Category Archives: Sentimental

15 years in science

Hard to believe, but I’ve been working in science for fifteen years! Many things have happened since I started my PhD in Antonio Bodini’s lab in Parma, but I still have fun doing my job, and I am extremely grateful for the fantastic students, postdocs and colleagues who have been working with me through the years. The anniversary calls for a song!

studying large matrices and their eigenvalues
teaching to code and to despise p-values
watching your students give excellent talks
these are a few of my favorite things

reviewing good papers that are bright and novel
writing nice code to implement a new model
having a coffee with my lab and friends
these are a few of my favorite things

finding a method to do something crazy
I will keep searching until I turn lazy
sending proposals before they are due
these are a few of my favorite things

when the grant bites
when reviews sting
when I’m feeling mad
I simply remember my favorite things
and then I can start over

Last week, I was at the National Gallery in DC, and I’ve stumbled upon the painting that is featured as the first slide of most of my talks. I think it’s a perfect metaphor of science: the reality is out there, we have a small window to observe it, and we want to compose a simplified picture to understand what is going on. May I’ll still be happy to peer through the window in 2032!

Me and one of my favorite paintings!
Me and one of my favorite paintings!

The Little Black Book

In Italy in the 1970s, youth belonging to counterculture movements would march in the streets, parading a copy of the Little Red Book  containing quotations from the writings of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Yesterday I turned 40, and to celebrate this very round anniversary, Gyuri, Jacopo, Liz and Matt presented me with a Little Black Book containing many of the things I often repeat, or particularly memorable utterances.


This was a truly moving gift, which made me laugh out loud — my labmates know me too well! (It also made me think that I am slowly becoming a grumpy old professor, always repeating the same Mantras)

I will keep the notebook in the lab, so that whenever someone feels the urge to record memorable quotations, they can be saved for posterity.

Richard Levins 1930-2016

Sad news for theoretical ecology: on Jan 19th, Richard Levins died in Cambridge, MA. He was 85 years old.

His work has always been my main source of inspiration. I got to read some of his articles in college, when Antonio Bodini—who was then to become my PhD avisor—introduced Loop Analysis in a class on Environmental Impact Assessment. I immediately loved the simplicity, elegance, and power of this method, and I worked on it for my honors thesis (with Alessandro Zaccagnini and Antonio Bodini).

During my PhD years, I’ve read more of his work, including the wonderful (yet almost impossible to find) book with Charles Puccia, and the celebrated articles “The strategy of model building in population biology” and “Evolution in communities near equilibrium”.

All my work on stability, random matrices, and population dynamics has been inspired by Loop Analysis, and even today when I see a matrix, I actually see a composition of loops and paths.

Even the fact I am now in Chicago is somewhat influenced by Levins: he and Lewontin were professors here in the 1970s, and that’s why when I saw the ad for the position in Ecology & Evolution, I immediately felt I had to apply—this is my kind of Department!

There’s a nice picture of Levins in the Lillie Room downstairs: you can see him in his prime, explaining Loop Analysis on the board. That’s the way I want to remember him.