So, you travelled a lot in Europe before you moved to the US, right?
I was actually in Italy for a long time … I came here with a Fullbright scholarship in 1985 and had no intention of staying longer than a year or so …
I was accepted in medical physics at UCLA which was a very nice set-up because, as you know, this city with all of the California dreaming and surfing, beaches, volleyball and stuff is intriguing for an Italian. Still, I didn’t know if I was going to stay longer than a year so I just enrolled in a masters degree. Then one thing led to another and I did my Masters, then my PhD, and I got a job offer from Cedars-Sinai and I decided to stay.
At Cedars I was hired as a Director in Medical Imaging with a focus on nuclear cardiology. Let me explain why cardiology is so important:
A lot of deaths in the US and around the world are due to cardiovascular causes. People (I think it’s over 1/3) die because of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases … The easy way to deal with it is to train the public so that they don’t put themselves in situations that could lead to heart problems. It means making sure they don’t smoke, they keep their body weight low enough, they eat well, they exercise, maybe drink a glass of wine every now and then.
The most expensive way is to treat them after they have a problem and they go to the emergency room with chest pain and it turns out they’re having heart attack…
The middle way is to screen people … that’s what we do! My group works on cardiac imaging, even though our department is named artificial intelligence. We deal with the images of all the organs, but we concentrate on the heart … We take pictures of you [with nuclear scanners] … If you have some arteriosclerosis you receive treatment and if you don’t then you have a kind of 2 year warranty that you will be ok.
How would you explain what you do to a 5-year-old kid?
That’s a tricky one! I would probably say that I teach computers how to think like humans and I tell them to try to figure out whether someone’s heart is working well or not.
So, do you think that machines could replace humans in a few years or so?
Not necessarily. Some people in my line of work are very optimistic that we can proceed without doctors. I don’t think that’s the case – you do need to verify that the machine is correct … what we do is part of a larger assessment of patients. The numbers that come out of the machine have to be integrated with other considerations … It’s the doctor who puts everything together, so we’re just one piece of the puzzle.
How did you decide what would be your path in life?
When I was younger I zig-zagged a bit … My dad is a doctor, but I didn’t really like medicine that much. I wasn’t very fond of diseases and blood. After my classical studies in high school, I studied engineering, then did my MBA and came back to science. I was lucky that things came relatively easy for me. I didn’t decide really what to do until the last moment. I let life decide for me! Part of success is the ability to recognize opportunities when they present themselves. It’s also connected to your willingness to work hard and try to do your best, but then circumstances play their game.
What advantages or disadvantages are there to being an Italian scientist?
I don’t know that there are disadvantages … Here we really have a melting pot, so you don’t get ostracized for not being American. Everybody benefits from it in our group …. We take the best and brightest even though their accents might be a bit difficult to understand.
Are you proud to be Italian?
Oh very much! I mean, it’s not pride, because there is no merit to being Italian – it’s just a coincidence that I was born in Italy, but I’m very happy to be exposed to that culture and to have be grown up with those values.
Do you have any specific Italian habits?
I go back to Italy at least 5 times a year … I have many close friends who are Italian, both here in LA and back in Italy … I like Italian food, I drink Italian wine, I don’t drive a Fiat but maybe in the future I could!