BLACKSBURG, Va., April 6, 2012 – Maurizio Porfiri, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who earned his engineering mechanics master’s degree and doctorate, both from Virginia Tech, in 2000 and in 2006, respectively, received Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Outstanding Young Alumnus Award for 2012.
Porfiri, a native of Rome, Italy, also holds a combined undergraduate and master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Rome, and doctorates in theoretical and applied mechanics from the dual-degree program at the University of Rome and at the University of Toulon, both with the Class of 2005.
“As I learned more about the science of engineering in the ESM department, it made a big impact on me,” he said of his first years at Virginia Tech.
When he returned to Blacksburg and was in the unusual position of obtaining yet another doctoral degree, Porfiri was able to simultaneously work as a post-doctoral researcher with Virginia Tech’s Autonomous Systems and Controls Laboratory directed by Dan Stilwell in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
This lab specializes in marine robotics, and develops autonomous systems for both an aqueous surface and its subsurface. As Porfiri recalled, the time was “intense.” But he had set his goal of becoming a professor, and felt that a career in the U.S. would be “very exciting and have a creative aspect. In the U.S., one gets “a lot of freedom and is more independent” than in Italy with its more hierarchal system, he explained.
In 2006 Porfiri landed his first tenure track position at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace Engineering. Within five years, he was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure.
There, Porfiri has created his own version of Stilwell’s lab, called the Dynamical Systems Laboratory at the New York University. He conducts research in modeling and control of complex dynamical systems with a developed expertise on underwater applications, spanning from underwater robotics to mechanics of advanced materials.
Using his 2008 NSF CAREER Award, Porfiri started studying the problem of designing robots that could engage fish shoals and regulate their collective behavior. By improving the current understanding of complex multi-agent dynamical systems, the research has potential impact for multi-vehicle robotics, animal behavior science, aquacultural engineering, and fish protection methods.
“His research has received many accolades including the Best Robotics Paper Award in 2009 at the Dynamics Systems and Control Conference and the Best Student Paper Award at the same conference in 2011. He received the Honors Center of Italian Universities medal in 2008 for his outstanding scientific and engineering contributions,” said Ishwar Puri, who holds the N. Waldo Harrison Professorship and currently heads the Virginia Tech ESM department. Porfiri is an outstanding mentor, said Puri.
In 2010 Popular Science named Maurizio Porfiri one of its Brilliant 10, calling him the “Water Wizard.” Recently, the Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering received an invitation from the National Academy of Engineering to join its 2011 symposium, Frontiers of Engineering. In September he received another NSF grant of $560,000, this time to explore how a cyber-enabled citizenry can become actively engaged in the monitoring of water in the highly polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.
Porfiri has expanded his teaching credentials to elementary, middle, and high school students, including those from under-represented groups, and designing an innovative experience for them at the New York Aquarium.
Another of his current ongoing projects, supported by the Office of Naval Research, is aimed at furthering the understanding of how advanced marine structures such as unmanned underwater vehicles behave when faced with extreme conditions including blasts and other types of impacts. He currently advises a team of 20 post-doctoral fellows, graduate, and undergraduate students.