A Professor With Punch
Federica Bianco comes out swinging in the quest for Big Data glory
It’s tempting to define Federica Bianco by lofty titles — astrophysicist, data scientist, social and political scholar, TED Fellow — but even a resume overflowing with hifalutin' academic labels seems too limiting, too cluelessly oblivious of her zeal.
On any given day, this data-crunching, professional boxing, social-justice-seeking scientist could find herself combing reams of statistics about urban pollution, or setting forth on an intellectual journey into the roots of courtroom injustice — then heading off to unwind with a few rounds in the sparring ring.
She seems inclined to take up any tough challenge, so long as the problem demands an eye for detecting patterns amid vast expanses of statistics, and so long as it also holds the potential for bringing positive social change.
That full-scope, human-centric, multi-disciplined approach is just the way she likes things, and a big reason why she came to UD as an early recruit of UD’s Data Science Institute, where her digital expertise is in high demand by researchers from such starkly dissimilar fields as public policy and physics.
It’s also why, in addition to her resident status with the institute, she happily juggles dual professorships with the Physics and Astronomy Department and the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration.
“Federica is a trailblazer,” says Prof. Cathy Wu, director of the Data Science Institute. “She is full of energy, and really passionate about not only research excellence and scientific community engagement, but also a strong advocate for inclusive and sustainable data science training.”
Blessed with an innate aptitude for seeing meaning amid digital chaos, Bianco feels like she’s been given the perfect tool for her scholarly adventures. The world, she is certain, has also gained an unprecedented digital weapon for battling injustice.
“I do think that data science suits the way that I think, the structure of my brain,” the Genoa, Italy, native says. “It comes very natural for me to focus on pattern recognition — it helps you in designing the stages of research, in seeing what the next step is, and envisioning what question to ask next. And that’s a huge thing.”
It’s just about as huge as one of her ongoing projects: She’s currently a key player in the largest astrophysical survey ever attempted, the Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time. This effort to photograph a 10-year-long “movie” of the southern sky will harvest 30 terabytes of data every night, searching for such ephemeral objects as exploding stars and jostling black holes.
As the projects’s science collaboration coordinator, Bianco’s interstellar ambitions recently got a big boost, a nearly $900,000 grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation that will help “level the playing field” for more astronomers when the survey launches in 2024. The grant aims to open the door to researchers from more diverse backgrounds, and eliminate some of the common barriers to participating.
That added element of equity neatly aligns with Bianco’s passionate commitment to greater scientific diversity, which has become as elemental to her academic pursuits as Big Data, and even seems to surpass outer space in her ever-growing list of lofty aspirations.
In fact, the pugilistic polymath never really saw space (or even Big Data) in her youthful scholarly dreams. “Astrophysics wasn’t really my driving passion,” says Bianco, known in the boxing ring as the “Mad Scientist,” and who is the first UD faculty member to be named a TED Fellow. “I’m curious, and more than anything, I'm interested in learning. And that can be paired with the other things that interest me, including the quality of life for people.”
“She even hosted a UD COVID-19 hackathon last year as a remote UD-wide event to rally the community around the crisis and create solutions to help the UD members and Delawareans understand and live through the COVID pandemic,” says Wu.
People sense that aura all around her, in Twitter stream and in her forthright, focused personality: She’s a woman who won’t hesitate to stand up publicly and professionally for those who might be forsaken in science — for the women and the people of color who still somehow find it hard to be heard above the ingrained static of bias.
That streak of social advocacy comes naturally, rising from a place in her that has felt the isolation of being the only woman in the room. It’s yet another task in a professional life already full of them, but one she feels compelled to take on. “I do it because it is the right thing to do. There is scientific evidence to describe how diversity in the sciences is advantageous — the more people involved, the better.”
That’s a big reason she came to UD from her last position as a senior research scientist, teaching data science at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress: She sensed a chance to work as part of a focused team, and within the keenly focused setting of the Data Institute. “An institute like that, it’s the only way to support and foster interdisciplinary work, and for me that’s very important.”
She also comes to UD with a mind toward knocking down a few academic silos, and sees this as a place where like-minded scholars can thrive, together.
“An institute is only as good as the people who are in it, and as much as the people who are in it care to push it forward. I think we have a great opportunity, and it feels like it’s really up to us in the institute to make it something impactful.”