UD’s ‘fighting astrophysicist’ named a TED Fellow
Federica Bianco is 1 of 20 worldwide for 2019
Credit: Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson
Given the powerful intellect inside her skull, it’s a bit unnerving to watch a film of University of Delaware astrophysicist Federica Bianco at work in the boxing ring.
No, that’s not a typo. When she’s not trying to figure out how the universe works, Bianco, who was among the research scientists who joined UD’s faculty last year in the cluster hire for the new Data Science Institute, moonlights as a professional boxer – bantamweight division.
“I stepped in the ring and it was home,” she said. “You just need to do the things that make you happy and make you feel good.”
Now her outside-the-box approach to life and learning and interdisciplinary adventure has caught the imagination of the TED Fellows program, which she has been selected to join – one of only 20 fellows worldwide in the 2019 class, which was announced Wednesday, Jan. 23 in New York. She is the first UD faculty member to be named a TED Fellow.
“My idea to pitch to them is that we don’t need to be just one thing,” she said. “We don’t need to choose one role and stick to it. We can be many things. Strictly speaking, science and criminal justice and boxing – you might not put those things together. But I learn a lot of things in the ring that help in the sciences and vice versa.”
TED is a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics in 110 languages. The TED Fellows program was founded in 2009, and now has 472 Fellows – scientists, doctors, activists, journalists, artists, entrepreneurs, inventors and more – from 96 countries. Their talks have been seen online more than 250 million times.
“We are thrilled to announce the newest class of TED Fellows, who give voice to some of the most exciting ideas we’ve seen in the program’s 10-year history,” TED Fellows Director Shoham Arad said in a statement. “This year’s class includes a police captain designing systems to support women in policing, a space environmentalist building technology to monitor space debris, and an artist exploring the ethical implications of emerging technology. The Fellows program is committed to using its resources and platform to help scale Fellows’ ideas and impact and we are so excited to have these Fellows become an integral part of our global community.”
Bianco, who was born in Italy, is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and in the Joseph R. Biden Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration.
She will deliver her four-minute talk at TED2019 in Vancouver in April. Before that she will participate in workshops, ongoing professional coaching and mentoring, public-relations coaching and activities in the global TED Fellows network. She will have support as she creates her talk and learn important principles of effective delivery.
Her work extends in many directions. She is involved in the development of the largest astrophysical survey ever attempted – the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), an 8-meter instrument she said should be operational by 2022. From its base in Chile, the telescope will image the entire southern hemisphere sky every three days or so, producing 20 terabytes of data each night and discovering all sorts of things that change in the sky – exploding stars, merging black holes, planets in transit.
Bianco’s husband, astrophysicist/urban scientist Gregory Dobler, also was part of the Data Science Institute’s cluster hire. She works with him, too, collaborating in the unique “Urban Observatory” system he developed to survey city skylines and urban environments. They study urban dynamics, including energy use and pollution, by applying astronomical techniques to city images.
She also has applied her data analysis expertise to issues of prosecutorial justice, especially delays in Santa Clara, Calif., and urban health in New York City.
“Nobody knows about errors in data as well as astrophysicists,” she said with a laugh. “By working collaboratively in a team, we can contribute from different angles.”
And that is precisely her interest in the TED Fellows program.
“The idea that interdisciplinary work can help us achieve surprisingly good results and can lead to extremely important discoveries – that is a difficult idea to pitch to any conventional fellowship or foundation or funding agency. But TED has outside-the-box thinkers.”
Inside the ring, Bianco – nicknamed the “Mad Scientist” – has been a formidable presence and has an impressive record with 4 wins, 1 loss and 2 knockouts. One boxing announcer, providing play-by-play during a match in Rhode Island, described her as a “high-pressure fighter” who allowed no pauses, no catching of breath, no lulls in the action.
“I don’t think I’ll see another fighting astrophysicist,” he said.
She is most eager to see what will come of the enormous LSST project, which will expand our knowledge of dark energy and dark matter, the Solar System, structure of the galaxy and the transient sky – all of the things that are changing in the night, she said.
“Every second 10 supernovae explode somewhere in the universe,” she said. The LSST will see thousands – and not just exploding stars, but planets transiting, microlensing, gravity affecting the light of things.”
That’s some of what will happen, anyway.
“All of those things are very exciting, but the most exciting thing is that this is a different survey than any survey that has been done before,” she said.
“Who knows what you’re going to find out?”
The TED website has a complete list of TED Fellows and many of their talks through the years.