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Forks in the Road Lead Computer Engineer to UC Merced Professorship

April 6, 2006

 Forks in the Road Lead Computer Engineer to UC Merced Professorship

A remarkable series of twists has brought Computer Science and Engineering Professor Alberto Cerpa to UC Merced. A native of Argentina, Cerpa planned a graduate degree in engineering, then an MBA to help him climb the corporate ladder. Work experience building the backbone of the Internet in Argentina seemed to confirm his plans. But soon after his arrival at the University of Southern California for his Master’s, he discovered a different path.

“In Argentina, to progress you had to go into management,” he explains. “I found greater technical potential for growth in the United States. It transformed my plans.”

In 1998, he decided to pursue a Ph.D. But part way through his program, Cerpa faced another fork in the road. He was being pressed to join an Internet startup, and at the same time, his advisor accepted an offer from UCLA and decided to redirect her research area to sensor networks.

“No matter what I chose, everything was going to change,” Cerpa recalls. “Joining the startup was a big risk. Going to UCLA would require me to choose a new dissertation topic and start a new lab. I chose to continue my studies.”

After he finished his Ph.D. last year, former UCLA colleague Tom Harmon alerted him to the next potential turn in his journey.

“Tom helped me see that at UC Merced I would have a say and be able to make a difference as to the direction of the school,” Cerpa says. He is now collaborating with Harmon on sensor networks for environmental applications, as well as developing ideas for indoor sensor networks that could help create participatory art or regulate light and temperature in buildings more efficiently.

“I’m a systems person,” he says. “By building things that are deployed and useful, I’ve never had to search for a problem to solve in my research. The problems find you! And in real systems, the problems are worth solving. It’s much more rewarding.”

And while he and his wife hesitated to settle in a small town, they now feel happy in Merced. “I think we’re already becoming well established here,” he says. For someone who’s been on such an exciting journey for so long, that’s saying something.