A CERN Knight’s Tale
Glad tidings among clouds of gloom
Back in May 2020, in the depths of lockdown, the Office for Alumni Relations received an uplifting message from CERN Alumnus, Valerio Grassi:
“I’m very glad to inform you that the President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella has bestowed upon me of the title of Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic…. This is another achievement of the CERN community, demonstrating the enormous impact a CERN experience has on society.”
Good news was in such short supply at the time, so I leapt on the occasion to congratulate Valerio and discover more about his incredible achievement, his CERN experience and the highlights of his subsequent career. As dictates the current climate we met via video conference. Valerio explained that he had just received the official notification from the Prefettura di Milano, that he had been awarded the Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, for his outstanding scientific and professional activities serving the Nation. Sadly, the official ceremony, initially scheduled for Italy’s National Day, the Festa della Repubblica on 2 June, has been postponed, due to COVID-19.
Becoming a Knight and all its implications
As well as wondering how one addresses a Knight, I was also curious to understand the process of being knighted and its responsibilities and implications. Valerio replied, smiling,
“It is fine, you can call me Valerio! The Official title is Cavaliere dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana (Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic). Believe me, I have already pointed out to my wife and to my two daughters that they now have a real knight in their house (who would not want that!!?) Joking aside, yes, I am extremely proud to be bestowed with this honour. To achieve this, one really needs to demonstrate that one is a model citizen. I had to prove a clean police record before the Italian republic would grant me this honorific title. This shows the thoroughness of their considerations. I also spent a lot of effort promoting the study of physics and mentoring young students, I was (and still am) very much involved in outreach activities and am an Ambassador for CERN and its mission. In terms of my duties or responsibilities, I see my role as being a model for future generations; I can address students in schools and universities and demonstrate what it means to be a good citizen. As well as an ambassador for CERN, see myself as an ambassador for my Italian compatriots."
The Holy Grail for Particle Physics
Based in the Milan region and like the current CERN Director General, Fabiola Gianotti, Valerio began his physics career at the Università degli Studi di Milano. From 2002 to 2007, he was a Research Associate in the Department of Physics, developing electronics for space borne detectors in collaboration with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Valerio’s primary research activity was the design of front-end electronics for the Pierre Auger Observatory, for the study of the ultra-high energy cosmic rays. He also conducted research in optoelectronics. In 2007, Valerio arrived at CERN joining the ATLAS experiment, first as a Research Associate with INFN and then as a Senior Researcher affiliated with the State University of New York, Stony Brook (NY,USA) stationed at CERN. Heavily involved in the operations of ATLAS detector, it was at this point in his career that Valerio took on the responsibility of the High Voltage power supplies for the Liquid Argon electromagnetic and hadronic calorimeters during the data taking for the Higgs boson discovery.
CERN, a melting pot bubbling with stimulating ideas
In such a dynamic and stimulating environment, Valerio gained a huge amount of valuable professional experience,
“Being at CERN was such an enriching experience which enabled me to develop numerous skills and not limited to the technological domain. For instance, with CERN being so international, I learnt how to collaborate with people from across the world, how to share ideas effectively and even how to organise large-scale meetings so that they are fully productive. In retrospect, it was truly a fantastic period in my life.
CERN is not an easy organisation to describe; it is a melting pot, bubbling with plenty of stimulating ideas. One can exchange ideas anywhere, with anyone, especially in Restaurant 1with either a Nobel Prize winner, or a young student. With such a high level of stimulation, it is impossible not to develop and learn when one is at CERN. Furthermore, I was an avid basketball player and a member of the CERN Basketball Club, with whom I won several tournaments. Even during the post-match refreshment breaks, I enjoyed lively conversations and idea sharing about particle physics, science and technology. There is nowhere on earth which compares with CERN ."
Marrying Manufacturing and Technology
Valerio left CERN and his scientific career in late 2014 for new and exciting professional challenges. Initially, Head of the Electronic Division with Unilock sas, Valerio subsequently added the position of Chief Operating Officer with Unilock sas and Chairman Executive Officer of Atlas Advanced Technologies, the parent company of Unilock sas in 2018. Atlas Advanced Technologies offers various IoT (Internet of Things) and Industry 4.0 solutions and services to assist in the digitalisation of SMEs, whilst Unilock designs and manufactures industrial tools and equipment. In parallel, Valerio is also an adjunct professor at Università degli Studi di Milano lecturing in analogue electronics. I wondered if Valerio, as do many, grappled with the decision to remain in or depart from academia.
