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03.25.19 - Rock Steady

Marco Levorato, UC Irvine computer science associate professor


Marco Levorato has spent the last decade painstakingly reconnecting with his past. In the process, he has constructed a clearer path to his future.

Born to a furniture-store owner and a homemaker in Dolo, Italy, a small town near Venice, Levorato, UC Irvine computer science associate professor, was the youngest of three children. He remembers an idyllic childhood, which changed suddenly and drastically when he was only seven years old. His father died in a car accident, leaving the family not only to mourn but also to struggle financially. Regardless, his mother, Leda, made sure all three of her children went to college.

“We were a poor family and she managed to have all of us get educations. We all did well; my sister is a lawyer and my brother has a software company,” Levorato says.  “She was a strong woman and a lot of that made me what I am today.”

It was his father’s absence, though, that shaped his childhood. The young Marco was studious; he liked to read and lacked any troublemaking tendencies. “I think I was missing the protection from my father to have confidence, to explore,” he says.

Instead, he focused on his studies, determined to remain in the top 1 percent of students nationwide in order to qualify for the scholarships he would need to stay in school. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, summa cum laude, in electrical engineering at the University of Ferrara, he decided to pursue a doctorate. At the University of Padua, one of Europe’s oldest universities and historical home to esteemed faculty like Galileo, he discovered his love of research. “So that’s what I’ve been doing since then.”

His Ph.D. adviser had connections in California so Levorato completed his final doctoral year at the University of Southern California. He then did postdoctoral research in a joint USC/Stanford program.

Urbashi Mitra was Levorato’ s adviser at USC. The Gordon S. Marshall Chair in Engineering and professor of electrical engineering-systems and computer science, Mitra describes Levorato a joy to work with. “He was creative, technically excellent and open-minded about trying new things and going in novel directions,” she says. “I see him continuing to exhibit these qualities as he has advanced in his career. I cannot be more proud about his successes at UC Irvine.”

Those years in the U.S. left an indelible mark on the young graduate student. “When I moved here, I understood how many opportunities we have here in the states,” Levorato says. “It’s extremely competitive and challenging, even after you become a faculty member. But in Italy, you stay and wait; it’s not really in your control.”

The revelation precipitated his permanent move to the U.S., the only member of his family – and his wife’s family – to leave Italy. “I’m not really the type of person to wait and see if something will happen 10 years from now,” he explains.

Upon finishing his postdoctoral research, he joined the UC Irvine faculty in 2013. He researched communications and networks, but Levorato soon expanded his focus to include connected systems – the acquisition, transportation, processing and organization of information in large, complex systems. He strives to push these systems into a degree of autonomy, not only operationally but also in the way they manage information and transform it into control. He calls his UCI lab Intelligent and Autonomous Systems.

He engaged immediately and eagerly with CALIT2, even snagging one of four CALIT2 faculty appointments earmarked for professors focusing on multidisciplinary research. His interests in connected systems – specifically smart cities, healthcare networks and smart energy grids – made CALIT2’s California Plug Load Center a perfect fit. “A lot of my problems involve physical systems and information management, and it’s not easy to get the expertise to build these systems. At CALIT2, I get help and support,” he says.

“I have access to residential system measurements, data collection and good examples of what these systems would look like.  It’s not often that a basic researcher like me is in touch with all these aspects, and CALIT2 is a good hub to get this expertise.”

Levorato has recently branched out even farther, into unmanned aerial vehicles, where he focuses on offloading computation reliably from the UAV to remote servers. “We see UAV as a big part of a big system,” he says.

One of his favorite experiences was participation in a five-day DARPA Software-Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest last fall at the NASA Research Park in Moffett Field, California. Levorato and two of his doctoral students teamed up to program an SDR-equipped drone that could detect and attack a visual target using video input while avoiding interference. “This was an exciting opportunity to use a lot of our prior experience to create a complex and articulated system,” he says.

In his five years at UCI, he has brought in more than $7 million in funding from an assortment of agencies, either as a principal investigator or co-PI. In 2016, Levorato won a prestigious Hellman Fellowship to help develop a smart community network that empowers citizens to provide feedback on services, infrastructures and neighborhoods. He is part of a $3.7 million University of California Office of the President cybersecurity grant in electricity distribution with the goal of securing the smart grid. He is partnering with a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor on a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to investigate urban environment monitoring systems. He is working on secure distributed computing in UAV networks under a DARPA grant. And most recently, he and a team of multidisciplinary collaborators were awarded $2.1 million by NSF to use technology to enhance medical care and education for pregnant women in underserved communities.

Nikil Dutt, Distinguished Professor of computer science, is the principal investigator on the most recent NSF grant. He says Levorato combines innovativeness and rigor in approaching research problems.  “While many academics find it easy to think ‘out-of-the-box’ and brainstorm on ideas, Marco goes a step further in being able to take those ideas and define them quickly as concrete problems that colleagues and students can work on,” Dutt says. “I greatly enjoy my discussions and interactions with him.  He has a good sense of humor and makes collaborations engaging and fun.”
While Levorato has enthusiastically and completely acclimated to life in the U.S., he returns every summer to Italy, accompanied now by his wife, Giuila, and two-year-old daughter, Fiamma, to reconnect with his family and his roots.

He has few memories of his late father, he says, but he has gained a deeper understanding from family lore. “He was an adventurous man, he could do anything,” Levorato says. “In the last 10 years, I have been trying to reconnect with him and with my past, which is why I started rock climbing.”

He acknowledges that the extreme sport, which he embraced eight years ago, doesn’t appear to mesh with the introverted, quiet, somewhat fearful image he paints of himself. But that’s the whole point. “Rock climbing is the biggest hobby and the biggest frustration in my life,” he says. “I was really scared of heights; really I was afraid of everything. I couldn’t even do hikes.”

The turning point came when a friend invited Levorato to join him at an indoor rock wall. “I was so bad and so scared that I really felt I had to do something about this,” he says. “You learn to reason with fear. It’s not that you conquer it or destroy it but you learn to live with your limits and with yourself.”

Levorato returned recently from a four-day rock climb in the Italian Dolomite Mountains. A few days before his departure, he says, he was filled with a mix of excitement and fear. “When I go on a rock climb, I always think, ‘why am I doing this?’” he admits. “Why am I putting myself in this position? But there’s something inside me that pushes me to try.”

Have the lessons he’s learned through climbing informed other aspects of his life? He is sure of it. “You climb mountains not to conquer anything but to have the experience of knowing yourself in a very deep way,” he explains. “Going to the mall or going to play soccer isn’t going to teach you what you are in a way that rock climbing does. When I’m climbing, I always have the feeling that I’m really part of this system of things ... that I’m connected to nature. When you’re in an office you don’t feel that.”

When he is in the office, however, he uses those lessons to ground himself and inspire his work. Levorato is understandably proud of his accomplishments, especially his research efforts. “I’ve managed to build a quite solid and articulate research group in an area that’s really competitive,” he acknowledges.
“In the old days, faculty could be super-specific and really specialize in one domain,” he adds. But the type of work he’s doing requires a broader approach. His group is comprised of communications specialists like himself, along with mathematicians, machine-learning experts and “people who build things and fly things.”

Levorato has found his niche. “Being a researcher is really what I want to do in life,” he says. “I don’t see myself going to industry or not [remaining] involved in pursuing the advancement of technology. I really hope that 10 years from now, people will look at my work and see the meaning.”

- Anna Lynn Spitzer