Lessons from the laureates

MEET AND GREETFacilitating interaction.  

In the last week of September, researchers in math and computer science gathered at Heidelberg, Germany, for the much-awaited annual event — the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. This conference brought together nearly two dozen prize-winning mathematicians and computer scientists to meet and interact with young researchers — students, postdocs and young faculty members working in these two disciplines.

Anupama Aggarwal, a PhD student in computer science at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, was invited to attend the Forum. “Such laureates are present in other conferences too, but this was different; we get a lot of one-to-one time with them. I spoke with Vint Cerf for something like two hours, which was amazing!” she says excitedly.

The computer scientist she is talking about is Vinton Gray Cerf, American Internet pioneer who won the A. M. Turing Award in 2004. He shared this prize with Robert E Kahn, with whom he also shares the title, “Father of the Internet”. The Turing Prize is awarded annually by the Association for Computing Machinery and is the highest honour in computer science, on par with the Nobel Prize.

Also included in the list were Laureates who had won Abel prizes and Fields medals — top honours in mathematics, and Rolf Nevanlinna prizes — given along with the Fields medal to those under forty working in applied mathematics, especially in computing science. Both these awards rank in prestige at par with the Nobel prizes.

Anupama adds, “ I also got to talk with many math laureates. This is something impossible for a CS student like me.”

New perspectives

Ayesha and Mabel who are doing their PhDs at the math departments of Aligarh Muslim University and Coimbatore’s Bharathiar University, opine that meeting the laureates was a great opportunity. Mabel says, “I came to know what are the top fields to work on. This gives me a variety (of problems) to choose and work on for my next level of research.”

The week-long Forum had talks by the Laureates every day. But it was fairly loosely structured, including visits to museums, research institutions, a four- hour-long boat ride and a tour of the Heidelberg Castle, all of which allowed the young researchers to interact with the Laureates in an informal, relaxed setting.

Arti Ramesh, Assistant Professor at State University of New York at Bighamton, says, “I think it was great that I got to hear about what students work on for their PhDs.

As a potential PhD advisor, I have to pick good topics, find collaborations that can work for students and postdocs, and this forum has really helped.”

For Prakash, who has just finished his PhD in math from University of Madras, the Forum was an excellent example of academic and industrial interaction. “I think I have met some future collaborators here among the young researchers,” he says.

A PhD student working on differential equations, Divya Goel from IIT Delhi was excited to meet and talk to Martin Hairer, the 2014 Fields medal winner.

She speaks on the industry visits: “Even apart from the visits, we were able to discuss with people who had been working in the industry for two-three years and have math or CS backgrounds. They shared their experiences and it was like getting career guidance from young researchers.”

The relaxed atmosphere and interesting conversations got many of the young researchers to think differently, says Arpita Biswas, a PhD student from IISc, Bengaluru. “We had such interesting conversations that you take a step back and think, and your thinking becomes better.

Sutherland (Ivan Sutherland, ACM Turing Award, 1988) asked me what does Helium do to your voice. I did not know the answer, but he asked questions until I found the answer to this,” she says, awestruck.