Academic life - Part 3

During my Ph.D., I also did quite a bit of consulting for the private industry, started teaching, and gave a number of seminars on climate change to high school students.

In Italian universities, it was common (and I believe still is) to get funding for Ph.D. scholarships, traveling, and buying tools and materials such as computers and lab instruments by doing consulting work for regional or state agencies, or for the private industry. In 2005, my Ph.D. supervisor asked me if I was willing to work on a consulting contract with a local company, which consisted in estimating the impact of activities related to cement production on atmospheric pollution. I had taken a class on atmospheric modeling during my Master's (the teacher was a researcher for the National Research Council and had a teaching style that I am going to describe using a euphemism: terrible) and that was the extent of my knowledge, which is equivalent to say I knew little about the topic. However, environmental modeling is not particularly complicated, especially when there are good software and good data, and you are a university researcher (yes, it counts). I accepted to lead the consulting work, which went on for more or less five years with some pauses here and there; it brought in very good money, which was later used to pay for my postdocs. It was time-consuming, but overall a good experience and money helped quite a bit.

In 2006, my Ph.D. supervisor asked me (he was taking parental leave for the year) to be the Instructor of record for the 2006-2007 course on "Population Dynamics and Management of Renewable Resources” for the Master's degree in Environmental Sciences. Since I rarely said no to more work or new challenges and I have never been short of self-confidence, I accepted. I was still quite young (26-27 years old) and a couple of enrolled students had been students with me some years before. It was my first experience in teaching a full course, and I did reasonably well. I would do much better now, but using today as a reference point for ten years ago is silly.

A couple of episodes. One time, I asked one of my Ph.D. colleagues to write a question for an intermediate exam, but during the exam, I recognized that there was something wrong about that problem, maybe incomplete information or the problem was ill-posed. I told students to skip that part of the exam, but some of them started complaining and protesting because now they had wasted time on that problem and it was not fair and other similar observations. I decided to use my institutional power and said: "I am the teacher and you do what I say. You have 15 minutes more". It was the correct approach, they need to know and feel I was in charge, personal power was not enough. They immediately calmed down and there were no more protests. Another time, I organized a visit to a regional park close to Parma; I made all the arrangements for transportation by bus and for lunch at the park restaurant on a lovely spring day. It was a very pleasant and informative trip, and the students told me they had a great time. The park director did not seem to believe I was the teacher, though, too young. Good times.

I was also still playing soccer at quite a high level (I was getting much more money playing soccer than by teaching and being a Ph.D. student combined). I was training 4 or 5 times a week, either in the morning or early in the afternoon, and I was going back and forth between my desk at the university and the team facilities, which were 30 km away from the university. On Sunday I was busy all day with championship matches, and when the away match was played more than 3 hours away from my town, we were leaving on Saturday and sleep in hotels. On Monday, I was dead, physically and emotionally. I was teaching, doing research, doing consulting, playing soccer, I had a girlfriend and a social life, but only a few times I felt overwhelmed (playing soccer was by far the most stressful part of my life, if you have ever played a team sport at a high level, I am sure you can relate. If not, it is difficult to describe the feeling of guilt when you make a mistake and you feel like you let your teammates down. It rarely happened to me, but if you play long enough, it happens)*. Now, I am pretty confident I would feel overwhelmed, but mostly because I would think about the situation being overwhelming. At the time, I was not thinking much, mostly doing. Better times?

Unfortunately, I started having painful physical problems; in the summer of 2006, the Achilles tendon of my right leg started to get inflamed and the situation rapidly got worse. I had problems even when walking, but I was biting the belt, as we say in Italian**. I had cortisone injections whose beneficial effects lasted for ten days, but after those effects were over, the pain was excruciating. Sometimes, it felt like I had a lighter turned on on my Achilles. I tried all kinds of conservative treatments, but in 2008 I decided to have surgery. It was an excellent decision, since I never had any problems after the surgery.

That's me showing some vertical. A few months after this photo was taken, I could barely walk. Much of my waking hours were drenched in pain and frustration. I had to warm up my Achilles for a couple of minutes before standing up

Looking back at the seminars I gave on climate change, I can only laugh. I was not prepared enough, one time there were more than 200 students listening to my talk, but somewhat I managed to answer to students' questions and gave them an idea about the effects of climate change. I believe the most important thing was to show them that I was enthusiastic about presenting the material and that I was concerned about climate change. The effects of presenting yourself as a good role model last much more than any information you can provide in one hour.


* I don't believe sport builds character or show character. I do believe that hugging your teammates after a victory, sharing the disappointment after a defeat, stomping the cleats on the locker room pavement before going on the pitch, are among the strongest, most fulfilling memories of my life.

** In the summer of 2007, while in Pacific Grove, CA, I was so desperate that when a physiotherapist asked me 250 dollars for a first 30-minute consultation (not even treatment), I answered: go ahead. Didn't solve the problem.