Slovenian Programmer Jernej Barbič: Success Story

“When you come to the United States, you are covered with a wave of optimism. You expect only the best from your future,” Jernej Barbič says about his foreign experience. He is a teacher of Computer Science at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles — one of the leading universities in the USA in the field of Computer Science. His developments are in demand by leading film companies.


“Having spent 15 years abroad, I’m already not talking about homesickness. I got used to my life here. I am a Slovene, a European, living in the US. I am a European teacher working in the US with the Chinese, since all of my doctoral students are the Chinese,” Jernej Barbič tells about himself. He has been living in the USA since 2001. He first travelled to the US for advanced training.

“Since childhood, I have been interested in everything — sociology and natural sciences, languages, literature, as well as mathematics and physics. The American education system could help me, because studying makes it possible to combine different areas of training. If you, for example, study computer science, you may or even have to choose subjects from other fields of knowledge.”

“I made a choice in favour of mathematics. This discipline seems to me beautiful and practical.” Although Barbič graduated from the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of the University of Ljubljana, he also decided to study computer science. “Now everything is completely different that it was 15 years ago, when all the subjects were strictly separated from each other. A University graduate in the field of mathematics had to write a doctoral thesis in mathematics only.”

“I love things that are of practical use. One Bulgarian mathematician said, “The more abstract mathematics is, the more practical it becomes.” If it is abstract, it is widely applicable. When you start applying it in practice, you will see that it is applicable to all areas,” he enthusiastically tells about his love for mathematics.

Jernej Barbič could continue his doctoral studies in computer science at the home university. However, he decided to try his hand abroad. As a result, Jernej Barbič was enrolled to the University of Carnegie Mellon, which offers one of the world’s best computer science programs.

“I should thank the teachers of the University of Ljubljana, who wrote good letters of recommendation to me. Of course, my high marks played an important role as well.”

He first moved from Ljubljana to Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), where he finished a doctorate program in computer science. He then moved to Boston into the local Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where in 2007–2009 he worked as a young PhD.

In 2009, the US experienced an economic crisis and it was difficult to Jernej Barbič to find a job, because the leading American universities did not employ almost anybody. He filed an application to 20 universities in the US and the University of Lausanne (Switzerland).

The Purpose of Jernej Barbič Is to Work in the Best Universities

“I wanted to become a teacher of a famous university. If I had not succeed in this, I would have loved to work in a research laboratory, and later to try my luck again.” He was invited for an interview in Lausanne, San Diego and to the University of Southern California.

“I liked the interview at the University of Southern California most of all. Already in the course of the interview, I felt that those were nice people and we found a common language.” They chose Jernej Barbič among 400 applicants and 20 interviewed candidates for the two posts of a teacher.

Today he has a stable job, but he had to work hard to achieve it. “First, young teachers are hired for six years according to the so-called tenure system. During this time, they have to prove themselves and achieve international success. After the 6-year term, the University decides whether to dismiss them or employ for a permanent position,” Jernej Barbič says.

To Cinema through Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science

Today Jernej Barbič is engaged in animating a human body — he explores how skin and muscles work to move in space. All this can be calculated with the help of physics and mathematics, and then used in a movie. In such cases, they usually take video of a dancing man, and then apply, for example, the role of a hobbit to him by means of computer technology. Jernej Barbič predicts that in the future there will be no need to shoot films, while videos of actors will be taken in a studio from multiple camera angles. The computer will do all the rest.

In New Zealand, He Took Part in the Creation of ‘The Hobbit’

Every year, he travels to the Siggraph Conference in Vancouver — the world’s largest international conference on computer graphics, which involves about 30 thousand representatives of industrial and academic sectors.

Six years ago, at the conference, he met with the engineer James Jacobs, who worked in the Weta Digital Company, which participated in the production of such films as “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” Jacobs was interested in new technologies and he liked Jernej’s presentation very much. He used the programs that Jernej placed in the public domain on the Internet.

Two years later, they met again in Los Angeles, and one year afterwards, Jacobs invited Jernej to New Zealand as a foreign teacher.

He went there for a couple of months, took prat in the production of ‘The Hobbit’ and in other projects. Then James Jacobs left Weta Digital and went to Canada. Two years ago, he decided to open his start-up, by which he sought to improve the well-known to him system based on the gained experience.

In the World of Business

He invited Jernej to become a co-founder of his company Ziva Dynamics. James Jacobs, having 20 years of experience and an Oscar for Visual Effects, wanted to cooperate with a teacher, a wonderful theoretician and a practitioner.

Ziva Dynamics has been already working for 1.5 years. The Company has only six employees, and Jernej Barbič works as a technical director. Technologies developed by Jernej Barbič are translated into reality. The University not only enables teachers to consult companies, but also encourages them to do this.

Besides, Jernej Barbič is still involved in the project of plant animation, which is his first major research project. During this time, the program of flexible body animation ‘Vega FEM’ (named after the Slovenian scientist Jurij Vega) has been greatly enhanced. However, Jernej Barbič still continues its improvement. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this program is used as a sample.

Jernej Barbič Is among 35 World’s Top Young Innovators

The Slovenian scientist believes that getting into the list of the world’s best innovators under the age of 35 years in 2011 and receiving the Sloan Gellowship Grant, which is annually awarded to 16 best young teachers of computer science in the US and Canada, are the greatest of his achievements.