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

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.

"Juncal Arbelaiz, from Irun, studied a bachelor's and master's degree in Industrial Engineering at Tecnun (University of Navarra) in Donostia and graduated in 2016 at the top 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 grade requirements to be able to stay in the doctorate".

- 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 my Master's Thesis at MIT in the Department of Applied Mathematics for 8 months. During this stay, I had the opportunity to work in full-time research for the first time, to attend graduate classes at MIT and to attend seminars and lectures by world-leading scientists in different fields that were of interest to me, such as optimisation, control theory and computation. I remember leaving classes and seminars with a twinkle in my eye from pure excitement and infected by that spirit and passion to learn and expand the frontiers of knowledge so characteristic of this university. This led me to apply to the PhD programme, to 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 Basque education very different from American education?

- Yes, I would highlight the fact that in the US we have to pass several subjects with grade requirements during the PhD, and then take a very demanding oral exam in order to continue in the programme. This makes the PhD longer, but it also allows students to catch up with the state of the art in their discipline before starting their doctoral research. Something I have also noticed is that, during the degree, the US gives a lot of flexibility in the choice of subjects, which allows students to finish their studies with a generalist or specialised profile 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 pass me by unnoticed. I realised that many of the technological revolutions of recent times had originated there and that even the textbooks and reference articles for many of the subjects in 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 got in touch with a professor at the Institute and was able to do my Master's Thesis there. The pleasant experience made me stay on to do my PhD. I passed the tough entrance exams and was admitted to two of their programmes: one in engineering and the other in applied mathematics. The good news came a couple of months after the application deadline, when I was admitted to both. Since I wanted the PhD to complement my training as an engineer with more analytical methods, I opted for my favourite option, the PhD in Applied Mathematics, which I am currently studying.

- What are the projects you are developing?

- The main objective of my doctoral thesis is to design optimal and decentralised control algorithms that determine the decisions to be taken autonomously in complex, interconnected and spatially distributed dynamic systems, with the aim of reducing the complexity and cost of current strategies, while preserving their stability. To this end, I apply and develop control theory and optimisation algorithms in a way that exploits the mathematical structure and topology of the model under study. Examples of such systems are abundant in fields such as telecommunications (electrical and server networks, cooperative robot formations), biology (neural networks, gene communities) or in society itself (transport systems or social relations).

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

- I received several awards when I finished my degree, such as the Kutxa End of Degree Award and the Academic Excellence Award from the University of Navarra, along with other scholarships when I started 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 it is 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 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and science outreach. For example, last academic year I served on the executive committee of Graduate Women at MIT (GWAMIT), a division of the MIT Student Council dedicated to the personal and professional development of women graduate students at MIT, where we organise leadership conferences, professional panels and mentoring programmes, among other things. I also collaborate with the M.I.T. Museum on its open days by giving talks and demonstrations on my research, as well as mentoring MIT undergraduate students applying to graduate programs and also 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 in Boston for 2 or 3 years 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 by putting advanced analytical methods at the service of different sectors with the aim of improving 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 recognised professional and not at any price.

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