Finding Valeria: A Ph.D. Story

Written by: James Marko,
"What I like the most about math is that you can always find the truth. It’s like solving a mystery for every puzzle."

Valeria Barra charted an unusual course from Siena, Italy to Newark, New Jersey and now onward for an internship program in Emeryville, Calif. at a one-time Steve Jobs startup you may have heard of - Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar has won eight Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature—“Inside Out,” “Brave,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3” have all taken home an Oscar.​

The lobby of Pixar. Photo credit - Marcin Wichary

While the allure of gold statues may be strong, what inspired Barra from an early age was the innate draw of pure math. “What I like the most about math is that you can always find the truth. It’s like solving a mystery for every puzzle,” said Barra about how she came to enjoy mathematics when she was little. Later on, she also was drawn by the connection between art and mathematics. “In art there are a lot of mathematical and geometrical concepts involved. As part of my undergraduate program thesis, I studied intriguing geometrical concepts like the fourth dimension, and how it was represented in art.”

NJIT P.h.D. Student Valeria Barra examining the mathematics of flowing water

But it was during her graduate studies at the University of Siena that the pure math she loved started to pop up more frequently in practical applications. “My master’s degree thesis was about the math and the algorithms behind computer aided geometric design tools, such as the ones you see in programs like AutoCAD or Maya,” said Barra. “One of the papers I read while researching for this final project was written by one of the founders of Pixar, Ed Catmull, and I learned about how computer aided design and geometric modeling were combined in computer graphics and animation. It showed not only that math can be beautiful in an abstract sense (for the rigor of logic in proofs), but especially in its visual and computational representations. It was very exciting for me to see how Pixar employed a mathematical concept, like the one of subdivision surfaces, in a practical way.” This important tool helped Pixar to produce the 1998 Academy Award-winning computer animated short “Geri’s Game,” and continues to be a central part of Pixar’s geometric modeling process, as it was used to produce the box office hit “Finding Dory.”

Finding Dory’s Math

But her first encounter with Pixar wasn’t while studying for her master’s degree. “In my junior year of high school I wrote an essay about ‘Finding Nemo’ and how its touching story about how overprotective parents have to deal with children with disabilities and face social challenges like inclusion struck me. My teacher didn’t really like it, but it was my favorite Pixar movie at the time and now I’m actually going to have a working experience there, so that’s better than a grade.” Barra now cites “Inside Out” as her favorite Pixar film because of its attention to detail and inclusion of the actual science of the psychological processes. “They aren’t just telling a great story about how in life there cannot be happiness without experiencing sadness too,” she said, “but they are representing real scientific facts on the screen.”

The atrium of Pixar Animation Studios. Photo credit - Jason Pratt

Barra applied to the exchange program at NJIT through the University of Siena. After completing the program she returned to the U.S. for the Ph.D. program in Mathematical Sciences, here at NJIT. “This gave me the opportunity to apply for the internship at Pixar,” she said. “Otherwise, I would have never tried to apply for it all the way from Italy. I kept dreaming about this for five years, and now it has finally happened. It still feels a bit like a dream.”

Before she could take the time required to go on the internship Barra had to move forward on her Ph.D. research, but even here at NJIT in Newark, New Jersey Pixar seemed to follow her. “I was inspired by a TEDTalk given by Danielle Feinberg, who is a director of lighting at Pixar in which she speaks about the integral part of lighting in creating their amazing movies,” said Barra. “She even came to NJIT to give a talk as well. Part of it was about the way they had to work around the problem of WALL-E expressing emotions through robotic eyes. They had to absorb more light through its binocular lenses to create a human like pupil, rather than a glassy, sterile look. It was an amazing application of science to convey emotions.”

Barra’s time at Pixar is being spent in their research office, where she does numerical simulations and works in fluid dynamics, where you can simulate the motion of liquids, such as water in tides and rivers. “We use supercomputers to solve difficult problems that a mathematician could never solve analytically,” said Barra. In her work she simulates how fluids should behave, according to the equations that describe the physics of it all, so that the images look authentic and convincing to the viewers. These computational processes require coding skills as well.

By Jschlosser CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Barra’s course was a difficult one and required her to work hard and gain skills in computing, mathematics, and still have an eye and appreciation for art and storytelling. It is the course that brought her to her dream to work with like-minded people at Pixar. And it was a course that came straight through Newark just blocks away from the mighty Passaic, and it is one that will guide her forward and perhaps even back to Emeryville.

NJIT P.h.D. Student Valeria Barra

For those of you seeking to chart a similar course, Barra offers the following advice: “Pixar posts their summer internship positions on their websites in November and December. The position I applied for is in the research and development department at Pixar, which is called Studio Tools, and I was interviewed directly by the scientists. The interview focused more on my own research and the tools I was familiar with to see how that could benefit what they were working on. They even have residents, who are either students or post-docs, researching at Pixar for longer periods of time. In some cases they can combine their own academic research with the one they carry on at Pixar.”