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"Many technological revolutions of recent times have originated at MIT, that's why I wanted to come here," says the Irundean

Juncal Arbelaiz, Alumni Tecnun and PhD student at MIT in Boston

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The former student of Tecnun, Juncal Arbelaiz, is currently at MIT doing her PhD. PHOTO: Courtesy
18/07/19 11:10 Basque Newspaper


We reproduce below the interview published in the Diario Vasco with the former student of Tecnun, Juncal Arbelaiz.

"The irundarra Juncal Arbelaiz studied a Degree and master's degree in Industrial Engineering at Tecnun (University of Navarra) in Donostia and graduated in 2016 as the first of her class. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Applied Mathematics at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston. "The academic demands in the United States are much higher than here, including requirements of grade to be able to stay in the PhD."

- How long have you been living in Boston and how long do you intend to stay?

- I have been living in Boston for almost 4 years now. I arrived here for the first time in September 2015 to develop at MIT my project Final Master's Degree in the department of Applied Mathematics for 8 months. During this stay, I had the opportunity to work on research full-time for the first time, to attend to graduate classes at MIT and to seminars and lectures by world leading scientists in different fields that were of interest to me, such as optimization, control theory and computation. I remember leaving classes and seminars with sparkles in my eyes from pure excitement and infected by that spirit and passion of wanting to learn and expand the frontiers of knowledge so characteristic of this university. This led me to apply for access to doctoral program, in which I was admitted and started in 2016.

- What is life like there?

- Life in the Boston area is very pleasant and stimulating. Cambridge, where I live, is a very student-oriented city with students from all continents, making it a multicultural and youthful city. In addition, Cambridge is fast becoming a cradle for innovation and many technology, pharmaceutical and financial companies, as well as incubators for startups.

- Is the Basque Education very different from the American one?

- Yes, I would highlight the fact that in the USA we must approve several subjects with requirements from grade during the PhD, and then take a very demanding oral examination in order to continue in the program. This makes the PhD longer, but also allows the student to get up to speed with the state of the art of their discipline before starting their doctoral research. Something I have also noticed is that, during the Degree, in the USA they give a lot of flexibility in the choice of subjects, which allows the student to finish their studies with a profile generalist or specialized in certain subjects, depending on their interests.

- How did you agree to continue your studies at MIT from San Sebastian to Boston?

- During my undergraduate years in San Sebastian MIT did not go unnoticed by me. I realized that many of the technological revolutions of recent times had originated there and that even the textbooks and articles of reference letter of many of the subjects of the typical engineering curriculum had been written by MIT professors. Thanks to the contact of one of my professors at the University of Navarra, I contacted a professor at the Institute and was able to do my project Master's Thesis there. The pleasant experience made me stay to do my PhD. I passed the tough entrance exams and was admitted to two of their programs: one in engineering and the other in applied mathematics. The good news came a couple of months after the deadline application deadline, when I was admitted to both. Since I wanted the PhD to complete my training as an engineer with more analytical methods, I opted for my favorite option, the PhD in Applied Mathematics, in which I am currently meeting .

- What are the projects you are developing?

- The main goal of my doctoral dissertation is to design optimal and decentralized control algorithms that determine the decisions to be taken autonomously in complex, interconnected and spatially distributed dynamical systems, with the goal to reduce the complexity and cost of current strategies, while preserving their stability. To this end, I apply and development control theory and optimization algorithms in a way that exploits the mathematical structure and topology of the model studied. Examples of this subject of systems are abundant in fields such as telecommunications (electrical and server networks, cooperative robot formations), biology (neural networks, gene communities) or in society itself (transportation systems or social relations).

- You have received several awards and scholarships, what does that mean for you academically and staff?

- I received several awards at the end of my degree, such as the award Fin de Carrera from Kutxa or the award for Academic Excellence from the University of Navarra, along with other scholarships at the beginning of my doctorate from Caixa and Google. For me these awards were a recognition of the effort made and also a way of thanking my parents, who always encouraged my Education and supported me unconditionally. In addition to the economic component, what I value most about these scholarships is that they are high-level professionals and academics who nominate or select you, validating that the ideas and projects in my application are promising, and giving me access to meet other scholars with a passion for innovation and a desire to promote changes in society.

- In addition to studies and research, are you involved in other activities?

- Yes, I do, and in fact I find MIT to be an excellent place to develop cross-cutting skills and nurture other concerns. This has allowed me to further develop my leadership skills and contribute to the causes of gender equality in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and knowledge dissemination science. For example, last academic year I was part of the executive committee of Graduate Women at MIT (GWAMIT), a division of committee of MIT Students dedicated to development staff and professional development of women graduate students at MIT, from which we organize leadership conferences, professional panels and mentorship programs, among other things. I also collaborate with the M.I.T. Museum in their open days giving talks and doing demonstrations about my research, as well as working as a mentor for Degree MIT students applying to graduate programs and also for new Caixa scholars who want to continue completing their education in the US.

- Do you have any future plans and how do you want to approach your future career?

- At the moment, my intention is to stay 2 or 3 years in Boston until I finish my PhD. After that, it is clear to me that I would like to continue working in a field that allows me to apply mathematics to problems that have a direct impact on society, possibly putting advanced analytical methods at the service of different sectors with the goal to improve their operations. I am also clear that in the future I would like to return to the Basque Country or, at least, to be closer, although I would like to do so as a recognized professional and not at any price.

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