Alumnus Sérgio Pequito feels that on the CMU Portugal Program: 

“Everybody Has Some Kind of Aligned Objectives”

Sérgio Pequito is a young researcher that has been linked with the CMU Portugal Program since 2009. Eager to make the difference on his research field, and always available to foster and embrace new challenges, Sérgio Pequito finished his doctoral program in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) last year, in 2014, at Instituto Superior Técnico (IST) and at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Sérgio Pequito’s dissertation title was: “A Structural Approach to Design, Analysis and Optimization of Large-Scale Dynamical Systems.” During his dual degree Ph.D., Sérgio Pequito was advised in Portugal by A. Pedro Aguiar (Faculdade de Engenharia of the Universidade do Porto) and Diogo Gomes (IST and Kaust University) and at CMU by Soummya Kar (ECE-CMU).

Design, analysis and optimization of large-scale dynamical systems are the research areas that Sérgio Pequito’s pursues now as a postdoctoral researcher at GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. Every now and then he comes to Portugal to strengthen research links, by participating in meetings and giving seminars.

CMU Portugal: You were recently in Portugal to participate in research meetings and also to give a Seminar at IST about “Probes for Brain Dynamics Observability”. How do you think the research in this area is being investigated in Portugal? 
Sérgio Pequito [SP]: Each time I come to Portugal I always give a talk. The thing I find interesting is that each time I come here I give a talk on a completely different topic so people wonder why. ‘Why are you now talking about brain? Why are you not doing something related to dynamical systems?’ It is interesting to show that you can use unconventional tools for us, engineers, in a completely different field. The most difficult aspect of doing so is the language. Sometimes people are talking about exactly the same but language is the problem. So there’s a need to put some effort in both sides and that is the challenge I want to communicate. Sergio_Pequito_Award 

This [neurocontrol, i.e., the use of control theory in neuroscience] is a new topic that has a lot of potential, and there’s a lot of creativity here in Portugal, and a lot of talent and sometimes people underestimate themselves. Champalimaud Foundation has the Neuroscience Program that seems to be really cool, but it could be strengthen and benefit from a close collaboration with the engineering schools, such as Instituto Superior Técnico (IST).

CMU Portugal Program: Do you come to Portugal and visit Pittsburgh, where CMU is located, very often?  

SP: I keep in touch with all of them, both through Skype as in person. So what happens is that I go to CMU almost every month, and I usually stay for two to four days, This way I know exactly what people are doing over there, and they know exactly what I have been doing, we also join efforts in order to understand if there is some kind of collaborations in a long run. With Pedro (António Pedro Aguiar, FEUP), something similar happens. I try to keep in touch with him every month; we have small talks through Skype. I give him an overview about what I have been doing regarding the work that is still pending from the Ph.D., as well as the new topics I have been involved with at the University of Pennsylvania. And finally with Diogo, I also keep in touch with him but a bit more occasionally. I am quite aware about what he is doing since he is also revisiting some of the things we were doing like five years ago because as the word says, it is research. So ‘re’-‘search’: search and search again. In summary, we keep in touch all the time, not only with my advisors, but also with my committee members as well, with whom I speak every month or so. After all, these days it’s more and more important to be networking.

CMU Portugal Program: Your research interests focus on design, analysis and optimization of large-scale dynamical systems. Do you see yourself working in this field in the upcoming years or do you have different plans for the future? 

SP: I do imagine myself working in this field because it’s quite broad. The tools I developed during my Ph.D. were quite general so they can fit several topics that are hot topics these days. What we need to do is the language translation kind of thing. So the tools have been developed, now the question is how you are going to use these tools in looking to these different problems. I can tell you that the tools I developed during my Ph.D. they are not being used, for instance in these probes for brain; they are used to choose the leaders within the population of robots to drive the collection of these robots towards a specific goal. So the same tools are used in a variety of topics. Of course that we will never know what will happen tomorrow, but I can say that I believe that I will be working in the similar topics for the near future, at least the next five or six years.

CMU Portugal Program: In 2012, you mentioned that both a teaching career and working in industry were viable options. You are now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. What made you decide to pursue a research career? 

SP: I had interviews with a couple of companies, but at the end of the day I really like to teach. During the last year of my Ph.D., I tutored some master students and I had the opportunity to advise students, and that was awesome because it is really interesting to see the evolution of the students. They start with small problems, and then they come with their own ideas. I have to struggle to understand exactly what they are saying and that's very nice dynamic. This made me stay in the academia. But I can see the appeal in going into the industry, in particular, when the salaries are much higher than what we get as a post-doc researcher. But I always go for the things I believe in.

CMU Portugal Program: So, how has your experience at University of Pennsilvania been like so far? 

SP: My experience so far has been awesome. First of all, I have all the autonomy I could expect and actually even more. We are very interdisciplinary, so everybody knows everybody and you can talk about everything. Sometimes you just chitchat during lunch and some nice ideas pop up. Suddenly, you are working in very interesting projects. For instance, when I arrived I heard about professor Danielle Bassett, who latter won the MacAuthur Fellow award [aka "Genius" award], and she was teaching a course in neuroscience, so I decided to sit in her class and try to understand about neuroscience. I sat, I learned about what they were doing and I also realized that there were a couple of problems that I would be able to contribute to. So, I started speaking with people around, and we are now working in some of these projects. The feedback all around, not only in the University of Pennsylvania, about this work has been great. So I could not expect more.

CMU Portugal Program: You finished your Ph.D. last year, so in looking back what are the key moments that you will never forget? 

SP: I think the best and worst moments are somehow the same because those are moments when we are challenged. We are young, we have the feeling that we don’t know much about the field where we are getting our Ph.D.’s in. At a certain point we have to find out exactly what thrills us and we have to kind of go around, speak with people, be among others. And it can be rather challenging but once we find it, it is like: this is exactly what I wanted to do. That is definitely the moment. The other moments are also conflicting objectives, when you have deadlines to submit a paper. We work a lot, we get the result and then we feel that it is just one more paper, for example. But it’s always nice when we achieve all these small goals. And, finally, I think the best part is the people in the program. Everybody has some kind of aligned objectives, although people are working in completely different areas, and the kind of relationship that we have with the peers is priceless.


CMU Portugal: You have recently attended your Commencement Ceremony, how did it feel? 

SP: The commencement ceremony is a landmark in a person's academic life. It is the public recognition that you have achieved the high academic standards. Further, it is a ceremony targets your family and aims to recognize all their efforts during this long endeavor that is the Ph.D.. Yet, it is only a beginning, since it comes with great responsibility, i.e., that of upholding the high standards across your scientific career, keeping in mind an ethic code, and the obligation of delivery this same message to those who we will teach. Therefore, I felt proud and a sense of mission that I make my best to fulfill.


July 2015