“After the pinnacle of discovering evidence of the Higgs Boson in 2012, I wondered what was next. I was keen for some stability, so decided to return to Italy and begin my job search. At the same time, I was a lecturer at the Università degli Studi di Milano, something I still like to invest in, as I believe it is paramount to nurture and enthuse the next generation.
I certainly encountered a few hurdles before securing my first position. Several of my applications were rejected as many companies deemed I was over qualified. Finally, thanks to an encounter with an entrepreneur who believed in me, he suggested that we build something together. I was recruited as Head of the Electronic Division in the spin off Unilock sas. I am extremely proud of this experience. When I took over, the mechanical workshop was like a typical workshop from the 90s, grimy, dirty with oil stains on the floor. I had a great deal of fun transforming it to a modern 4.0 Industry ready workshop, equipped with fibre optics, databases sharing parameters between machines. This modernisation of the workshop has also improved conditions for those working there. I was able to achieve this thanks to my experience at CERN, I am a physicist, not an engineer, but this kind of technology transfer from fundamental research to society is extremely important, where fundamental research can be relatively abstract, the practical applications of related technologies can have a massive impact on society."
How would this problem be solved at CERN?
At the moment, I am developing technologies for industry 4.0, such as sensors (which we have patented) to measure the metal working fluid used in mechanical workshops to lubricate and cool down tools during machining process and other IoT (Internet of Things) technology. Such sensors require databases to interconnect and create alerts for preventative maintenance of the machines.
Additionally, as a consultant, in a completely different field, that of law, I am developing artificial Intelligence software to conduct searches within the Italian civil code and compare with the sentencing made by judges, to improve the lawyer’s search engine. As you can see, I work in lots of different fields and I find this very stimulating and somewhat challenging. As well as sharing ideas with engineers, network specialists and systems administrators, to solve problems, I often reflect on how similar issues might have been resolved at CERN. CERN remains an immense inspiration."
CERN’s need for trusted ambassadors
With such a rich CERN experience, I was keen to understand how Valerio views his role as a CERN Alumnus.
"Occasionally, people can be overly cautious of particle physics and people who work at CERN as they view these people as “Gods”. At the same time, innovation, which often implies change, can also cause concern. My opinion is that if CERN’s mission and activities are shared through trusted ambassadors this can demonstrate the benefits to society. As an individual, having a CERN experience also means that you have acquired broad and versatile skills. Hence, CERN produces a workforce with transferrable and practical skills prepared to work in a vast array of sectors. In my opinion, the prevailing technologies in which CERN alumni can thrive are the IoT, the storage and analysis of collected data and artificial intelligence. If you have any of those skills the job market is open for you."
Staying Connected with the CERN Alumni Network.
Having joined the CERN Alumni Network when it was launched in June 2017, I asked Valerio what he particularly values about being a member of the community.
“The CERN Alumni Network is like a bridge between CERN and me. It helps me keep in touch with what is happening in the Lab. Every Sunday evening I receive the CERN Alumni Weekly digest and I have all the latest, specially selected news readily available. It enables me to stay aware of new technological developments and it allows me some time to reminisce about the great memories I have of CERN“.
Feeling Like Captain James T Kirk
Valerio talks very fondly about his experience at CERN so I finished our interview by asking him to recall his best memories,
“I cannot whittle it down to just one; I have several. Perhaps my best memory was the first day I took on the responsibility of the ATLAS Detector Control System. When I sat down in front of a multitude of screens, I felt like Captain James T Kirk in the Star ship Enterprise! Other memories I cherish are the day we recorded the first collisions and of course the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Finally, winning the Swiss Basketball championship at the age of 43 with the CERN basketball club was truly fantastic. I don’t play basketball anymore, now I am 50 and have two daughters, I tell myself ‘stay calm!’ and practise Tai Chi.”
We thank you for your support of the Network and applaud you Valerio on your wonderful achievement!
Author Rachel Bray