20 JUNE 2012
Your private life?
‘I was born in Naples. I am married to Ines (Portuguese) and we have two lovely children: Tiago (7) and André (4). We enjoy living in Delft: a beautiful, international city with plenty of amenities, with the right size for us, without the stress of metropolitan cities. Living and working in the same place is very convenient. It also means that I am the first back up for Tiago and André, as my wife works in Noordwijk at the European Space Agency. I enjoy spending time with the children: teaching them how to cycle or simply jumping from the stairs and we make many jokes. Basically, I am a full-time entertainer, both at home and sometimes at the faculty too. In my ideal living style, I try to create a friendly atmosphere, based on sympathy and mutual trust. Formal relationships are lost on me and good humour is the best medicine against anger. This is why I always try to solve problems with a smile, although we do take each other seriously of course.’
What is your favourite hobby?
‘From my youth I have been involved in athletics, specialising in the 400-metre sprint. I won a few times regional championships and took part in national competitions. In Delft, athletics gradually had to take a back seat, due to injuries and the bad weather here (only joking!). Now that the children have grown up a little, I have taken it up again. I have joined the AV40 athletics club and have set myself the target of running the 400 metres in under a minute. It feels like opening the garage doors after many years and seeing your old sports car: a bit rusty maybe but with its engine intact. It’s a question of fixing it up, making a few adjustments and away you go! That is how it is with my body, which is why I am throwing myself into training at full throttle.
I also enjoy sailing, on De Kaag for instance, during the professors’ annual meeting with the dean. I like to practice catamaran also during the May holidays, with my family in Tunisia. That has become something of a tradition: we always take part in a friendly regatta there. Time permitting, I also have a passion for music. I play the piano, more frequently now since my eldest son has started playing as well. What is true for all the activities I undertake is that I have quite a competitive attitude and I love giving the maximum and with others doing the same.’
Your career in brief?
‘First I studied architecture for three years at the Università degli Studi di Napoli. However, as it turned out my heart lay with my first passion: science and technology. I hesitated between cybernetics and aerospace engineering, before choosing the latter. Compared with my fellow students, I looked like the older brother, but I do not have any regrets as the years I spent studying architecture were really great. My studies for aerospace engineering were a real launchpad to build my dreams and ambitions. I realised in those years that I wanted to be working in the academy and perform in research and education. After my PhD largely spent at the von Karman Institute in Belgium, I wanted to follow the academic route aiming to become a professor. I joined TU Delft in 2000 at the aerodynamics section of aerospace engineering and since 2008 I have become a professor of aerodynamics.’
What has been the high point of your career?
‘My inauguration as a professor was a very touching moment. Years of hard work were rewarded and my family came over from Italy especially for that occasion. A wonderful experience! For the rest, I have always been quite fortunate. I have been able to work with people who were prepared to give me a chance and who encouraged me, such as my supervisors in Naples and Brussels and my colleagues in Delft. Looking at my time in Delft, I am very happy with the VIDI grant in 2003 and, of course, the ERC Starting Grant in 2008, a subsidy of 1.5 million euros for innovative experimental research on aeroacoustics using Tomographic Particle Image Velocimetry. In 2010 I have started the coordination of a European collaborative project with a consortium of 12 partners, which is currently the largest scale project I have conceived.
In short, I have always had a lot of luck, or I was simply the right person at the right time.’
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work?
‘That I have time to think. Those are also the times that I cherish the most. What I truly enjoy is to be with colleagues and just do brainstorming together. I work closely with brilliant young researchers, which is a great privilege. I want to see my students develop as researchers and I stimulate them also to become good engineers. This is sometimes preceded by a painful but necessary process, departing from the apparent solidity of your knowledge, if you want to go beyond the beaten track. I also enjoy giving lectures. I sometime feel like doing it with the entertainer attitude, putting in many jokes, and always with a semi-serious approach, which probably comes from the culture of my city of origin. Furthermore, it is a real privilege to work in an international environment, which was one of the strongest motivations driving me towards the academic world more than twenty years ago. Today I have formed a solid network at European level and it is fantastic to work with people from other countries and cultures who share interest for the same subjects as I do.’
