Associate Professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Valeria Bertacco is exciting and excited -- exciting because of accomplishments such as receiving an NSF CAREER award, a University of Michigan Outstanding Achievement award and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research's Young Investigator award; excited because her students dive into and deliver heady projects like FunSAT (a video game that enables players to solve complex computer-science problems) and analyze the structure and properties of social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook. Before joining the Michigan Engineering faculty, she was a member of the Advanced Technology Group of Synopsys, a position in which she was a lead developer of Vera and Magellan, two popular verification tools. Bertacco is also an associate editor for the IEEE Transactions, the author of two books and a member of several conference program committees.
Like everything else Valeria Bertacco does, her decision to pursue a career in engineering was methodical. "I became an engineer by exclusion," she said. "I knew very early on that I wanted to pursue science for my undergraduate studies -- literature and arts subjects weren't really my passion. But science fields seemed disconnected from the concerns of day-to-day life. So I chose engineering because it's science-related but there I could learn to build something that, I hoped, would make life better or more comfortable and interesting."
She works on issues related to the proper functioning of digital systems, and particularly microprocessors. She also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. And she's thoroughly enjoying what she calls the "extremely collegial environment" at Michigan Engineering. "I've worked at a few other academic sites and visited several more, and Michigan's collegiality definitely stands out at every level, from the lab, to the department, to the college -- people interact, collaborate in research, support and promote each other. This is a critical aspect for me in my job."
The University of Michigan's breadth also appeals to Bertacco, who revels in the variety and number of interesting research projects and activities in so many fields, not only in engineering but in business, music, medicine and art. "Being immersed in this environment improves both the quality of my research and my life," she said. "For instance, during my interview visit for my current job, I met a famous movie director, Alexander Paine, who was here to give a lecture. One of my colleagues develops musical instruments for the iPhone platform and organized an ‘iPhone concert.' Those kinds of programs are everywhere at Michigan."
There's another aspect of her position that stands out. "The coolest thing about my job is that I have no boss! I get to choose what research directions to explore -- that's a freedom you don't get in industry. I get to talk (I love talking) with a lot of people -- students, colleagues, industry experts -- with interesting ideas. And I have the opportunity to travel to many amazing places. I really don't like bosses. I worked for a short time in small start-ups and then in a big company. Then I applied for and got a faculty position and, knowing what I know now, this is what I want to do. I wouldn't trade it for the world!"
The projects that she's chosen to work on have evolved from issues related to the proper functioning of digital systems, microprocessors in particular. She explained one of the broader concerns. "The technology of the semiconductor industry has reached a point where transistors are so small -- about 30 nanometers -- that they're expected to break frequently. At the same time microprocessors are so complex, having half a billion transistors, that it's impossible to design them completely correctly. Nevertheless, in order to make any revenue, companies have to keep designing more complex systems at a smaller scale. My research develops solutions so that microprocessors with broken transistors can operate properly, and they can self-correct when they're about to hit a design bug."
Bertacco encourages her students to do interesting research, have the courage to take risks, engage their peers, share their ideas and stay abreast of the leading research developments. "I also tell them to pursue several internships so that, when they graduate from either their undergraduate or graduate studies, they'll have at least a few experiences to help them decide what they would like to do next. As for balancing career and personal life... well, I could never decide to sacrifice either, so I just dive in and try to juggle everything. It's not easy to do, but it's something that young engineers, men and women, need to know."