For a researcher who builds robots, Maurizio Porfiri credits his success to an unexpected source — literature. Paul Auster's novels in particular, with their scenes of Brooklyn, which is home to the researcher’s own Polytechnic Institute of New York University.
As a teen growing up in Italy, Porfiri read Auster as well as Robert Musil, Mikhail Bulgakov, Philip K. Dick and John Fante. They helped shape his creativity, he says. “Being creative and being curious is more important than being the smartest or the best at equations if you want to be a great engineer or researcher,” he tells Brooklyn grade-school students during a demonstration of the robotic fish he designs to mimic leadership cues of real fish. The goal is for the robots to direct living fish away from danger.
In 2012, Popular Science included the self-described “okay student” in its Brilliant 10 — an elite group of scientists under 40 whose work stands to dramatically impact their fields. Porfiri, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from Sapienza University of Rome, is also a recipient of a 2008 NSF CAREER award.