YOU HAVE A VERY COSMOPOLITAN BACKGROUND, COULD YOU TELL US WHAT MOTIVATED YOUR CHOICES?
I was born and raised in the south of Italy, in a small town near the sea.
I started my studies in aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic school of Milan before applying for a double degree program in Europe. Although there were several options in terms of destination, I chose France and ISAE-SUPAERO because I had never lived abroad and wanted to discover a new culture and learn a new language.
Therefore, studying at an English-speaking university was not my first choice, and ISAE-SUPAERO offered all courses in French. In addition, the school was already the best in France and one of the best in Europe for aerospace engineering. It also offered numerous connections with businesses that would surely facilitate integration into the world of work. Finally, everything was confirmed when I arrived and stayed there and I couldn’t be more satisfied!
The United States, however, were not in my initial plans. I simply seized an opportunity that led me to move across the Atlantic to achieve one of my dreams, and this I owe to ISAE-SUPAERO.
YOU’VE BEEN WORKING AT NASA FOR 12 YEARS, HOW DID YOU GET THIS JOB?
It all started at ISAE-SUPAERO in 2008. I was in my second year when I received an email from the Career Center inviting all European students to apply for the NASA Academy, NASA’s student program of excellence. ESA provided two posts, and CNES offered one. I had always dreamed of working in the space industry and especially for agencies such as NASA or ESA. This application presented a unique opportunity to at least take the first step towards this goal. I knew the competition was very tough, but I had to give it a try. I thus submitted my application to ESA, but without expecting that a few weeks later I would be selected for interviews and then accepted as one of the two Europeans to leave for Washington in the summer of 2009. The dream came true!
The NASA Academy transformed me.
I conducted research in the field of infrared astrophysics and thanks to this experience, I returned to NASA the following year for my graduation project, after which I got a job. I then completed a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in collaboration with NASA, which allowed me to work on one of the most formidable projects in history, the James Webb Telescope.
WHAT ARE YOUR CURRENT DUTIES? CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE?
I am currently Head of Back Planetary Protection for the Mars Sample Return ERO-CCRS mission, which aims to bring samples from the Martian soil and atmosphere back to Earth. My job is to design and create all the mechanisms and procedures to ensure that the capsule and sample container do not break up during atmospheric re-entry and landing, in order to prevent potentially biological particles from being dispersed throughout our planet and possibly contaminating it.
I am also the chief engineer of the EXCLAIM mission, an infrared telescope that will be launched into the stratosphere in 2023, and of the infrared camera for the PRIME telescope, which is under construction in South Africa and will be operational by the end of the year. Between 2014 and 2020 I had the honor of working on the James Webb telescope, which was finally launched in December 2021. James Webb is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built.
For this project, I developed an innovative method for validating the mathematical models used to evaluate the performance of the telescope during the integration and testing phase. I also took part in the testing of the thermal system, which allowed me to work on the hardware. It was a unique experience that taught me a lot in terms of teamwork in a large-scale project. It also allowed me to develop things for the first time and solve problems that no one has ever encountered before. It took a lot of creativity and initiative!
TRADITIONALLY, WE ASK OUR ALUMNI IF THEY HAVE ANY ADVICE TO GIVE TO OUR STUDENTS, DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR THEM?
My main advice is to be curious and proactive, that is, to always explore to find the answers to your questions. Also be active in shaping your path by looking for opportunities to grow in your academic and professional training, through internships, courses, extracurricular activities, etc. The university years are the best way to broaden your knowledge and train you to the skill level that will serve you in the world of work.