Alex and Dominic Sivitilli, Brothers & Scientists

Bears in the Wild: Alex and Dominic Sivitilli, Brothers & Scientists
Posted on 05/06/2022

It’s extremely difficult to understand the size of the universe. There are trillions upon trillions of stars, and billions of lightyears of space in between. Throw in black holes, relativity, and the possibility of life on other planets, and the information overwhelms the human brain. According to Alex Sivitilli, a Tahoma High School graduate now earning his doctorate in Cape Town, South Africa, astronomy fascinates many of us, but its complexities are getting in the way of young people joining the research.

“So many people want to study it,” he said. “But why don’t people study it?”

Alex is a PhD candidate in Astronomy Education Research at the University of Cape Town, and he studies just that: how to make astronomy accessible to those who want to dive in.

“I call it ‘infinity within reach’,” he said. “The sky is an infinite object. But you want to make it look concrete and physical… something that people can really appreciate.”

Alex S. with a large binocular telescope

Alex’s appreciation for astronomy has taken him around the world, including a stint at the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona as a graduate student. 

“For my master's thesis, I was designing a laser alignment telescope that would be mounted on the bigger telescope. That basically would align the adaptive optics system of the big telescope.”

Halfway around the world from Alex’s current home, his younger brother, Dominic, is conducting his own scientific research, studying a creature that looks like a traveler from another galaxy. Dominic is a PhD candidate in Psychology and Astrobiology at the University of Washington in Seattle, and he spends his days observing and analyzing octopuses. Specifically, Dominic is researching octopus cognition, which is vastly different from our own.

“They have the largest brains of the invertebrates. They're immensely computationally complex. So their nervous system is complex.”

Octopus limbs can bend in any direction, and most of their nervous system exists outside of their brains and in their arms and suckers.

“A human fingertip might have a few hundred mechanical receptors,” he said. “A sucker of the same size will have tens of thousands of receptors, multiplied by thousands of suckers.”

For Dominic and his underwater companion, “cracking the code” on the nervous system of the octopus would open many doors.

Photo of Dominic Sivitilli on a boat in scuba diving gear

“It’s very relevant to robotics and automation,” he said. “We have a bunch of hinges on our arm. Effectively, our degree of freedom of motion is restricted to our skeleton. Now imagine if your arm could bend in any direction, anywhere down its length. If we were able to figure out how the octopus is actually controlling its limbs, this could be beneficial for robotic surgeries, space exploration, assembly, and automation in many forms.”

In addition to those benefits, Dominic is also intrigued by what a common ancestor between humans and octopuses would’ve looked like, and when their DNA wasn’t so dissimilar. 

Enter the astrobiology portion of Dominic’s research. By considering a common ancestor between the species, Dominic theorizes that we might better predict what evolution of species would (or has) looked like on other worlds.

Both Sivitilli brothers are clearly scientific minds whose interests have taken them around the globe and earned them high honors in academia. Their passion for science doesn’t quite date back to the common ancestor of humans and octopuses, but it does trace to their time in the Tahoma School District.

Sivitilli Brothers as children

Both Alex and Dominic shared that easy access to the natural world is a perk of being a Tahoma student. Dominic participated in Outdoor Academy as a high schooler, which integrates real-life experiences in the natural world with language arts, science, health and fitness. Students might take a hike up Taylor Mountain or hit the river and go fly fishing, and then head back to the classroom to complete assignments that round out their thinking on a particular topic.

“Outdoor Academy was very important to me,” Dominic said. “Science was born from going out and engaging with the world. The opportunities to go see it and breathe it and then have it synchronize with the content… it was very harmonious.”

“Having a school system that’s surrounded by nature is so advantageous,” said Alex.

When he was in business school as an undergraduate, Alex knew he wasn’t on the right path. He thought back to his experience learning sciences at Tahoma when considering his next move. 

“I remember looking back on what I learned throughout high school and earlier. Studying the natural world, how beautiful and interesting it is, and wanting to revisit that.”

The brothers ended up on the right paths, and are both intrigued by outer space and what else, or who else, is out there in the great beyond. But it’s their fascination in what’s happening right here on Earth where their fields seem to have the most crossover. Alex is researching the education of astronomy, and little brother Dominic is a psychologist with keen insight into how humans think and engage with their surroundings. Alex is currently researching how to redefine planetariums as learning spaces.

“When students go to the planetarium, we find that they saturate their working memory very easily. They're overwhelmed in the new, immersive environment.”

So, Alex might call up Dominic to pick his brain.

“I have to ask him questions about neuroscience and psychology that I have no clue about, and I need him to give some advice about that. We'll find little intersections in our fields like this.”

These two Bears were fascinated by their natural surroundings as Tahoma students, and it sparked them to see and better understand more of the globe. No matter where their work takes them, on this planet or another, it was the experiences at Tahoma that first challenged them to engage with the outside world, stay curious, and then figure out how to share their findings with the world.

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