Federica Bianco Is the World’s Most Badass Astrophysicist
I met her as my boxing instructor. Which she still is. But when I learned she also had a Ph.D. in astrophysics, I thought I’d get to know her a little better.
The first time I met Federica Bianco, she was wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt and punched me in the face, knocking out my right contact lens.
I had seen a sign up at the gym I belong to, Church Street Boxing Gym, advertising a new women-only Wednesday night sparring class with “professional boxer Federica ‘The Mad Scientist’ Bianco.” Proceeds from the class would go to the Women’s Refugee Commission.
“Challenge yourself! Learn to spar in a supportive, all-woman environment,” the sign read, illustrated with a graphic of Wonder Woman throwing a punch.
Bianco and I have since bonded over the fact that neither of us is typically drawn to women-only environments. But something about the sign called to me (probably the Wonder Woman graphic), and I went to the first class, where an animated, energetic Bianco — in that “Nasty Woman” shirt — fitted me with my first mouth guard and, after some coaching on my form and posture, brought me in the ring and blinded me with one punch.
I fell pretty hard for the 5-foot-5 Bianco that first class; I was an instant devotee. On my way out that night, sweaty and flushed and half-blind, I stopped at the desk and breathed to Demetri, one of Church Street’s regular staffers, “She’s amazing.”
“Fed? She’s my idol,” he replied. Bald and burly, Demetri doesn’t immediately come off as someone who would idolize the petite feminist I just met. “She has amazing records, amateur and pro. And you know she’s an astrophysicist, right?”
I did not.
Bianco, 38, has a Ph.D in astrophysics, but is currently teaching data science at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. Tracking her down for an interview was tough because she’s constantly either running or participating in “hackathons,” either for her students or with groups organized through things like Meetup.com. I finally sat down with her in her office at NYU’s Brooklyn campus one Saturday while her students clustered nearby, poring over data they were given that morning and preparing to present their findings to her that evening.
When I pointed out that her two primary activities in life are in male-dominated fields, she grinned.
“I’ve been patronized once or twice,” she says, laughing.
I pressed her on the overlap between boxing and science and she proffered a slew of suggestions, many self-effacing.
“I think there’s probably a compulsion for me in doing the things that I’m sort of quote-unquote ‘not supposed to do.’ I mean, it may be some inherent feminism and desire to prove people wrong. It may just be that it sounds cool and exotic. I’m not sure which.”
She thinks for a second, then grins again.
“Or it may be that I don’t like competition so I’m looking for places where there’s not a lot?” she says, cracking herself up endearingly. “One of those.”
But she takes my question — and me — seriously, sounding like a careful, thoughtful scientist when she says she’s “sure there is a connection in the fact that my two primary activities… that I’m a minority in my two primary activities.”
She sees her proclivity to be “very active in the sort of outreach and empowering of women in both fields” as “pretty natural.”
The way she takes me seriously, both as a reporter who asked to profile her and a pretty mediocre boxer, is evidence of that natural inclination. Each class, I ask her, “Am I getting better? You’ll tell me if I should just give up, right?” She always laughs, but then very seriously says, “You are getting better and you should not give up.”
Bianco had been wanting to teach some sort of women’s sparring class for a while, partly because of her experience coming up in the sport, having to train with men because there simply weren’t women around. She found when she would show up at the gym, she’d be asked to give a couple rounds “to this beginner or that beginner,” and she worried that women with a genuine interest in the sport might end up abandoning it because of the difficulty finding appropriate partners to practice with.
“You’re only as good as the people that you work with,” she said. “If you don’t have sparring partners, you can’t prepare for fights. It’s an individual sport, but it’s not. It’s really a team sport. It takes your sparring partners to prepare for fights. So you have to get connected in the community.”
She tells me she knows all the women boxers in New York City, and from the warm relationships I’ve witnessed in her class, I believe it. Still, I ask how that happened.
“Because there’s only, like, 30!” she laughs. “Of course we all know each other. We need each other.”
She gushes when she talks about the community where she has “a lot of mentors,” name-dropping women I later Google: Alicia Ashley, a seven-time world champion who was just inducted into the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame; Alicia Napoleon, another world champion recently written about in Allure and PopSugar; and Ronica Jeffrey, yet another world champion, with a perfect pro record.
Bianco started boxing while doing a post-doc in California seven years ago, and began entering amateur fights two years in. Three years later, she went pro.
But she has yet to fight a pro match in New York. And she tells me several of the women who come to her Wednesday night class have been training for years without being able to find an amateur match. There are few opportunities for women, and it’s even harder if you’re in a low or high weight class. If you really want to fight, you have to spring for a personal trainer or find a coach who believes in you enough to train you for cheap. Men with promising talent are sometimes trained for free.
“In the back of every coach’s head, there’s like, ‘Oh, who knows, maybe this guy, maybe this heavyweight will be the next Mike Tyson or whatever.’ And I think in the back of their head there’s also, like, ‘And I will make some money back, finally, from a career of getting pennies from training people,’” she explains.
But that incentive isn’t there for women.
“You make a few hundred bucks per fight if you are really good — and not even just really good at boxing, but also put a lot of effort into your promotion. Maybe you make a few thousand,” she said.
Most women she knows get at most two fights a year, meaning they pull in a few thousand dollars that has to be split among the fighter, the promoter, the manager and what’s called “the corner” — the trainer or trainers who readied the fighter for the match, plus a “cutman,” a doctor whose primary responsibility is keeping the fighter’s face and eyes clear enough of blood and cuts that the ref won’t call the fight.
“Make no mistake, there’s no money for women fighters, which means there’s also no money or women’s trainers,” she said. “Once you subdivide the pool of decent trainers that have availability to train a new fighter and are also willing to train a new fighter that will never give them anything concrete but just the glory of having trained a fighter that is decent — that’s a pretty small pool of people, and rightfully so.”
