Cichella named one of two Outstanding Young Alumni


Alumnus Venanzio Cichella (PhDME 2018) is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Iowa.

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MechSE Alumni Board President Mark Woodmansee (left) and Department Head Tony Jacobi (right) present the award to Venanzio Cichella, center, holding framed certificate.
MechSE Alumni Board President Mark Woodmansee (left) and Department Head Tony Jacobi (right) present the award to Venanzio Cichella. 

Venanzio Cichella (PhDME 2018) was one of this year’s recipients of the MechSE Outstanding Young Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni who have graduated from the department fewer than 10 years ago and who have embodied the department and university’s values in their professional careers. Established in 2015, more than two dozen MechSE alumni have received this award.

Cichella, whose MS and PhD advisor was Professor Naira Hovakimyan, is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Iowa.

“I want to thank the most important person in my academic life, Professor Naira Hovakimyan. When I applied for graduate school here, and my application was accepted, I had a feeling she was going to be my advisor,” he recalled. “She would often tell me, with a voice that would give me comfort and would make me learn and persevere, that mistakes are never something we should be ashamed of and we should never be scared of. This is one of the many many things I learned from Naira.”

Cichella also holds a concurrent position as an Assistant Faculty Research Engineer at IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, a research center specializing in hydrodynamics and maritime research based in Iowa. He is also affiliated with the Department of Applied Mathematical and the Department of Computational Science.

As director of the Cooperative Autonomous Systems (CAS) Lab, Cichella oversees a dynamic team comprising six PhD students, one postdoctoral researcher, and several undergraduate students. His lab operates out of two facilities: the CAS Lab, dedicated to the mechanical design of robots, and the CAS Lab Swarm Hub, serving as a flying arena for testing drone swarm technologies.

His research concentrates on two primary areas of autonomy and soft robotics. In autonomy, his work is geared toward enabling ground, maritime and aerial systems to navigate autonomously and safely in human-inhabited environments. His research is theoretical—focusing on nonlinear systems analysis, numerical optimal control, and multi-agent stability theory—while addressing practical challenges such as search and rescue operations, mine hunting, and the safe integration of UAVs into the airspace. 

His research also delves into the mechanical design of soft robots powered by twisted and coiled artificial muscles, alongside the modeling and control of soft structures. He is currently developing POLPI—a name derived from the Italian word for octopuses—a robot inspired by the agility and versatility of cephalopods, equipped with eight flexible tentacles capable of manipulating objects and navigating underwater environments.

Cichella was honored at the MechSE Spring Awards Banquet April 19.

“This department is a place where special connections are made,” he said. “I am still friends and collaborators with my lab mates, and it’s where I met my wife, who is also an alumna. Thank you for this experience and for everything this department has done.”

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This story was published May 9, 2024.