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Duggirala Inspired by Research Giants

1/22/2015 8:34:00 AM By Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS

How cool would it be to meet and chat with the biggest names in computer science and mathematics—people like Internet architect Vinton Cerf or computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland? Three CS @ ILLINOIS researchers found out last fall when they attended the second annual Heidelberg Laureates Forum in Germany.

Sponsored by the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies and the Klaus Tschira Foundation, the forum brings together the recipients of the most prestigious math and science awards with 200 of the world’s most promising young researchers during five days of lectures, informal networking, tours, and receptions.

“I couldn’t think of a better use of my time probably for my whole life,” said CS graduate student Sridhar Duggirala, who met his intellectual hero at the event—ACM A.M. Turing Award winner John Hopcroft. Duggirala read Hopcroft’s groundbreaking textbook, Formal Languages and Their Relation to Automata, which inspired him to pursue formal methods research.

Sridhar Duggirala
Sridhar Duggirala

“[Hopcroft] autographed my copy of the textbook,” said Duggirala. “Although he’s older now, he still has the drive to do research and teach. I got a chance to see how motivated he is, and how friendly he is to young researchers, which was inspiring.”

According to Duggirala, attending the forum solidified his decision to pursue an academic career. “[The laureates] showed me the clear advantages of being an academic, such as having the freedom to think of and work on interesting problems,” he said, noting that many of the scientists who won Turing Awards did so based on their academic work.

Duggirala was delighted to have conversations with famous researchers like Sir Michael Francis Atiyah, who created the mathematical proof of the index theorem; Daniel Spielman, who developed the idea of smoothed analysis of algorithms; and Manjul Bhargava, known for developing new methods in the geometry of numbers.

These conversations changed his outlook about what it takes to do groundbreaking research.  “As a new grad student, your idea of research is writing a few papers and finding some problems to work on,” he said. “But talking to [the laureates] made me realize the importance of persistence, diligence, managing the risks, and creativity in knowing which problems to pursue and in finding solutions to those problems.”

In addition to Duggirala, CS alumni Wonsun Ahn (PhD ’12), who is now a CS faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, and David Morrison (PhD ’14), who is at DM Consulting in California, also attended the forum this year. In 2013, Abhinav Bhatele (MS CS '07, PhD '10) and Siva Kumar Hari (MS CS ’09, PhD ’13) attended the inaugural Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

Students, post docs, and young faculty have until February 28 to apply for an invitation to the 2015 forum.