Civil and environmental engineering doctoral grad earns UNH’s first cotutelle

Monday, October 25, 2021
Francesco Preti with his advisors.

Francesco Preti '21G is flanked by his co-advisor professor Jo Sias and Will Clyde, associate dean for academic affairs in the Graduate School.

It was 8 a.m. in Nevada, 11 a.m. in New Hampshire and 5 p.m. in Italy.

For Francesco Preti ’21G, this was the one time he could get all his faculty advisors and committee members online at the same time for his dissertation defense. His research on more environmentally friendly methods for rehabilitating asphalt pavements spanned time zones and languages, computational modeling programs and Minnesota summers. That’s because Preti would be earning not just one doctorate in civil and environmental engineering, but two – from two different countries.

It’s called a cotutelle, which is an agreement between international universities allowing for a student to earn dual degrees simultaneously. Preti was the first UNH student to graduate with a cotutelle, earning dual doctoral degrees from UNH and the University of Parma in northern Italy, where he is from.

The careful logistics of his defense reflect the reality of working toward graduate degrees in educational systems – but also the interconnected nature of Preti’s field.

“At the end of the day, the asphalt community is relatively small,” Preti says. Roads, it turns out, are everywhere.

Professors Jo Sias and Eshan Dave, his co-advisors at UNH, and professors Gabriele Tebaldi and Elena Romeo, his co-advisors from Parma, already knew each other before connecting on Zoom last May. They serve on many of the same global research committees and co-edit the same academic journals.

Those relationships would prompt Tebaldi to reach out to Dave and Sias about establishing a visiting scholar program between Parma and UNH. He also said he had the perfect doctoral candidate to go first.

Of course, that student would be Preti, whose six months at UNH as a visiting scholar flew by. He developed strong relationships with Sias and Dave and immersed himself in his research; he also built a life.

“I asked them if I could please stay a little bit longer,” Preti says. That question set in motion the cotutelle process, an academic path he did not know about until it became his own.

When Preti became an official cotutelle student at UNH in January of 2020, he jumped right into the graduate student community, developing friendships through the Office of International Students and Scholars and joining the Graduate Student Senate. He blossomed as a teacher, finding it enormously rewarding to get through a lecture in a second language and realize that everyone understood him.

With Sias and Dave, he also traveled to Minnesota for a research grant from the Minnesota local road research board. He helped construct and test six pavement study sections, and, back at UNH, he built 3D models analyzing how the new, more sustainable asphalt mixes would respond to the northern Midwest’s infamous seasonal transitions – from ice to melt to floods. On-the-ground opportunities like that with public agencies, Dave explains, distinguish a cotutelle journey from a visiting scholar experience. And in civil engineering, those partnerships are crucial to future research funding.

Today, Preti works in Boston in the cutting-edge field of catastrophe modeling. Transitioning to the private sector came with an enormous learning curve, but he says that his experience as an international student prepared him to embrace those challenges. Indeed, Preti’s unique educational path highlights his capacity for global citizenship and scholarship – and opens doors to a lifetime of it.

And that skillset, Dave stresses, is the future of civil engineering. Together with Sias, he’s establishing more global pathways for visiting scholars in their department at UNH and building partnerships that allow UNH civil engineering graduate students to study abroad.

“We have to tackle problems from a global perspective,” Dave says.