Here Since the Beginning, QI Affiliate Uses Math to Explain Cities and Advance Engineering

By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha

At first, Massimo Franceschetti thought he might pursue computer engineering. He had always been good at math and interested in science, and many of his family members were engineers. It seemed natural for him to follow a similar path.

Little by little, however, he found himself becoming less interested in any specific branch of engineering, and more interested in the mathematical theory behind it. Math was enjoyable. It made sense, and if applied properly, it could help researchers deepen their understanding of many kinds of networked systems, from autonomous vehicles to living organisms. To Franceschetti, mathematics’ relevance to real world situations was just as important as its inherent beauty.

Today, as a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering with UC San Diego and a research affiliate at the Qualcomm Institute, Franceschetti partners with scientists in fields as diverse as medicine, civil engineering and bioengineering. Using mathematics as common ground, Franceschetti’s collaborations with students and colleagues are providing insights into post-traumatic stress disorder, genetic mutations and society.

Math Untangles a Segregated City

One of Franceschetti’s current projects uses mathematical engineering and systems theory to understand how social segregation can happen even without segregation laws. Led by Franceschetti and Ph.D. candidate Hamed Omidvar, the study builds off the work of the late Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling, who studied segregation in the U.S. during the 1960s. Using simulations, Schelling predicted that racial segregation could occur even without racism, as long as people had a small preference to be near others like them.

Franceschetti and Omidvar provided concrete, mathematical explanations for the behavior demonstrated in Schelling’s models. Even low amounts of intolerance, they showed, could shift subjects away from the unfamiliar and toward those more like them. These small-level segregations in turn led to more, until patterns of segregation were reflected large-scale throughout a city and beyond.

While the findings illuminate the processes beneath larger social patterns, they can also inform public policy, Franceschetti says. The project aligns nicely with his broader goals in exploring mathematical theory.

“I always tell [my] students, you should do theory, you should enjoy the math, but the best thing is to also do theory that is relevant for concrete applications, being engineering, social science, or others,” Franceschetti said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Massimo Franceschetti 

Bringing Together Scientists for Innovative Solutions

Recently, Franceschetti was awarded a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship for his research on the propagation of information through waves. In addition to social science, he has worked in wireless communications, the capture of imagery through aircraft or satellite radar, and networked control systems with applications to safety in autonomous vehicles and robotic systems. Flexible guidelines mean that Franceschetti can use the fellowship’s funds to address any of these projects or pursue other studies, as long as they foster original and inventive thought.

This sort of “no-strings-attached” grant is so rare that when Franceschetti received word that he’d secured one, he had difficulty believing it.

“I thought, ‘This can’t be. How come they have selected me?’” he said. “Then I realized, yes, I was one of the recipients. I was very surprised, very humbled and very proud of it.”

Like that of many researchers with offices at QI, Franceschetti’s work transcends the perceived boundaries between disciplines. Since joining QI in 2005, he has partnered with colleagues in bioengineering and medical research, among other areas. He has supported studies on post-traumatic stress disorder that may aid in identifying treatments, and developed software that can find new genes or mutations in the genomes of mice, rats, rabbits and even humans.

“The interdisciplinary character of QI is perfectly aligned to my research style,” said Franceschetti. “I can easily find within the Institute experts in different fields with whom I can interact. In addition, the long-term vision of the institute supports unconventional and unique research projects, providing direct and indirect benefits to my group.”

Most surprising to him has been the discovery that experts in these other areas of study can use similar methods that he developed to analyze data in different contexts. The overlap opens the possibility for more collaborations.

“The mission of the Qualcomm Institute is to bring together experts in diverse fields of research and inspire innovative solutions to current issues,” said Ramesh Rao, director of QI. “Massimo Franceschetti is a valuable member of our team here. His research furthers the Institute’s mission, and we are very glad to have him.”

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Alicia Clarke
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