Your greatest challenge at the moment?
‘In terms of research, it is to retrieve optimal data from our wind-tunnel experiments with less preparation time. We already seem to be on the right track with this, by the way. Our system, Tomographic Particle Image Velocimetry, has now been installed as the standard instrument for quantifying the 3-D structure of complex flows. We are using this new three-dimensional measuring technique based on optical laser tomography to produce a complete description and quantification of airflows around aeroplane engines, the undercarriage and wings (aerodynamics), as well the noise generated simultaneously (aeroacoustics). In terms of education, I have undertaken the challenge to help shaping the third cycle education with the Graduate School of Aerospace Engineering. This is pioneering work carried out to improve the educational aspects of the PhD programme, which in Delft has a very high reputation on the research side. One of the most important objectives is that our Doctors must have good career perspectives as scientists, researchers or technology experts, something that I also strive for when my own PhD students are concerned.’
‘Right after obtaining my PhD, I was supposed to go work at NASA Houston on the activities to be performed on the International Space Station. Although I was already involved in a training programme, professor Peter Bakker found me on the phone and invited me to consider a position at Aerodynamics in Delft. That was the call I had been waiting for. I knew that it would be quite a step in terms of culture. I did not speak a word of Dutch, for example, but I did speak French, which you can easily get by with in Belgium. Once in Delft, however, I quickly realised that this was a fantastic place for research. The aerodynamics lab is fitted out with excellent equipment and the colleagues are inspirational. The whole atmosphere here appealed to me enormously. My wife Ines was concluding a post-doc in Lisbon and after that she joined me in Delft, even if it was a big step for her too. We are simply happy now here.’
What is your best character trait?
‘I am friendly, optimistic by nature and communicative. I am a good mediator, and play often the role of committee member also because of it. I am also a perfectionist, which has a positive as well as a negative side, that is to say I am not easily satisfied. Nevertheless, I prefer action to mumbling; I always want to move ahead quickly and can’t stand waiting around. One aspect I also try to convey to my student is the art of simplifying complex issues, which sometimes coincides with prioritising. This is a key point to become able to take decisions and quickly. My motto is: better making a mistake and know what to do next rather than stall undecided.’
What is your worst character trait?
‘I sometimes have the tendency to rely on myself too exclusively. I could count more on the people around me and involve them at an earlier stage. As far as that is concerned, I have already learned a lot from my Dutch colleagues, because they are excellent team workers. So I wish I will keep improving on this point. I said, I am an optimist, but I can also become polemical. In this respect, I would like to have more of the indestructible constructive attitude of my colleague Hester Bijl. Apart from this, I feel open to others opinions and I am often able to change my views and concede on things.’
What topic should be high on the political agenda?
‘I do not follow Dutch politics that closely as I am more interested in the evolution of the European system given my background and family. Of course, higher education should get more attention, in the form of funding, education time and teaching staff. What concerns me is that TU Delft students today are getting more and more into a management oriented education. My question is: till when will we see the difference between students from Delft and from other universities? I believe that we should return to the core, i.e. more technical education. After all, once you graduate, it is more difficult to achieve further technical insight than it is to acquire management skills.’
Do you have a source of inspiration?
‘The book Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach is a book that I have read once, but stays in my mind again and again. It is a simple story but is full of metaphors and values that I recognize. The seagull, Jonathan, is constantly raising the bar for himself. That really appeals to me as the drive to perfection I have mentioned before. Most of my inspiration in the professional life comes from the lectures from great professors and now I feel it is my turn to enthuse the current generation of students. The most important thing is to show with your passion how far they can dare to imagine. My children are a second source of inspiration to me. I have a childlike side to me: I really enjoy doing funny things. I watch cartoons with them to cultivate our sense of humour. Finally, I am inspired by just observing people at work, especially colleagues and the PhD students. I am curious about how they approach problems and take it on board. They are a constant source of inspiration, especially during our brainstorming sessions.’
Your personal philosophy?
Carpe diem. And by that I mean that I give full importance to the present together with past and future. This also means that decisions are driven by passion. Choose something that you enjoy, and do not deliberate over it for too long. Do not plan things ten years in advance and aim at what you want to do right now.’