Q&A with Giovanni Cherubini, IBM storage scientist

Scientist at the IBM Research - Zurich Lab celebrates 25 years of service

Giovanni Cherubini celebrates his 25th anniversary of service this month. He is a member of the Storage Technologies department, has been an IBM Master Inventor since 2009 and an IEEE Fellow since 2006. Hailing originally from Padua, Italy, Giovanni now has dual Italian and Swiss citizenship. He has over 80 publications in conference proceedings and peer-reviewed journals, in addition to 40 granted patents and some 20 pending patent applications.

Q. Giovanni, congratulations on your 25th service anniversary. What brought you to the Zurich Lab?

Oh, thank you. I was recruited by Gottfried Ungerboeck, whom I met while I was doing my PhD at UC San Diego. I liked the kind of work Gottfried was doing, so I jumped at the chance.

Q. Were you keen to return to Europe after your PhD?

Well, my interview in Zurich was in July, and I arrived the following January. Coming from San Diego, that meant a temperature drop of about 30 degrees, which was quite a shock. But overall, yes, I was happy to return to Europe to be closer to my family.

Q. You joined the Zurich Lab in 1987. Could you describe a couple of ways in which the Lab has changed since then?

At the time, my group was at an off-site location, and it was a little challenging for newcomers to integrate and feel like part of the Lab. Fortunately, our group of young (at the time!) researchers had just enough critical mass to be able to create our own atmosphere of intellectual stimulation. So that helped not to feel too cut off from the main Lab.

Several years later, the entire department moved to another off-site location, and that was a much bigger group, which meant more interaction.

Then in 2000, we finally moved to the main Lab, which I really appreciated.

Q. Your location wasn’t the only thing that changed. How has your field of research changed over the years?

When I started, my group was working on communications systems. However, this wasn’t IBM’s core business and the support was declining. We brought that work to completion by transferring many of our ideas into industry standards. One of them also became an Accomplishment in 2002.

Back in the 90s, IBM was going through drastic changes, and we as RSMs also had to change. We were increasingly being asked to contribute to the needs and success of the company.

After the communications systems work was wrapped up, I joined the Millipede probe storage project. That was very exciting because it opened up a completely new landscape and gave me the opportunity to learn new skills. Today, I continue to work on control-system-related issues, now within the Tape Storage group.

Q. Was that quite a challenge?

I think it was a valuable experience to realize that we as researchers have to be open to change and willing to adapt our skills, to expand our interests.

Of course those original data communications skills still serve me well even today, although my main focus has changed considerably. It was an interesting evolution to go through, and I learned that essentially everybody has to be able to reinvent and innovate himself and see the opportunities that change can offer.

Q. What do you enjoy most about the working environment at the Zurich Lab?

It’s definitely the stimulating intellectual environment and the flexibility we enjoy. The opportunities to try new things. Of course it’s important to consider the company’s goals and technical priorities. This creates a kind of playground where scientists can find new ways to approach interesting issues and find solutions to significant problems. I also find it gratifying to contribute to successful IBM products.

Q. You’ve worked with the same core group of colleagues throughout your career at the Zurich Lab. What effect does this have on your work?

It’s so important that there’s an element of trust within a group of colleagues, an atmosphere where people can be open and exchange ideas. We’ve achieved a group culture that’s conducive to new ideas and achieving results that are important to the company as well as for our reputation, both as a research lab and as individuals.

Q. Now just a few rapid-fire questions: Beach or mountains?


Q. Beer or wine?


Q. PC or Mac?


Q. Paris or New York?

New York.

Q. Summer or winter?


Q. Federer or Nadal?



IBM scientists meet Guinness

An achievement made last year by IBM scientists can’t really compare with the largest collection of Charlie’s Angels memorabilia (5,569 items), the most body piercings in one session (3,900) or the longest cucumber on record (47 inches), all Guinness World Records, but IBM’s nanotech experts have attained a Guinness record of their own. Their feat: creating the smallest 3D map of the Earth.

The map, produced on a tiny sliver of polymer, measures just 22 by 11 micrometers. To put that into perspective, 1000 copies of the map could fit within a single grain of salt.

The Guinness World Record organization recognized the handiwork of IBM scientists in Zurich, Switzerland, and Almaden, Calif., in its new book, Guinness World Records 2012. (Officially they are no longer called the Guinness Book of World Records.)
Unlike many other Guinness participants, the scientists weren’t motivated by a desire for 15 minutes of pop-culture fame. Rather, they created their tiny map to demonstrate a breakthrough in the miniaturization of complex structures. They expect their techniques to open new prospects for developing nanoscale objects in a variety of fields including electronics, medicine, life sciences and opto-electronics.
How did the IBMers do it? They used a tiny silicon tip with a sharp point — 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil — to create the miniature patterns. The etching technique is very similar to how the ancient Egyptian’s used chisels on stone to create drawings and hieroglyphics.  

