Sparring Scientist

Whether in an observatory or a boxing ring, this astrophysicist packs a serious punch.

Federica Bianco C’03 G’07 Gr’10 bounces up and down in a setting that seems ill-suited to concentration. Yet with headphones on and her hair tied in a tight network of braids, there’s only one thing on her mind.

It’s September 2017, and Bianco is standing in her corner of the boxing ring at the Twin River Casino in Lincoln, Rhode Island. She is moments away from her fourth professional match, a super bantamweight undercard against a nurse named Marcia Agripino. Wearing a black sports bra and silver-trimmed black trunks, sporting a shiner under her right eye, Bianco is in perpetual motion as the ring announcer howls his script and the crowd murmurs in anticipation.

It’s a perfect portrait of chaos … to everyone but the fighter introduced as “The Mad Scientist.”

“It seems like such a chaotic environment but it’s actually very calm inside,” Bianco says. “Things happen very slowly when you’re inside. … A lot of the draw for me is that it’s a place where you have to find that inner calm and collectedness and that focus that I don’t necessarily have in a lot of my other activities.

“But a lot of my other activities don’t demand it as fiercely as boxing does because you’re not going to get punched in the face if you lose focus.”

Bianco’s “other activities” defy simple categorization. She’s an astrophysicist who studies star systems and supernovae. But her latest position—as a data scientist in the office of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware—speaks to more diverse interests as she uses data to tackle interdisciplinary questions, from monitoring pollution in urban environments to examining public policy issues like prosecutorial patterns in the justice system.

One of the projects on her horizon is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile, which will generate up to 20 terabytes of observational data each night.

Another project is a collaboration with her husband, Greg Dobler G’03 Gr’06, whom she met at Penn. Dobler is the director of the Urban Observatory at New York University, where Bianco is a visiting professor, and together they leverage data to generate real-time models of pollution in major cities, starting in New York and with plans to extend to others. Bianco is particularly excited about how such low-cost interventions could help the developing world, as she mentioned in a TED Talk last year—which she gave after being named a TED Fellow for 2019, one of just 20 people to receive the honor.

Moving across disciplines can be a tough sell in the specialized, siloed world of academia. But she’s blazed her unique career path via her tenacity and a little good fortune. “It is definitely an unconventional portfolio that I come in with,” says Bianco, who returns to Penn weekly for a quiet space to work in between teaching at Delaware and researching in New York. “And I got very lucky that it appealed to the right people and it worked at the right time.”

Boxing may seem tangential, but not to Bianco. A native of Genova, Italy, she’s long pursued performance-based vocations as a refuge from her studies. First it was repertory theater at the University of Bologna, then music, and eventually the martial art of capoeira.

In 2010, while on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she couldn’t find the high-level capoeira training she was used to, so she took up boxing. She was instantly hooked.

She took amateur boxing all the way to the age limit of 35, fighting out of New York, where she trained at the Church Street Gym, and competed across the country in competitions like Beautiful Brawlers and the National Women’s Golden Gloves. She’s fought five professional bouts since her 2015 debut, sporting a 4–1 record. It’s a testament to her ferocious commitment that she was eager to shed the amateur ranks’ required headgear—which, she points out, is not scientifically proven to protect fighters—to turn pro. Though she calls herself a “baby in boxing,” the limiting factor in her career has been outside the ring—including the resources needed to train intensively and the willingness of promoters to sponsor fights.

Bianco sees a lot of interplay between boxing and academia. Academics is an understatedly performative space, from teaching classes to defending papers to grant writing. While the tunnel vision she acquires from slipping between the ropes is elusive, she summons it while designing studies, locked in on important details and potential stumbling blocks. Physics and boxing also tend to be male-centric pursuits, and Bianco is subverting that expectation.

“I think your true nature comes out when you box—a little more than any other activity,” she says. “I’m a bit of a bully, and I think it comes from the fact that I’m impatient. So I think I just want to get to the fight.”

Bianco has a lot on her ever-expanding plate. She splits time between Delaware and NYU, and the LSST will provide new opportunities when it comes online in 2022. Before she gets in the ring again, she’ll need a new coach and perhaps a manager to handle the prickly business of boxing.

Bianco believes she has a few more fights in her at age 41. As long as the feeling of focus that comes with a big fight is there, she’ll chase it.

“It’s a place where I feel very collected and focused, and it’s sort of relieving to think of one thing exactly,” she says. “You’re never multitasking when you’re fighting or training, and if you are, you’re going to get punched.”

Matthew De George

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