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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI's top biomedical engineering student to combine research career with wine consultancy

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

Narragansett resident to graduate May 23

KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 18, 2004 -- University of Rhode Island senior John DiCecco took a round-about route to a college degree. He started at a community college in Pennsylvania, detoured through a 12-year career as a wine consultant, and will graduate on May 23 with dual degrees in biomedical and electrical engineering.

The top graduating senior in biomedical engineering, DiCecco will also receive the President's Award for Excellence on commencement weekend.

"My particular area of engineering interest is the brain-machine interface," he explained. "There are people who have lost sections of their cognitive ability or motor skills because their brain has been damaged. If there were a way for us to communicate directly with the brain via some communication buffer, we could perhaps make some breakthroughs on treatments for diseases like cerebral palsy, ALS, Parkinson's, and head trauma."

DiCecco's research has focused on learning how brain cells communicate with each other. Using snails as test subjects, he used electrodes to make recordings of the electrical impulses that one cell sends to another. He then used electrical engineering tools to differentiate and interpret the signals.

"By making recordings of these fundamental communication patterns, we can apply this understanding to other animals, including humans," said DiCecco, who served as president of the URI chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering.

To conduct his research, DiCecco helped to construct a new biomedical engineering lab, complete with electrical recording devices and a Faraday cage, which shields out ambient noise so nothing interferes with the recording process.

While his research earned him distinction at URI, it was wine that paid for his education.

"Even when I'm a professional engineer, I don't think Iím ever going to get away from wine," said the 35-year-old Narragansett resident. "There aren't a whole lot of people who do what I do, especially in this state."

Working at Campus Fine Wine in Providence, DiCecco attends numerous wine tastings hosted by wine distributors around the region. At each one he tastes 50 to 150 wines to decide which ones his store should sell.

"I also do private tastings for restaurants, staff training for restaurant personnel, and fundraising tastings as well," he said. "When I first got out of high school in Pennsylvania, I worked at fine dining restaurants to fund my college expenses, and the restaurants had great wine education programs. And I got hooked."

He recommends that wine drinkers try a riesling this summer. "They're the most misunderstood of white wines," DiCecco said. "But dollar for dollar and quality for quality, I donít think you can find any better white wine in the world than whatís coming out of Germany now." He also favors several chardonnays out of South Africa, especially the Hamilton-Russell chardonnay.

After earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Rhode Island next week, DiCecco will pursue a graduate degree in biomedical engineering at URI and continue his research.

"After that, I want to be involved in some sort of full-time research, maybe for a corporation that has their stronghold in neural research," he said. "And ultimately at some point in my life, teaching is in my future.