The other women in her class are a big part of the draw. I’ve sparred with a petite French girl who, while practicing outside the ring, told me, “Hit me in the face. Otherwise, I won’t learn not to lean away from being punched.”
Another sparring partner, a gender non-conforming social worker, consistently gives me helpful feedback, and continues to insist that a punch I threw, caught on camera, wasn’t a cheap shot. (It was.) She says my upper cut is aces but my form needs work. (It’s abysmal.)
Once, two young-looking girls showed up to class with their coach, a bespectacled man in an FDNY t-shirt. I watched one spar in the ring and remarked to Bianco, “She’s good.”
Bianco grinned and replied, “You’ll go in with her next.”
She trounced me. Bianco instructed her to focus on defensive work and coached me to land one punch. When the round was over, she kept me in the ring to go up against the other young-looking girl, whose first punch marked the first time I ever considered pleading for a time-out.
When I made it out of the ring after sparring with the second petite powerhouse, I gasped to Bianco, “She’s really strong.”
Bianco grinned and said, “I forgot to tell you she’s a firefighter.” The woman carries 75 pounds of equipment on her body for a living.
Her Wednesday night class was often the best hour and a half of my week. But when I asked her what prompted her to start it, she surprised me by saying it almost didn’t happen.
“As of this past election, I was a little bit shaken by the political decision that was made,” she said carefully, referring to Donald Trump winning the presidency.
“I actually had a bit of a hard time keeping up my regular activities, including working efficiently. I was very unfocused. It was hard to train.”
For the first time in years, she stopped training daily. She tried to stay politically active, donating to causes and organizations she believed in and participating in hackathons and “data dives.”
She had always intended to use any women’s sparring class as fundraiser, deciding she could live comfortably off her academic stipend and donate any profits to “some women-driven organization.”
After months of feeling lethargic and downtrodden — “All I wanted to do was be fat on the couch” — Trump’s travel ban was announced, and Bianco remembered her idea for the class.
“It seemed pretty obvious that that was a timely and good thing to do,” she said.
And from the turnout each week, it’s clear she’s meeting a felt need in the women’s boxing community. She barely advertises the class, beyond the flyers in the gym and the occasional Instagram post, but 10 to 15 women show up weekly, which is really the most she can handle. Some of them are amateur boxers who can help coach the women practicing on the sidelines while Bianco shadows a pair fighting in the ring, calling out encouragement and direction (like when she told the firefighter to practice her defensive moves and advised me to land one punch).
One thing I was curious about was what, as a scientist, she thinks of the potential for serious head trauma that boxing carries. She’s definitely conscious of risk, and trains us all to be circumspect: She’s careful to make sure we all have mouth guards, lends out her own headgear regularly, and commands us to smear our faces with Vaseline so that punches don’t land quite so hard. But even I have had people admonish me for taking up the sport, and I’m hardly a genius. How does she reconcile putting her data-crunching, universe-knowing brain in harm’s way?
Bianco grinned at the question, nodding vigorously. The issue comes up “all the time,” she said. “Generally, the science community has been very supportive and interested in this extracurricular activity.”
The magazine Nature wrote about her in 2015, describing a recent fight in which she “pinned her competitor to the ropes with a flurry of punches and did not let up until the referee called the fight” just 1:20 into the bout.
But still, she said, there are many people who are “adamantly against it,” including “a number of good friends that, every time I see them, we just can’t talk about anything else.”
But she takes a scientist’s approach to analyzing the risk, noting that “it’s not clear statistically” what the effects of the head trauma incurred by boxing results in. She allows that there is “definitely a connection between head trauma and a number of brain malfunctions, dysfunctions, diseases, et cetera” — even the NFL has come around on that.
“I’m not blind to that and it’s not like I don’t know that. I don’t want to say, just go bang your head against the wall,” she said with a laugh. “That’s probably not good for you.”
She’s cautious about the difference between correlation and causation, as you’d expect from a data scientist. But the real answer is, she’s done a risk-benefit analysis of sorts, and her love of boxing means the benefit outweighs the risk.
There are “a lot of things that we do in general that have high risk and we do them anyway because they’re rewarding,” she said.
“Boxing, for me, is one of those,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of risk, which I’m willing to embrace, and there is a very high reward for me in many, many forms.”
Nature described boxing for Bianco as “a total mind-and-body escape from her work,” quoting the astrophysicist-boxer saying, “As a scientist, I'm thinking about all sorts of things all the time. The ring is quiet. You get tunnel vision. The other person is trying to take off your head and you have to deal with that.”
This resonated for me. Not as a scientist, of course (I failed college biology at least once, maybe twice, honestly who cares), but as a preternaturally anxious person who has tried out various forms of ostensibly mind-clearing exercises — swimming, yoga, cycling, running — to no avail. Boxing clears my head like nothing I’ve ever done before. There is just too much to think about — every part of your body needs to be in the right position, at the right tension, moving in exactly the right way, from your feet to your knees to your hips on up to your head. Be on the balls of your feet, but not too much or you’re unstable. Bend your knees, but don’t lock them; be flexible, ready to move. When you move, don’t cross your feet over each other. Keep your chin down, your body sideways, your fists up, your elbows in. And even if you get all of that down, you have to learn to read your opponent’s movements, to slip or parry, to cut them off instead of trailing after them when they move, to throw a sequence of punches without leaving yourself open to be hit back even harder. You have no choice but to concentrate completely.
And, like my petite French sparring partner said, you have to learn not to lean away from being punched, hard. I’ll never forget the class when, breathless and wheezing after two rounds of sparring, Bianco pulled me aside and gave me what at first sounded like general life advice: “You need to become okay with getting hit in the face.”