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Saying ‘grazie’ to a mentor

January 11, 2023 By Käri Knutson
A man smiles, seated with a white board in the background.

“A good mentor can make a huge difference,” says Loris D’Antoni, associate professor of computer sciences. Photo: Jeff Miller

Loris D’Antoni is an associate professor of computer sciences, but his career may have taken a much different path if not for Mariangiola Dezani, his undergraduate advisor at the University of Torino in Italy.

A good mentor can make a huge difference. If we’re fortunate, we’ll have a few in life who inspire, motivate and, perhaps most importantly, provide some guidance during those moments when we’re a little lost.

And if you’re D’Antoni, the inspiration lasts long after you’ve graduated.

First, a little background. Where are you from? And where did you go to school?

I’m from a small village in Italy called Sommariva del Bosco, and I did my undergraduate and master degree at the University of Torino and PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

When did you come to Madison? And what were your first impressions?

I moved to Madison in 2015 when I joined the University of Wisconsin as an assistant professor. The first impressions were quite good. I liked that I could bike to most places, enjoyed the variety of restaurants and found it easy to keep myself busy.

What are your areas of research and teaching?

My primary focus is on programming languages. At the high level, my research is about making it easier for people to write programs that do what people intend them to do. I also teach courses in this area. My undergraduate course “CS536 Intro to compilers” is about building a programming language from scratch. My graduate course “CS703 Program Synthesis” is about my core research question, “How can we make computers write programs automatically so that people don’t have to?”

In October, you tweeted:


Hundreds of people liked your tweet with many sharing their own appreciation of Mariangiola or other mentors. What was your reaction when you first saw that people were really appreciating what you said? 

In a way I expected it. I am a first-generation college student, and when I was in college, I didn’t even know academia was a possible career. Mariangiola was the one that approached me, introduced me to that world and taught me how it worked. I think most academics who are first-generation students have a similar story to tell because without someone telling us about this career path, we would not be able to know it and navigate our way to it. While everyone can use a good mentor, I think some people cannot make it very far without one. I was one of those people.

What about her teaching style helped open the door to research for you?

Thanks to our classroom interactions, Mariangiola saw some potential in me, and she approached me and asked if I wanted to do my undergraduate thesis with her. She gave me a book to read and met me every week to check with me if I understood the material. We would go over homework problems together. After one month, she gave me a research problem to solve. I became intrigued with research! There was a problem no one had solved and she asked me to solve it! We worked together on it, and I helped figure out a solution that eventually we published.

After, she almost literally opened the door, by introducing me to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and asking them to give me a new research problem. They agreed because they thought highly of her and gave me a problem. A few months later I had a solution to the problem they gave me and that was my entry ticket to the PhD program. While I was the one who did the work, she was the one who made the whole experience possible.

Professors can often seem intimidating for many students. They have so many degrees it’s hard to believe they were ever a student who went to class and had professors they may have been intimidated by. How can professors help bridge that gap with students? And how can students bridge that gap with professors?

This is a great question. I was definitely intimidated by many professors (some made it easier than others). Professors need to create a welcoming classroom environment and natural ways for students to interact with them. For example, lectures should be interactive and involve discussions. I try to get students to ask a lot of questions during classes, but this has definitely become harder now that classes are very large. My advice to students is to participate as much as they can in classes. Ask questions, stop for a chat after class, go to office hours even to discuss material that is not quite covered in class. Ninety percent of my office hours have zero students showing up despite my class having more than 100 students!

How has having her as your undergraduate advisor influenced how you work with students? Has it changed over the years?

Mariangiola cares a lot about her students, and I do too. Like Mariangiola did with me, I spend a lot of time with my PhD students and make sure they have the support they need to do well. One thing that I 100 percent do because of what Mariangiola did with me is reaching out to promising undergraduate students in my class (the ones that do well and ask questions) and offer them research opportunities. I want to open a door for them the way Mariangiola did with me.

Your twitter account is a lovely mix of computer stuff I don’t understand, travels, pictures of “what pasta is supposed to look like” and random musings like this:

So. How many rotisserie chickens have you eaten while in the U.S.? Quaranta? Or not quite quaranta?

Good question! I think probably 15? Definitely more since I got a Costco membership.

(FACT CHECK: It’s true. All too true. Alexander Tominsky, whose apt twitter bio simply states: “I ate chicken,” told The New York Times that “much of the world is in pain, so he must do something that brings him pain to make others smile.”)

If you had to eat anything 40 days in a row, either to make others smile or because you’re hungry, what would it be and why?

I think pasta. First, because I’m from Italy, so I’m pretty sure I already did the 40-days-in-a-row thing multiple times. Second, because it is objectively the best and most versatile food!

“love love love this tweet! We need more people like you,” said one tweet.

“We need more people like Mariangiola,” you responded.

Super quick last question – how do we get more Mariangiolas? 

Mentorship programs are becoming more common, and there are more opportunities these days for students to seek mentorship. For example, this program matches mentors and mentees in my research field. However, it is becoming more and more competitive to enter the academic world, especially in computer science where the number of students is growing at a much higher rate than the number of professors.

Perhaps because of my background, I think the one group that is still hard to reach with mentorship is first generation students. UW–Madison has some nice programs to help first generation students, but first generation students are still much more likely to not complete a degree than other students. We need more mentors and we need to better educate mentors on some of the challenges that are unique to this type of students.