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An academic Odyssey: Eleonora Giunchiglia's story

Cybernews Academy had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Eleonora Giunchiglia, a postgraduate student from Italy, who discussed the depth and breadth of her university experience. Having recently graduated from the University of Oxford with a Ph.D. in Computer Science, Eleonora told us of her experience as a home, international, and continuing student.

Starting out

Eleonora’s story started in 2013 when she first embarked on her academic journey. She began a bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering at Università degli Studi di Genova. After graduating in 2016, she moved away from home to the UK to undertake a master’s in Computer Science at the University of Oxford. Her story took a different turn due to the difference between English and Italian education. In Italy, to acquire enough credits to be awarded a full master’s degree, you must finish two years of study, whereas, in the UK, it is only one year. Therefore, Eleonora needed to either top up her one-year master’s degree or start a new course in Italy. So she decided to undertake another full master’s degree in Data Science and Engineering at the Università degli Studi di Genova– as she wanted to receive recognition in her home country for her master’s studies. Once she had finished her second master’s program, she wanted to be sure that she had chosen the right Ph.D., as “doing a Ph.D. is always a big decision.” She eventually recognized what studies suited her best and moved forward with her Ph.D. studying Computer Science at the University of Oxford. Now, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Technische Universität Wien University in Vienna and a visitor at the University of Oxford.

Breaking into robotics

Before starting her studies, Eleonora disclosed that she didn’t have much experience, but her keen childhood interest in space set the ball rolling. Even as a child, she was realistic about her goals. She told Cybernews Academy journalists that she “never thought about becoming an astronaut, but she was interested in sending robots to Mars.” This is really what inspired Eleonora to break into the IT sector and take her passion further. But this doesn’t happen overnight, hard work, dedication, and passion certainly influenced her academic and professional journey. Eleonora mentioned that her initial desire to study robotics was based on her interest in building robots. She believed the subject was innovative, as building autonomous machines was an appealing thought for this 18-year-old Eleonora. However, she based her desire to study on what she believed the subject was like– rather than how it was in reality. She mentioned that the degree “isn’t about building robots, but more about future transforms control and engineering.” From there, she had to confront other interests she wished to pursue– so she decided to take a different path. We discussed the standard pathway taken by students at the Università degli Studi di Genova who want to enter this field. “You do computer engineering, and then you go on to do a master’s in robotics shared between different countries.” Initially, she planned to head down this route, but the subject differed significantly from what she had imagined. This change paved the way for the rest of her academic and professional career. Eleonora found herself at the Università degli Studi di Genova and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering. From there, she moved on to her next big venture, a master’s degree at Oxford University.

Campus culture shock

Eleonora recalled the first time she came to the University of Oxford and how different it was from her studies in Italy. "I remember it was different because computer engineering and computer science are so separate." For this reason, Eleonora mentioned that she wished she'd had a better understanding of computational complexity, as that's at the root of computer science. Eleonora acknowledges that the way both countries conduct learning is very different as in Italy, "scores range from zero to thirty, and if you're outstanding, you can achieve the maximum grade." However, at Oxford, scores range from zero to 100, but a distinction is at 70. Eleonora recalls being very stressed at the beginning of her journey because she felt she needed to know everything perfectly. Although you don't cover all the materials at Oxford as you would in Italy, "so it's a very different mindset," she said. However, she appreciates how Oxford is constructed, as the environment is hospitable and affords a tremendous work-life balance.

Accommodating Oxford

Eleonora mentioned to Cybernews Academy journalists that the university is really accommodating and “very student friendly.” She recalled her “freshers” weeks when she socialized with other students and got to know her campus. She mentioned that the college arranged breakfasts and lunches for new students so they could mingle and get to know one another better. Another fantastic thing about Oxford is how diverse the campus is. At Oxford, Eleonora observed that English people are a minority in graduate courses like Ph.D. and master’s, particularly in STEM subjects. She mentioned that the campus environment was very welcoming, and students were generally in the same position as her. “I was a bit lost at the beginning, but everybody is, so we are all lost here together and can improve together.” This resilient researcher mentioned how meeting all of the fantastic people at Oxford was one of the highlights of her university experience. “Some of my closest friends are now from China, Lebanon, Turkey, and India. Alongside meeting some amazing people, Eleonora had unforgettable experiences at both universities.

Memorable moments

During her interview with Cybernews Academy, Eleonora discussed some general elements of her many studies that she found inspiring: “I enjoy writing code, then I went a bit into AI and looked at machine learning and thought it was cool.” She also discussed some of her most memorable moments at the Università degli Studi di Genova while completing her bachelor’s. “We did this project where we had to make a tiny car stay on a tiny road.” She explained that it was memorable because her team competed against other European universities. Eleonora expressed that when you are working on a project that you’re passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work. “We would have pizza night with the project, so it was work, but it wasn’t at the same time.” There were some technical challenges that Eleonora encountered during her studies. However, she said that those obstacles made her course much more enjoyable. Another memorable moment she remembered during her studies was receiving her acceptance letter from the University of Oxford. The letter requested that students bring formal wear to attend formal events. “Being at Oxford was a bit like being in a movie,” she said. Although this was a slight shock to the system, Eleonora soon found her feet and assimilated into university life.

Despite Eleonora’s recent graduation, this is just the beginning of her academic and professional journey. She has already achieved so much during her time at university. She has five publications selected by the University of Oxford– ‘Exploiting T-norms for Deep Learning in Autonomous Driving,’ ‘Road-R: The Autonomous Driving Dataset with Logical Requirements,’ ‘Deep Learning with Logical Constraints,’ ‘Coherent Hierarchical Multi-Label Classification Networks,’ and ‘Multi-Label Classification Neural Networks with Hard Logical Constraints.’ We at Cybernews Academy expect to hear more from Eleonora soon, and we can’t wait to see where this journey takes her.