Lorenzo De Stefani is the most recent hire in the multi-year CS With Impact campaign, the largest expansion in Brown CS history. One of the most fortunate things in his early life, he tells us, was the strong relationship that his father, an electrical engineer, had with his former university advisor. “It gave me this idea,” says Lorenzo, “of universities as being a little bit magical.”
Having successfully defended his doctoral thesis last month, he’s returning to Brown CS in the fall as lecturer. It’s time for him to be part of that magic in a different way, and he’s looking forward to meeting his new students and sharing his love of intellectual challenge. “I like hard questions,” he says, “and the freedom of thinking that theory allows. It helps you appreciate the other things you do, and we lose something without it.”
A native of Treviso, in Italy, Lorenzo studied computer engineering at the nearby University of Padova in a class of 120 students, only six of whom were women. “There’s much more diversity and varying social dynamics in America,” he says. “For some Europeans, the differences can be scary at first, but I see them as interesting. They make me want to learn more about what’s happening and follow the political discourse. As an instructor, diversity leads me to make my course content as approachable and inclusive as possible.”
Originally drawn to computer engineering by his curiosity about how and why computers work, Lorenzo’s interest was soon piqued by the theoretical aspects of computer science, and he met Professor Gianfranco Bilardi, who later became his Master’s and PhD advisor. Most interesting to him, Lorenzo says, were the fundamental questions of how to characterize computation with restrictions in resources, particularly memory. “It’s not too fashionable these days,” he says, “and it can be intimidating to see how the list of experts in this area intersects with a list of Turing Award winners. But it’s a very good mental gym. I’m still actively working on these topics.”
Today, Lorenzo’s research focuses on statistical learning and algorithms for knowledge discovery from big data with probabilistic guarantees. He describes himself as a multitasker, interested in analysis of statistical properties of time series and designing algorithms for large graphs, as well as modeling user preferences given incomplete rankings and visually representing data.
As someone with a wide scope of interests, he found Professor Eli Upfal of Brown CS to be an ideal advisor: “I’m used to having a broad range of research activities. Eli is great at fostering initiative and curiosity in his students, and he encourages them to pursue their research interests, provided that they’re sound and significant. Instead of being hyper-specialized, he’s a master of a very versatile and important toolkit, which is applying probability to computer science.”
That being said, we hope Eli can forgive us for speculating that he was only the second most important person that Lorenzo met in Providence. Beginning his doctoral work in 2014, his very first conversation in the CIT was with fellow PhD student, Megumi Ando. They soon began dating and were married two years later: Lorenzo’s plans of getting his degree in four years and returning to Italy were quickly altered. Together, the couple enjoys watching Netflix documentaries and cooking food from around the world. Of course, Italian cuisine abounds in Rhode Island, but does it match what Lorenzo was used to at home? “The food is more like ‘Italian-inspired’ here,” he says charitably. “More of a fusion.”
Lorenzo will be teaching CSCI 1010 Theory of Computation and co-teaching CSCI 1570 Design and Analysis of Algorithms with Roberto Tamassia this fall. His prior experience with CSCI 1010 has left him eager for more. Last year, he explains, a fire alarm went off a half-hour before the final session of class ended. Expecting only a handful of students to return after the sirens were silenced, he was delighted to see that all but one came back inside for the final minutes. “Our students are very interested,” he says. “They engage with their TAs, and they want to be TAs. Given an opportunity, they always want to participate.”
Lorenzo also intends to continue researching and pursuing grants, seeing them as ideal ways to recruit undergraduate research assistants. “I’m lucky enough to have more ideas than time,” he says. “I want to share those ideas with students and see where they go with them.”
As a former Brown CS student, he also has the rare perspective of someone who’s seen our doctoral program from within. “Brown takes very good care of its students,” he tells us, “but being a PhD student is stressful. Providing them with a good support structure is so important, especially for international students – I knew that any time I had an issue, I could go to Lauren Clarke, who could give me advice or fix something for me in hours, not days. Students also need good advisors who are able to distinguish between effort and success.”
“Talking to students is something I really enjoy,” he says, “and I’m always happy to do it. I have a certain amount of expertise in various topics, and a lot of projects fall under those areas. I like talking about research, especially with people who have different interests, because I always learn something from how they approach things.”
In particular, he says when we press him on the subject, he’s looking forward to sharing his love of theory and of truly challenging projects. “I have maximum respect for the more experimental tracks of computer science,” Lorenzo says, “but I prefer being able to think about my work at any time of day, without going into the lab. Not every problem I work on has to be a big one, but I like the ones that push us out of our comfort zones. When we get through them, we’re better equipped – and it’s more satisfying.”
For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.