook Italian food at home. When I go out, I prefer more exotic food than I am able to reproduce at home, such as Chinese or Japanese. I can say there are many pizza places but only one place that makes a real Italian-style pizza, called Pizza D.O.C. on Lawrence Avenue. As an Italian, I do love pizza.
What has surprised you about Chicago?
People are very friendly here, more than in Italy.
Please tell us about your professional background.
I earned a combined B.S./M.S degree in Physics at the University of Pisa (Italy), followed by my Ph.D. in High Energy Physics at the University of Southampton (UK). I’ve done post-doctoral work in Physics at the Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois.
How long have you been at DePaul, and what’s your favorite thing about working here?
I have been at DePaul since the fall of 2002. I love being at DePaul because it is a challenging intellectual environment. We work constantly to revise our course offerings to keep up with the latest trends in technology.
What types of students does DePaul attract?
DePaul seems to attract a broad variety of students. I mostly deal with master’s degree students here at the College of Computing and Digitial Media (CDM)
. They are usually attracted to DePaul because of our cutting-edge curriculum and our flexibility in the schedule due to the DL (distance learning) option.