Name: Alex Tozzo
Member Spotlight: Alex Tozzo
By: Kevin Brandon
Alex, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself? How did you end up in Philadelphia and when did you start running? Did a specific event compel you to become a runner?
I grew up on Long Island and came to Penn for undergrad in 2004. I ended up getting a master’s in robotics while working full time as a civilian engineer with the Navy in South Philly. I had fenced for Penn my freshman and sophomore years. I found running to be a great outlet that got me out of the lab and I was free to run whenever I wanted to. I don’t think there was a specific event that made me a runner. It was always there. I know my dad had run the NYC marathon a few times before I was born and would talk about the experience proudly and happily. The NYC marathon was almost a holiday in my house growing up and we’d have it on the TV in the background every year.
Can you take us through your running history? Once you began, how did your career develop?
I ran track in high school for a season, but my focus at the time was fencing. My attitude was that running was cross training for fencing. After quitting the fencing team at Penn, I turned to running to stay in shape and take a break from studying. I would run a few days a week and ran my first marathon my senior year in college on a 3(!) day/week program I had found online. In retrospect, not getting injured from that was probably what encouraged me to continue to run. I’ve since expanded my running to trail running. The Wissahickon 10k is always a good one. I really enjoy the Pretzel City Sports races too.
Regarding your running future, what are your near and long-term goals?
My next big race is the Steamtown Marathon. I’m hoping to get a BQ this year. The 2nd to last marathon I ran was 2011 when they eliminated the 59 second grace period for the qualifying time as they planned to lower it from 3:10 to 3:05. It was my toughest training yet and I ended up running a 3:10:31. This past year, I PR’ed by 4 minutes, but I’ve never felt more disappointed by a PR. Looking farther out, I want to run Boston and NYC.
Can you share with us a favorite race memory or general moment of running?
Some favorite general moments of running are in the early mornings of a snowstorm when there are no cars on the road or people on the trail and everything is quiet. I also like the post-race camaraderie after trail runs.
How about a not-so-great race or running moment?
My lowest moment was probably during the Conestoga 10 miler. It’s a point to point trail race with 3,000 feet of climbing. It starts on a gravel trail about 15 feet wide but quickly devolves into a no-holds-barred bushwhacking suffer fest. At times, you’re literally running up a river in a rocky stream. Around mile 7, after climbing maybe 500 feet or more, you can get a glimpse of the Susquehanna River. It’s gorgeous and you begin to think maybe it was worth it. Then you see all the people getting out of their cars to take pictures of a view they didn’t “earn” as much as you did. Then you realize you have 3 more miles of this. Of course, as time passes, it really wasn’t that bad. I could be convinced to run it again.
What motivates you as a runner?
I find my motivation varies from trying to be faster to just getting out of the office and getting some fresh air. I get a little cabin fever if I don’t go outside almost every day.
In your professional life, you work as a computer scientist. Can you tell us about your employer? What sort of projects do you work on day to day?
I work for SRI international. It’s a non-profit research institute. We’re probably most famous for inventing Siri and the DaVinci surgical robot. We generally invent things using government research grants then try to commercialize them. I’ve been working on a few projects like handwriting recognition from a Fitbit and communicating with computers. It’s fairly academic, but we always try to have an eye to industry.
What drew you into the field of computer science?
I’ve always enjoyed building things and robotics has always fascinated me. Robotics is like the ultimate fulcrum in terms of productivity multiplier. There’s so much potential for cool things. Then you find out a semicolon can break a piece of code and it’s all really fragile.
In your opinion, what’s the most exciting thing coming down the line in your field of work?
Some really cool things in AI and machine learning are speech synthesis and image generation. Google recently published some work called Wavenet that can generate realistic sounding speech from text. There is also on-going work in generating images from a caption. Currently, the images are blurry and low resolution, but it’s easy to see how amazing it could be in the future.
Aside from work and running, do you have any hidden skills talents or hobbies we may enjoy hearing about?
One of my other hobbies is home brewing. Geraint and a few others have had some at Justin’s going away party. I started brewing beer a few years ago. Shortly after that, a friend introduced me to mead or honey wine. Mead has a really complex flavor based on whatever flowers or fruits the bees pollinated. It also ages really well.