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Pietro Manzoni

Pietro Manzoni is full professor of Computer Engineering at the Universitat Politècnica de València, in Spain. He got a Master Degree in Computer Science at the University of Milan in 1989 and in 1995 he obtained a PhD in Computer Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano. After his doctorate, during which he collaborated with Bellcore Labs and the International Computer Science Institute, he moved to Valencia and there he started working at the Department of Computer Engineering of the UPV, where he still carries out his activity as researcher and teacher.

As a mobile communication networks specialist, in recent years he has mainly been involved in developing innovative solutions for the Internet of Things. At the heart of his research in this field there’s the concept of sustainability, considered in its three main dimensions: economic, social and environmental.

Pietro, what has been your academic and professional path up to now?

First of all, I must confess that I got into university almost by chance. I graduated in Computer Sciences at the University of Milan under the supervision of Prof. Fabio Somenzi, who has been working in the United States for many years now. It was a relatively recent degree course because only a few years earlier Computer Sciences were taught in Physics courses, as a part of Cybernetics. As a technology enthusiast, I immediately liked the university environment. After graduating, a friend who worked at the Politecnico di Milano as assistant to Prof. Gesualdo Le Moli told me about the opportunity to pursue a PhD under his supervision. Fascinated by the idea of making research into a profession, I decided to participate in the competition, I won it and I started collaborating with him at the Department of Electronics and Information, as it was called back then. Unfortunately, after a few months Prof. Le Moli was forced to quit his job for health reasons and I continued my research activities with Prof. Giuseppe Serazzi.

The experience thrilled me a lot: the opportunity to do research and work in such a vibrant and stimulating environment fascinated me more and more every day. Furthermore, the PhD allowed me to cultivate my passion for travelling. In 1993 I spent four months at Bellcore Labs, New Jersey, and in 1994, in my senior year, I spent nearly nine months at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California. There I met a group of Spanish scholars who worked at the recently founded Computer Science faculty at the Universitat Politècnica de València. I didn’t have any ties that bounded me to Italy, so I took the opportunity, moved to Valencia and never left. The young age of the institution, which allowed great creative freedom, the excellent career prospects and the very dynamic and positive environment convinced me to stay. In the meantime, I got married, I had a child and in 2009 I became full professor of Computer Engineering, a position I still hold today.

What is your research area?

Since the time of my PhD I have always been interested in communication networks, in particular mobile networks, which at that time began to be discussed. Back then. GSM, the so-called 2G, had just been invented. Working together with Prof. Serazzi, I integrated this line of research with performance evaluation and I got very interesting results. Without ever abandoning my research on communication networks, in recent years I have started dealing with IoT and, in even more recent times, IoT in conjunction with artificial intelligence and machine learning.

More specifically, what research projects are you working on?

In most cases, the research projects I work on are funded nationally and involve collaboration between the university and companies. I really enjoy working with companies because it gives me the opportunity to bring technological innovation outside the university. In the Valencia area there are many agricultural realities to which it is possible to apply IoT technologies integrated with artificial intelligence: think, for example, of the automatic control of greenhouses. In general, for an Engineering faculty, collaboration with companies is very important and in Spain there are tax breaks that incentivize it. Thanks to our research and technology transfer activities, we can enable companies to develop new, truly innovative products to be launched on the market.

As regards specifically the topic of mobile communications, recently my research group has worked in the field of intelligent transport systems (ITS) and, as part of a collaboration with the Catalan company IDIADA, has developed systems for identifying car accidents and report them to nearby vehicles.

At a European level we are part of the SMARTLAGOON project, funded by the Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. Basically, using different data collection methods, including social sensing and citizen science initiatives, we are monitoring the Mar Menor coastal lagoon, in the region of Murcia, south-east of Spain. In the assessment of the situation we try to include all aspects related to economic, social and environmental sustainability: tourism, pollution, climate change, agriculture, industry... The idea is to evaluate the impact of all these factors on a natural space through creation of a digital twin of the area that includes data from many different sources. It is a large international project, in which universities, companies and research institutions from Sweden, Italy, Spain, Holland and Switzerland are working together.

What is the added value that a collaboration with a university can have for a company?

