Anthony Papavasiliou is an Associate Professor at the Catholic University of Leuven (UCLouvain) in Belgium. As a researcher he works on business research, with applications in high-scale penetration of renewable energy sources in electricity systems and electricity market analysis. His field is so specialised and above all so useful to humanity that our planet is looking for other scientists like him. 

By Mia Kollia

Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos

Where did you grow up and when did your inclination towards research and these scientific sectors show up? How did you get to Belgium?

I was born in Detroit, USA, in 1983 and grew up in Athens. In high school I had already a great inclination to mathematics and physics. I was fascinated by the idea that there are certain constants in the world that are not subjective and that support the idea that there is structure in life and that we are explorers in this mysterious world with its hidden beauty.

Later, as a student, I was fascinated by the idea that we "step" on the knowledge and discoveries of thousands of years and when our time comes, we can do our part in the edifice of human knowledge too. 

When I finished school, I was quite interested in astronomy and the environment and I had to decide which of the two I would pursue in my university studies. I chose the environment, and finally the energy, because I instinctively felt that it would emerge as a great battle for our generation. For better or worse, my instinct guided me properly.

I went to America wanting to combine my interest in mathematics with applications in electricity, which was the subject of my specialisation in the Technical University of Athens. At this point, my decisions were influenced by the warmth with which I was approached by my later Berkeley teacher, Samuel Oren, who vigorously challenged me as a graduate student. I became so passionate about the subject that I stayed there to do my PhD. 

When the time for an academic career came, I did interviews at universities in the US as well as in Europe. At that time, Yves Smers, a professor in Leuven and an important figure in our area, retired. I found out about the opening of the vacancy a few hours before the end of her term and I had to hurry. So, in 2013, I was preparing my suitcases for a return to Europe.
Did you feel that you had some talent from the beginning? And if so, how much effort is needed for further development?

The oldest memory I have of dealing with logical puzzles was with some magazines that were sold in a kiosk in Bali, Crete, when I was about 8 to 10 years old and we were on vacation with my family. Towards the end of primary school I realised that I had a good performance in the subjects and this was combined with a passion for the positive sciences in junior high school and high school. 

At NTUA, one gets to know some of the most impressive and capable minds of our country, with high potential talent in the field of sciences. Although the level set by these students is very high, I felt that in the courses that interested me I could perform very well without over-effort.

But what happened in Berkeley was impressive and at the same time a lesson of humility: there I felt that ALL my colleagues were in a stratosphere of skills and the level of study was constantly testing the limits of my potential, so hard work was a prerequisite for me to float.

A successful career in academia is a function of many factors. There is a "raw" ability in abstract mathematical thinking - something in which I consider myself relatively weak. I had the pleasure of studying at a time when the great Konstantinos Daskalakis was at Berkeley as a doctoral student. 

When I went there, Kostas had already become famous because he had graduated from NTUA with a 9.99 and had solved a theorem of computer science that had remained unsolved for decades. One night, after we watched the movie “300” in an atmosphere of nostalgia, I asked him to help me solve two problems that I had been struggling with for a week. He solved the first problem in 10 minutes!

There is also persistence. Although Kostas had the supernatural ability to solve this problem in 10 minutes, I had the ability, the passion and the stamina to fight the problem for a week even if it didn’t work out.

There is also vision. One of the biggest challenges for an academic is to ask important questions about humanity, but also to pose problems so complex that they require 4 and 5 years of intensive effort to be solved. I consider myself capable of this.

There is also human contact. One of the most important roles of an academic is to guide students to the limits of knowledge and beyond. Every doctoral student is the discovery of a new soul and our job as academics is to create the conditions for this soul to find the desire to add a touchstone to human knowledge.


How close is mathematical thinking to philosophical thinking?

I believe that philosophy and the analysis of our emotions share a very important common denominator with mathematical thought and scientific research: we come to this search without a predetermined agenda and with a sincere disposition to discover the truth. We return to the same fundamental questions and each week, through communication with students, we see these questions from a new perspective and establish new connections with previous knowledge.

There is also the human dimension, which I mentioned earlier. Every new student and partner is a new dynamic. There has not been a time that I have supervised a doctoral dissertation without the initial anxiety of what we do and where we go, while many times there are frustrations in the course of the search. 

When I started as a researcher and as a teacher, I was much more sensitive to these shocks. Now, the feeling of certainty that something unexpected will happen and that somewhere we will encounter a significant difficulty gives me a strange calm, because I’m not taken by surprise. 

There are, of course, positive emotions: tremendous excitement in the face of discovery (it is almost addictive to feel like one is entering a virgin field of knowledge), a tremendous sense of pride, calm and satisfaction in discovering the truth and understanding the structure of what we study. So the answer to your question is, yes, of course there is a feeling that with time and experience one can learn to manage it better.

How is life elsewhere and what experiences stand out?

California and Belgium are two different worlds - at very different times in my life. I think, for me, the biggest benefit from the experience abroad is that I got out of my comfort zone. Both California and Belgium are vibrant places, multicultural environments that have taught me adaptation.

There is no doubt that the US is a place of opportunity, but so is Belgium. Extroversion brings independence and self-confidence, and ultimately benefits everyone: both the young people who spread their wings and those who trusted them and gave them the opportunities to do so.  

From the US, I like to remember the amazing universities and the impressive entrepreneurial ecosystem, the seductive climate and nature of California, as well as the fast-paced life. From Belgium, I like to recollect the European aura, the fantastic bike paths in the forests and the cultural monuments with the medieval castles and the beautiful lakes. From both places I have maintained deep friendships and relationships with people who have defined me and continue to define me.

What do you gain / what do you lose from:

- Dedication to a certain field?

Devotion gives me stability and allows me to deepen. I'm not good at focusing on many things at once but when I delve into something that interests me, I can really give my best. 

- The extreme effort?

Extreme effort is rewarding. When I was younger it allowed me to fall asleep at night, as if I had managed to seize the day and literally deserved my sleep. Nowadays, although I continue to admire excessive effort, I have also begun to admire people's ability to achieve a lot with less than that. 

- The key decisions?

Key decisions are driven either by fear or by wise motives. Personally, I have made crucial decisions in my life with anxiety but also instinctively and with complete self-confidence. In these cases, I have not regretted anything. 

- Sacrifices and benefits?

I'm lucky to love what I do, so I do not feel like I am sacrificing anything. Personal life and dedication to research feed into each other. The work of academics is particularly demanding, exciting and absorbs the spirit and thought. Balance is required in personal life. In times of personal difficulty, I don’t have clear thinking and I feel my work more as a chore than as a pleasure. On the other hand, I have noticed that work is also a mechanism for regulating my stress.