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Gianluca Iaccarino: Don’t be afraid of the non-linear career path

A professor of mechanical engineering and the director of the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering shares his unconventional journey.
Gianluca Iaccarino: Students should know it’s OK to be insecure about your choices – to start down one path and then change it. | Photo by Rod Searcey

Gianluca Iaccarino is a professor of mechanical engineering and the director of the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering.

In this interview, he traces his atypical academic career journey, his research using computing and data to tackle problems in fields with technological and societal impact, and the advice he gives curious and uncertain students. Here are excerpts:

A circuitous path to a life’s passion

Many faculty members have always known that becoming a professor was their calling. I’m the opposite: the poster child for a non-linear career path. As a child in Italy, my father – a ship captain – told me I could do anything I liked … except work on ships. My mother, a housewife, always encouraged my brother and me to study but wasn’t convinced engineering was the right choice for me. It was my uncle, an engineer himself, that provided some initial inspiration, but it took me some time to get there; science, technology, engineering and math was not a mission or passion for me then.

Figuring out I was meant to be an engineer happened in quite a random way. My third year of college I took a fluid mechanics class. It was the first time something clicked in me – and from then on, it was all forward momentum. It felt effortless to finish college with my aeronautics degree; I even won an award for my honors thesis. I started working in a civil service position at a research center that was the Italian equivalent of NASA just north of Naples. Being in that research environment was a game-changing experience – I was exposed to so many opportunities to learn because of this center’s connection to similar centers throughout Europe.

Still, I had no intention of moving or trying something different at that point. After all, this was a dream job! In Italy – as it likely is in many places – the dream is finding a good job that lasts a lifetime. This civil service position was exactly that kind of job. But then I became ill; I got cancer at 27 years old and it was serious. My life stopped for a year and a half while I went through two major surgeries and chemo. When I started to recover, I felt a real desire to do something else with my life. It wasn’t even about changing my career; it really was about changing my life. That restlessness led me to look to the United States.

A fortuitous visit pays off years later

I thought about where I might go – and Stanford came to mind. The first time I ever came to the U.S. was in 1996, to an intense four-week summer research program along with people from all over the globe. During that program, I was working directly with a Stanford Engineering faculty member, Dr. Parviz Moin, on a NASA software for aerodynamics predictions. I was able to find and correct a bug – a serious error that was preventing the software from being usable – in my first week.

Two and a half years after my recovery, I contacted Dr. Moin and he remembered that episode – and he offered me a job! When I arrived on campus, I had no PhD, just a bachelor’s, and no real command of the English language. I enrolled in a PhD program at the Politecnico di Bari in Italy and worked simultaneously here at the Center for Turbulence Research (a joint program between NASA Ames and Stanford) on a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

After the completion of my PhD, I applied to various other universities but I knew I wanted to stay at Stanford, so I waited for the right opportunity. It’s not always easy for internal hires – and especially those who have a more unconventional path to academia. I was not a fresh PhD. I came from Italy. I was older. I went through two searches – the first time, no one was hired. But I was patient and persistent – and the second time I went through the hiring process, I was selected.

The chair of the Mechanical Engineering department at the time encouraged me to explore new research directions, rather than focusing on my prior accomplishments. It was good advice; I was relatively older compared to the typical junior professor, and this was the best way to set myself up for tenure. I started to think about how I might create simulations of engineering systems – like jet engines – rooted in physics, mathematics and statistics that would hew closely to reality but also account for the variability naturally induced by imprecise manufacturing processes or imperfections due to wear and tear. In one word: uncertainties – a perfect fit for my personal journey experience. Quantifying the uncertainties gives more confidence on how the technology will operate in real life.

Creating virtual systems for energy, biomedicine, aeronautics, propulsion and more

Today my research focuses on building software tools that help engineers design and test complex systems for anything that doesn’t yet exist. This work has application in areas as diverse as biomedicine, propulsion, transportation, solar energy harvesting and aeronautics.

Today I’m the director of the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, which is a hub that connects experts from diverse research areas – a logical fit for someone like me with a nontraditional lens. I also lead a couple of large Department of Energy projects with teams of 40 people that focus on large-scale computer and data-driven simulation. We’re currently working on a project related to space travel, demonstrating a more efficient rocket propulsion system entirely using computer simulations. I’m perpetually curious about the algorithms that support these simulations – they’re what’s behind the scenes, underpinning technology and making it possible to design innovative systems with more efficiency and power. It’s been a very satisfying area of inquiry.

Encouraging students to be confident in changing their lives

I love sharing the story of my non-linear career path with students. I need them to know it’s OK to be insecure about your choices – to start down one path and then change it. Life is dynamic and always in motion. But if you want to persist in academia, passion in research is so critical. There are so many dead-ends, wrong turns, uncertainties and difficulties that you cannot do this job without it. With passion, ideas will naturally emerge because in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking about the questions you’re working on.

We’re in the business of creative thinking, not only math and science.