Computer science student John Marinelli loves a good problem. So much so that he’s ready to make a career of tackling the unknown. “It’s really cool when you get to encounter a problem, like the ones I’ve been working on at CU Denver,” Marinelli said. “You just think about it, map it out, approach it from different angles, and try to solve it. It feels good to execute something and have it work and feel like you’ve pulled something off.”
This past year, at CU Denver, Marinelli has confronted coding and data analysis problems for NASA-funded research project that may ultimately make fault detection systems more effective. His academic work recently earned him an Outstanding Graduate Student Award from the Computer Science and Engineering department. And after he earns his master’s in computer science on May 13, he’ll continue to tackle new problems as a data engineer for Electra, a green research company based in Gunbarrel. It’s a remarkable journey considering that, as of 2020, he had no formal computer science experience and was immersed in his initial career as a news reporter.
A 2018 CU Boulder journalism graduate, Marinelli wrote about education for an Arizona newspaper, then covered topics that included nonprofits and homelessness for the Boulder Daily Camera. A COVID-related furlough gave Marinelli a moment of career clarity. “Since high school, I’ve been involved with electronic music and instruments, playing with computers, building synthesizers,” Marinelli said. “I’ve played with code for a long time as a hobby. After I got furloughed, I started to think, ‘What do I really want to make a living doing?’”
Though Marinelli said he felt unprepared for a master’s in computer science, he chose CU Denver because of its flexibility for career-changers. At CU Denver, he could take the undergraduate prerequisites, and then segue directly into his master’s program. “I wouldn’t be where I am without that capability,” he said.
At CU Denver, Marinelli found that he really enjoyed spending time on the Auraria campus, from tackling the climbing wall at the Lola & Rob Salazar Student Wellness Center to appreciating the atmosphere of the Ninth Street Historic Park. “The CU Denver faculty are a little more laid-back and understanding, with a lot of students working while going to school,” he said. “I love walking around here. I bike to school most of the time, so I’ll just bike on the Cherry Creek Trail, around downtown, get a cup of coffee somewhere. It’s really cool to be in the heart of Denver while you’re in school.”
This year, he has worked as a research assistant at CU Denver’s Cyber-Physical System Laboratory (cyber-physical systems, like Roombas and smart cars, connect computers and the real world through IT technologies) with Assistant Professor Liang He. “He’s had an extremely important impact on my academic career,” Marinelli said. That lab experience enabled him to work on the $750,000 NASA-funded ARADISS project (in partnership with a small East Coast firm), which involves system diagnostics for drones and satellites.
If a system anomaly is detected—say, a motor that lags, or a drop in voltage—Marinelli has developed an algorithm that would protect the system from false positives (saying, in effect, “Are you sure something’s wrong?”). If multiple system failures were to occur, Marinelli’s coding and algorithm work would help the system gauge whether the failures are related, or separate. “The work is entirely driven by data,” he said.
Beyond his coursework and research, Marinelli has enjoyed playing in bands, developing app games, and the occasional round of Dance Dance Revolution. “I have a pad at home that I play on all the time,” he said. This hobby mix may soon evolve because his new job starts nine days after Commencement. But Marinelli will surely find diverse and productive ways to apply his brain, whether through work, hobbies, or a doctoral program he may pursue at some point to further immerse himself in research. “Just constantly learning has been a cool thing,” he said.