Since some members of the IBM team are avid mountaineers, they also created a 25-nanometer-high 3D replica of the Matterhorn.

True, neither the tiny Matterhorn nor the tiny Earth map compare for sheer weirdness with the record for the greatest distance travelled with a pool cue balanced on the chin (5,472 ft 9 in), but, heck, they’re pretty darn cool.


Inventors' Corner: #8,005,773 - System and method for cortical simulation

U.S. Patent #8,005,773 is for a "system and method for cortical simulation." The invention describes a method for developing a computerized brain simulation system that can mimic the cognitive systems and function of the cortex of the brain.

IBM Researcher Dr. Dharmendra Modha talks to FastCompany about this Cognitive Computing work.


“Personalized medicine will be key in the future”

Q&A with Govind Kaigala

Govind Kaigala, scientist at IBM Research – Zurich since May of 2010, is a member of the team working on the microfluidic probe. Govind joined IBM after completing a post-doc at Stanford University and a PhD from the University of Alberta in Canada.

Blog moderator: Congratulations on today’s publication in Lab on a Chip of your innovative proof-of-concept technology called the microfluidic probe.

GK: Thanks, my co-authors and I are glad this paper has been accepted in Lab on a Chip.

Q: This novel silicon probe could possibly become a very useful tool in disease diagnostics and drug design. The scientific article describes the microfluidic probe to quite an accessible extent even for non-specialists, but what we’d like to know from you personally is: What inspired you to work on this?

GK: The idea of a microfluidic probe (MFP) had been evolving within our group for a couple of years before I joined IBM, but no one was assigned to work on this topic exclusively. I was hired to focus on this project, and that gave it a little more momentum. Using the probe with tissue sections too has been around in this group for some time. However, it was not until a Master’s student, Marios Georgiadis, from ETH Zurich joined our team that we decided this may be the opportunity to take on this project.

Q: What was the “Aha!” moment?

GK: Oh, that’s difficult to pinpoint. But, when we were first able to visualize liquid at the apex of the MFP head through a tissue section, we were very excited. There were other moments, like when we overstained a tissue section using the MFP quickly—much faster than conventional times—implying there also existed a time advantage in using this approach.

Q: What precisely makes this new technology so interesting for pathology?

GK: The essential aspect of this technology is that it allows a tiny biopsy tissue sample to be used more efficiently. For example, our publication refers to the need to determine optimal conditions to perform staining.

It’s like the traditional film-development process: if you underexpose or overexpose the film, you don’t get optimal results. There is a strong parallel in the case of pathology. A pathologist draws on years and years of experience to find the optimal conditions for performing tests. The present approach limits pathologists to using a single or a few markers on a tissue section, which restricts “how many questions” they can ask—and therefore how many answers they can get!

With this technology, once the optimal conditions are determined for a given marker and tissue, the pathologist may be able to apply this to a range of chemicals and yet use a limited amount of tissue.

Performing multiple tests rapidly with varying conditions on limited tissue would aid pathologists in making a decision on specific tissue sections in a more quantitative manner. Our device may therefore contribute to personalized medicine, which will be key in the future.

Q: Do you have any other fields in mind where your tool could have a significant impact?

GK: (Laughs) Oh, we have many more ideas. In drug discovery, for example, cells have to be exposed to a range of concentrations of different candidate molecules—this could easily be done with our technology.

Q: Where to you see this technology in 3-5 years?

GK: There are distinct paths we believe this technology may evolve along.

In the longer term, we hope this technology will be licensed and adopted by a pathology-based company to develop a user-friendly “closed” system, which would lend itself to the diagnostic process.

In the short term, we hope this would be widely used as a high-end tool much like a microscope within research laboratories—this would be an “open” system with full access to tubing, connectors and heads.

Q: What did pathologists say when you shared the probe with them?

GK: They love the idea. They think it could be very useful because they are incredibly keen to get more and better information from the tissue samples they work with.

Also, what interests them is that our probe doesn’t change the conventional pathology workflow. If you make drastic changes, it’s not easy to have something percolate rapidly down to the practical level!

Q: So you’re hoping this could be the next big advance in the field of diagnostics?

GK: It’s not “the” solution. It’s but one possible solution that we think is technically pretty cool and may have implications in diagnostic pathology. Of course, we have to remain realistic—this kind of thing takes years to develop and has to go though regulatory authorities before entering the market. It’s not around the corner—but we will likely see such technology used in pathology within our lifetime. We hope to see its impact sooner from its use in research laboratories.


Inventors' Corner: Patent #8,078,492 - Providing consumers with incentives for healthy eating habits

In this video, IBM Senior Technical Staff Member Michael Paolini describes this invention as a method, system and program that uses data analytics to provide electronic incentives for healthy eating.