Marcello Porta studied Physics in Rome “La Sapienza” and was postdoc at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of ETH, at the Hausdorff Center for Mathematics in Bonn and at the Institute for Mathematics of UZH. Porta is fond of Zurich, and considers it an ideal place for his research, which lies at the border between Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. The young professor likes hiking and travel photography, and enjoys cooking. As a teenager, he had once participated on a local level at a Physics Olympiad.
«Mathematics is a matter of curiosity», Prof. Marcello Porta
Mr. Porta, how does it come that so many talented mathematicians are of Italian origin?
Marcello Porta (MP): Italy has a long tradition in many areas of mathematics. The Italian university system regularly produces excellent young mathematicians, who, however, often continue their careers abroad. The main reason for that is the less than ideal current job situation in Italy. With respect to other countries, at the moment the opportunities for young scientists are quite limited.
Do mathematicians have a special brain or does one become a mathematician?
MP: I think mathematics is a matter of curiosity. Personally, I am fascinated by the effectiveness of mathematics in our precise understanding of the physical world. My interest for mathematics and physics was stimulated by my high school teacher. He was able to transmit his passion for both subjects, and to show the beauty of them to young students.
Do you come from an academic background?
MP: Not at all. My father is a retired navy officer, while my mother has a background in literature, but had to quit her studies once we kids were born.
Was it clear for you from the very beginning that you wanted to study physics?
MP: In fact, no. Even though physics was my favorite subject during high school, I initially started studying engineering, mostly because of the good professional perspectives. I quickly realized that this was not at all my thing and then switched to physics, which I enjoyed far more.
What do you like best about your work as a mathematician?
MP: I particularly like to work at the interface between different areas of research, namely theoretical physics and mathematics; my background gives me the chance to interact with both communities. I find exciting the interplay between physics intuition and mathematical rigor in the study of complex physical systems.
Did you have role models in your career?
MP: It is hard to mention a particular role model. However, my attitude towards research has certainly been shaped by the more experienced people with whom I worked so far. I was lucky enough to work and learn a lot from some of the brightest people in my field.
What advice would you give a PhD student considering an academic career?
MP: Perhaps, the most important advice is be to be strong, and to not lose motivation during hard times: these moments always occur, even to the most gifted researchers. It is very important to interact with people, to be exposed as much as possibile to discussions, and to not be afraid of criticism. For these reasons, it is important to choose the right people to work with, and to have good personal relations with them.
Interview: Dr. Calista Fischer, Faculty of Science