September 03, 2020
Do you have to be good at math to be an engineer? Not necessarily. But it helps to have a good mathematician working alongside you. Meet Giovanna Guidoboni, Mizzou Engineer, mathematician and interdisciplinary researcher.
Guidoboni—who became a tenured professor on Sept. 1, 2020—has joint appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the College of Engineering and the Department of Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Guidoboni’s undergraduate degree is in engineering of materials, and she has a PhD in mathematics. She came to Mizzou in 2017, where she’s been using both to help a variety of researchers solve real-world problems.
“Mizzou is the first place where I could be a mathematician and an engineer and whatever else I wanted to be,” she said. “I am most grateful to the people in the EECS and Math departments that they didn’t try to put me in a box. They give you the opportunity to find your own space and build something valuable.”
Guidoboni’s value can be seen across campus. She’s teamed up with researchers on medical solutions, artificial intelligence and plant science. She is also part of various projects focused on COVID-19.
“I just like to explore,” she says. “When I see a problem that intrigues me that has not been solved before and I can use mathematics to solve it, I love that. I like to see that what I do has an impact on people’s lives.”
And that translates to her teaching. Guidoboni makes sure engineers in her classes understand how to use mathematics as a tool in their respective areas.
“Just as you do not need to be a mechanic to drive a car, you do not be to be mathematician to use mathematics,” she said. “You just need to know how to use it right. And then you’ll find that it is actually a lot of fun and it can take you much further than you thought in a shorter amount of time.”
From People to Plants to AI
Guidoboni got her first taste of applying engineering and mathematical principles to real-world applications in healthcare while on faculty at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
There, a colleague introduced her to research on blood flow in the eye. In ophthalmology, it remains a mystery why glaucoma patients receiving the same treatment are experiencing different results—and mathematics could help understand why.
“I got very excited because I saw the physics in it applied to the human body, which becomes physiology, which I could then translate into math and engineering to connect the dots,” she said. “And, ultimately, that helps many patients avoid a decline into blindness.”
She used arithmetic behind the anatomy to account for the discrepancies and predict the factors determining blood flow. The predictions that came out of her mathematical models have since been proven by a large-scale population study.
Ever since Guidoboni brought her research to Mizzou, she’s thrived in the interdisciplinary environment.
In the EECS department, she works with Professor Marjorie Skubic, who leads the Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology and develops solutions for noninvasive health monitoring. The two worked together on hydraulic bed sensors to assess cardiovascular health.
It turns out, blood flow in our body and iron flow inside plants can be modeled similarly. And that led to work with EECS Associate Professor Toni Kazic and Plant Sciences Associate Professor David Mendoza-Cozatl, who are members of the campus’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group,
Guidoboni works with EECS Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus Jim Keller on the application of artificial intelligence to glaucoma research. She teamed up with EECS Professor Kannappan Palaniappan and Medical Pharmacology and Physiology Professor Emerita Virginia Huxley to better understand the microvascular system.
Professor Chi-Ren Shyu—who is also director of the MU Institute for Data Science & Informatics—recruited her for his study of COVID-19 response in rural Missouri. Professor Henry Wan—who has joint appointments in medicine and veterinary science—brought her into his influenza research which has since been expanded to include the coronavirus. Now, the two are part of a grant led by Anthropology Professor Lisa Sattenspiel to study the 1918 Flu in Missouri and its relevance for the current pandemic.
“Mizzou is the first place where my multi-faceted background was valued and deemed to be precious,” Guidoboni says. “The opportunities in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration are truly unique at Mizzou.”
Curious by Nature
Guidoboni grew up in a small village in Italy, located in a region called Emilia Romagna, in a family of artisans and farmers. There, her family had vegetable gardens, fruit trees and a small vineyard. Guidoboni enjoyed math and science—among other things.
“My family always let me explore what I liked within boundaries,” she said. “Tennis. Volleyball. Choir. Guitar. I was a scout leader. I liked to learn and did everything I could do.”
A senior trip to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland, helped her narrow her focus. She was fascinated by it and gained a deeper appreciation of physics.
She attended the Università degli Studi di Ferrara in Italy where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering of materials and a PhD in mathematics.
Think da Vinci
Last year, Guidoboni put her problem-solving skills to paper. She needed a textbook that fit the unique nature of her work in physics, modeling and life sciences. Such book didn’t exist, so Guidoboni wrote her own. She and two colleagues from Italy published “A Comprehensive Physically Based Approach to Modeling in Bioengineering and Life Sciences.”
The idea was to give readers the rationale and instruments to develop their own virtual lab to solve problems of interest to them.
Engineer. Mathematician. Scientist. Writer. Guidoboni may have a lot of labels, but she shuns the very idea of them.
“There was not this classification in the beginning,” she said. “I think of people like Leonardo da Vinci or people of the Renaissance Era. They were everything. They were curious. They wanted to learn and build something new for society and the arts.”
She’s hopeful future engineers see that bigger picture, too.
“The students are ready,” Guidoboni said. “One may be afraid of math, but we are all using electronic devices. We are all used to this virtual experience. It’s nothing new. It’s just that these virtual experiences are based on something and that something is math.”
That’s why she says students shouldn’t let a fear of math keep them from studying engineering.
Especially when Guidoboni is teaching it.