Between YRM and IPN: interview with Davide Pietrobon

A few days away from the beginning of the 8th edition of the Young Researcher Meeting (YRM), we met Davide Pietrobon, among the founders of the meeting and IPN president.
Davide got a Ph.D. in physics in 2009 at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, starting two weeks later a postdoc at Caltech, where he worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Davide worked in the group that contributed to the data analysis of the Planck spacecraft, which took one of the best pictures of our baby Universe. After 4 years at the JPL he moved to Berkeley to align his work and personal life better, spending one year in the Planck group at University of California, Berkeley-Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, until the Planck collaboration published the first data release. For now, he found his place at HERE, where he studies problems related to autonomous vehicles, connected cars, augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

Davide, the 8th edition of the YRM is coming. But let’s take a step back: how did the idea of the meeting come about?
In 2006, soon after I started my PhD at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, I knew I wanted to challenge myself with an international experience. To be honest I’ve been chasing the status of visiting scholar since I started university, but each time I talked to my advisor I got somehow convinced that it wasn’t the right time yet. The Ph.D. was my last chance, especially since I was dreaming to leave Italy for few years to get the expertise I really needed to return and start my own research group (ten years later, while living in US, this may sound a bit ironic!).
Anyway, I did manage to convince my supervisor, who had been quite supportive, and worked out a collaboration that took me to Portsmouth, UK, at the Institute for Cosmology and Gravitation. While learning English, cosmology and how to eat English breakfast at 7am, I had the opportunity to attend few times the UKcosmo meetings. After the first conference I was thrilled, enthusiastic, and filled with energy: I met many young researchers who like me loved physics, had a taste of philosophy and wanted to understand how the Universe works. The key for a winning experience was that students were on stage, they discussed and challenged one another, and professors were present but listening, watching, learning, maybe scouting for a smart lecturer to add to their group: this seemed so different from the relationship I experienced in Italy, that I decided somebody had to try to create something similar back home.

And what happened when you came back to Italy?
In a way which may resonate with how startups begin in the Bay Area – that I had no clue at the time – I described the feeling I had to my closest friends and colleagues at university, and asked them whether they wanted to start something new together. Some of them looked at me suspiciously, some walked away, but some others smiled and with them we self-sponsored the first edition of YRM. We knew we would have needed money from universities, institutions, sponsors, but we wanted to bring something real to the discussion table, a success, not simply a promising proposal.
Almost ten years later, here we are about to attend the 8YRM in Cagliari, organizing the 9YRM in Salerno, and already planning ahead the 10YRM. It hasn’t been easy, and it will never be, but it is very rewarding!

Typically, what are the main steps and difficulties in organizing the YRM?
The meeting planning starts with a poll to decide “when” holding the meeting, “where” will be dependent on the people who dial in the institution. We notify our followers via email, and then we use one of the quite few tools available that provide a video conference system, with file sharing capabilities. As you can imagine none is really the software we would need, and we end up using several at the same time. Since members of the permanent organizing committee are spread across different countries, everybody is calling at a different local time, carving one hour or two from their spare time: we need to be sharp and focused, and often time we fail 🙂 Here is again where synergy and trust make up for the dropout and the technical difficulties.
It may sound strange, and you may wonder if anything can ever come out from such franticness, but the community that has been following YRM for years is a proof of the opposite. 

In 2016, eleven members of the YRM permanent organising committee founded “International Physicists Network”. Why to create an association?
I think we agree that YRM is a successful event. Why changing the name of the game then, and creating an association? Two main reasons convinced us that creating IPN was the right choice: the need to manage the resources, and the desire to start new projects, which both require a structure to be fully developed. In addition to these two main drivers, we wanted to engage with more people, who help us to increase the number and the quality of the projects.
The transition to a fully operational association takes some time to navigate through the legal and financial aspects. Moreover, during the process, you learn best practices and tricks, that require adjustments and future changes, leading to a constant improvement.  
Even the choice of the name of the association has turned out to be not a trivial one. We have tried to capture in it the main traits that characterize our group: physicists who follow their passions and keep connected to share them.

What does it mean to manage an association whose members are scattered in the world?
From the strict technical standpoint, being president of an association while being 6,000 miles away from its legal address is only possible in the modern world, where everything lives in the cloud and you can access almost anything you need via your mobile phone or tablet. However, the key to succees relies on the complete trust in the other members of the leadership, and the synergy between them. The main peculiarity of IPN is really that the core group of people actually involved in the main projects lived in the same place for a limited period of time and then scattered across several countries, building their professional career. And yet IPN leaders share a common vision and can take action independently. Sometimes, the different time zone helped us write a proposal with a very quick turnaround, with different people working on different parts at different times, pretty much like a supply chain, or a scientific collaboration. 

 

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