x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Piano holds key to NYU's ambition

NYU Abu Dhabi's provost Fabio Piano is the man tasked with forming the university into both a liberal arts institute and a research centre.

Fabio Piano sees a parallel between his research into DNA and his role as provost.
Fabio Piano sees a parallel between his research into DNA and his role as provost.

ABU DHABI // There is an uncanny parallel between Fabio Piano's scientific interests and his passion for the project that brought him to Abu Dhabi - New York University.

In his academic life, he is still the director of the centre for genomics and systems biology in New York, but now has a bigger role, as provost of the new NYU Abu Dhabi campus. He sees the two projects as closely linked.

"Early on I was very interested in the mechanisms of life and wanted to learn more about the way in which different DNA cells worked," he says.

The first in his family to go to university, Dr Piano became deeply research-focused as he investigated how species evolved and how development differed from one species or individual to another.

"I became interested in the ways all the different life forms are connected to each other and differed to each other but in the end, all the different forms, colours, species, have the same information, they all share the same DNA," he says.

It was as a teenager travelling the world with his father, who worked for the Italian airline Alitalia, that Dr Piano, now 43, first grew fond of the cosmopolitan world beyond his native and "homogenous" Rome.

At the age of 14, he was in a class in Singapore that counted 23 nationalities among its 25 students. It was here, he says, that he found his passion for multi-culturalism. It was, he says, a "revelation" to see that two means can reach the same end.

Unable to understand any English, he sat in his maths class learning division. "All I could understand were the figures on the board," he recalls. "I realised that the numerator and the denominator were totally upside down but you can do the division either way and get the same result.

"For me, it showed that even the most basic concept can be influenced by different cultures and backgrounds that people bring."

It was this kind of thinking that drew him to his role in Abu Dhabi, a job he says he might not have taken in a longer-established university. "I feel like this university was built because I wanted to do this here," he says. "Bringing students together opens up people's minds to other cultures where there are many links."

Abu Dhabi's diversity is, he says, what makes him feel so comfortable.

Dr Al Bloom, the university's vice chancellor, sees Dr Piano as the embodiment of the qualities the university seeks to produce in its graduates. "His own background, which took him from Europe to Southeast Asia to North America and now to Abu Dhabi, mirrors the cosmopolitan nature of many of our students and faculty, and like them, helps shape his worldview," he says.

But Dr Piano denies being a big fish in a small pond; NYU's campus in the US was established in 1831 and with its 40,000 students dwarfs its Abu Dhabi offshoot and its first cohort of 150.

"The fact that there is a real goal is what attracted me. NYU Abu Dhabi is a catalyst to bringing people together. Even faculty from New York who come here and never knew each other in New York find common ground."

And while many of the world's great universities are centuries old, the "endeavour" in Abu Dhabi has given the role of provost a new meaning.

Stephen Small met Dr Piano when the latter was a PhD student at NYU and was behind his being hired by the university.

Dr Small is aware of the hard work ahead. "That job seems impossibly demanding to me," he says, "especially in light of his other responsibilities to the biology department and the genome centre."

Dr Piano admits his role in Abu Dhabi has its challenges - not least trying to unite two distinct educational concepts in a country that is still finding its feet in the higher education landscape.

NYU Abu Dhabi hopes to become both a broad liberal arts institution and a strong research centre, whereas US institutions have traditionally positioned themselves as one or the other.

But Dr Small believes Dr Piano's rare combination of intellectual brilliance, personal warmth, and unfailing dedication will stand him in good stead. "In the world of academic science, we are often torn between doing excellent research and excellent teaching, and Fabio is genuinely interested in and dedicated to both," he says.

"He never seems to be tired, and I have spent many hours late into the night discussing students, teaching philosophies and techniques, research directions, and the like."

And it is a challenge that Dr Piano sees as his main reason for being here. "It has the most chance of ever being realised here. It's a concept which could really change the way we think of higher education."

mswan@thenational.ae