Gianluca Gazzola believes in the butterfly effect. A concept in chaos theory that has achieved cultural popularity, the butterfly effect happens when a very small change in initial conditions creates a significantly different outcome (i.e., a butterfly flaps its wings in South America and a tornado occurs in Europe). When Gianluca was growing up in Padova, Italy, he felt certain that after attaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Economics from Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, he would work in finance, most likely at a bank. And then, by chance—or perhaps serendipity—he decided to take a class with Dr. Norman Packard about neural networks and genetic algorithms, and got hooked. Gianluca changed his direction and became interested in machine learning and data science, and has recently completed both his master’s and doctoral degrees in Operations Research from Rutgers University.
Gianluca credits the “random decision” to take this course with Dr. Packard as changing the course of his life. After the class ended, Gianluca wanted to do an internship with Dr. Packard at ProtoLife, the biotech company Packard founded in Venice. It was competitive and he nearly gave up hope after not hearing back, but it was his father who encouraged him to try one more time. Gianluca remembers: “I hadn’t heard back and I was getting exhausted from the waiting! It was my father who encouraged me to try one last time, so I called and Norman picked up the phone and offered me the position.” He shared that this memory was especially poignant as he lost his father just a few short years later.
Gianluca’s work at ProtoLife “jumpstarted” his life as a scientist, exposing him to problems of optimization and machine learning, and theoretical and applied models. It turned out that he loved working in mathematics and statistics. At ProtoLife, he said, “Norman trusted me. He saw that I had talent and motivation and put me in charge of a key project.” Gianluca went to conferences to present on the work and got to know his new colleagues, mostly Americans. “I was able to get to know American culture and refine my English,” he said.
After a few years at ProtoLife, Gianluca knew he wanted to get his PhD in Operations Research. He also knew that he wanted to do his study in the U.S. because, as he said, “it is the best place to do graduate studies.” Gianluca decided to apply to Rutgers because he knew that they have one of the strongest programs in Operations Research, and ultimately made his way to New Brunswick.
Once in the States, Gianluca was elated but also overwhelmed. As he shared, “Completing a PhD is challenging for anyone but being an international student adds a layer of difficulty. You are trying to be a good citizen. You are trying to do your best while being away from family and friends.” He knew that the best way forward was to “build” a family here in the States. “You have to come in with the right motivations and make friends. You do this by making yourself a good friend; by being someone who can help, give advice, and offer emotional support. In other words, be the friend to call when things go south because someday you may need a friend like that, too.” He ultimately built a strong network of friends. Gianluca said, “I started to feel like I was home here at Rutgers, because I realized that it’s the people who make it home; the people who remember your story.”
In addition to building a strong network of friends, Gianluca relied heavily on the resources and support of the Rutgers Global – International Student and Scholar Services team. Gianluca said, “During my years at Rutgers, I visited the office at 180 College Avenue multiple times each year.” He said that as an international student, he encountered several situations without any set rules. “There are so many uncertainties and insecurities,” he remembered. Beyond the perhaps obvious challenges regarding immigration regulations and compliance, immigration application processing, cross-cultural and transition programming, and applying for CPT and OPT training, there are sometimes more personal complications that require solid advice and encouragement. Gianluca lost his father while he was here at Rutgers, and he was also trying help manage the care of his mother, who has a chronic condition, in Italy. Being in another country and managing so much personal hardship was a significant challenge. “The ISSS office became a sanctuary for me,” he said. His advisor, Carissa McCarthy, became a touchstone for Gianluca during his time as a student. “Carissa and the whole team are really trained to help international students. They are so patient, and offer a relationship-based experience,” he said. Even after McCarthy’s role changed at ISSS, she would still meet with Gianluca and provide advice, resources, and support.
“It was Gianluca’s networks and dedication that positioned him in a way to sail with confidence through the challenges he encountered during his PhD,” said McCarthy. She credited Gianluca’s attitude to see what could be considered obstacles along his journey as opportunities to grow and learn instead. McCarthy noted, “I feel it is this type of mindset that has truly helped Gianluca be successful in his program at Rutgers, and in his career.”
Once Gianluca completed his PhD, it was time to look for a position in his field. His network became key. He has recently started a new job as Lead Machine Learning and Data Scientist at Bridge Intelligence, a “dynamic, user-focused software company that provides integrated solutions for bridge management, inspection, and evaluation,” according to the company website. Hooman Parvardeh, a fellow Rutgers alum, is the founder and managing director of Bridge Intelligence, and also happens to be one of Gianluca’s best friends. He recalled, “Hooman was my first emergency contact here in the States.”
In addition, Gianluca is working again for Dr. Packard, his one-time mentor, who is now CEO of Daptics, a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence company, “transformed from ProtoLife,” according to LinkedIn. Coming full circle, Gianluca has relished the opportunity to work with Packard again at this stage of his career.
Gianluca is currently applying for a STEM OPT extension, and intends to make the best of the two years he is here in the States. He said: “I want to get a lot of experience; get better at what I do; and see what I learned as a student play out in my career. I want to make more connections.”
Beyond that, he doesn’t know what the future holds. “I still have roots in Italy but I may try to find work in other European countries like France, Germany, or Portugal,” Gianluca said. Given his flexibility and growing network, being open to all the possibilities seems a good plan. “My goal has always been to make some plans and then roll with what life gives you,” he said. “Find yourself in a position to profit from the coincidences.”