The main advantage for companies is the chance to innovate. But there is also an equally important economic advantage: for a company collaborating with a university or a research institute is much less expensive than implementing an internal R&D division. In addition, in this way university researchers have the opportunity to get to know the production processes, the timing and the needs of companies, which in turn can exploit the knowledge and technological innovations of the university. It is a model that makes the most of the skills of both parties.

Personally, I believe that small and medium-sized enterprises that are keen to innovate and develop new products and services benefit the most from it. It is with SMEs that I have had the most enthusiastic experiences and the most satisfying results. The synergy between universities and SMEs favours the development of both realities and also has positive effects on the area in which they are located. Finally, even for students who are included in these projects there is an important advantage, which consists in the opportunity to have highly educational experiences that they would not have had access to if they had limited themselves to attending university courses and taking exams. Not to mention the fact that many of them are eventually hired by the companies they have worked with.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges that research in the field of mobile communications networks will have to face in the coming years?

One of the main trends is linked to the evolution of the IoT: its association with artificial intelligence allows the development of much more efficient solutions than traditional ones. Another trend is the one that pushes towards interdisciplinarity and the integration of skills: often to deliver a faithful representation of a situation it is necessary to exploit data from very different sources and this requires collaboration between researchers with very different expertise, from electronic engineers to computer engineers, from sociologists to communication experts, from biologists to ecologists. An interdisciplinary approach also has the advantage of producing research that is more focused on concrete and truly innovative goals.

What do you like most about your job?

I have always been passionate about technology and working with people who share the same passion is priceless. A much-quoted saying states: “Choose a job you love, and you won't have to work even a day in your life.” Well, for me it was actually like this. Furthermore, as I have already said, my job allows me to travel a lot and to get in touch with many people. Collaborating and dealing with points of view different from mine is something that enriches me a lot and this job allows me to do it on a daily basis. Communicating and relating to others is very important to me: many of my projects came from people I met at international conferences or congresses and, from experience, I can say that often the best results come from collaborations.

How important was your experience as PhD candidate at the Politecnico di Milano for you?

The experience at the Politecnico was absolutely fundamental for me. Before getting in touch with the Politecnico I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a PhD! There I learned the basics of doing research and I first got in touch with the world of conferences and university teaching. Furthermore, thanks to Prof. Serazzi, whose openness and extroversion helped me a lot in those years, I had the opportunity to have extremely formative experiences abroad, I learned not to fold in on myself, to collaborate with others. All this helped to give me a different perspective that was very useful when, after my doctorate, I had to “invent my life”.

A good PhD program can motivate a student to continue down that path or make him understand that it’s not the right one for him. It is a risky investment that, under the right conditions, can teach you to take a more active role in choosing your future. For me it was like that and the people I worked with have always conveyed this spirit to me.

Is there a funny anecdote from your “polytechnic years” that you would like to share?

When I was working with Prof. Le Moli I held a few lessons and students often came to me to ask clarifications on the exam program. One day Elio, frontman of the band Elio and Le Storie Tese, showed up in my studio: despite being already very famous as a musician, he still wanted to graduate and had come to understand how to get ready to take Prof. Le Moli’s exam. I was still a boy at the time and above all I was a big fan of his, so it was really embarrassing for me to find him in front of me in a context in which I had to act as the teacher and he as the student! Unfortunately, I never saw him again because I was assigned to another course before he took the exam. It was a fleeting meeting that he will certainly have no memory of but I still remember it today with great emotion.

What would you recommend to a Computer Engineering student who would like to pursue an academic career?

I would tell him/her that the main requirement for pursuing an academic career is to have passion. You don’t choose a job like this for the money: working at the university often means delaying the achievement of economic independence for many years. In the field of Information Technology, this is not an easy choice, considering that even with a bachelor degree it is possible to find very quickly excellent job positions that in a few years allow career spurts and salary increases unthinkable in the academy. It is necessary to believe in yourself, to have a lot of patience and a boundless love for research. The silver lining is that it’s a job that allows you to live off your passions, to develop new technologies, to get in touch with people who share the same interests and the same enthusiasm… in short, to be satisfied with what you do. Being willing to travel and spend long periods abroad is also a fundamental feature for those wishing to pursue a career in the university environment.


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