Meeting the rock stars of CS and mathematics fields

10/24/2016 Laura Schmitt

Written by Laura Schmitt

Three CS @ ILLINOIS doctoral students recently attended the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany, one of the most unique conferences and networking events in the world. The weeklong forum brings together 200 young researchers with some of the greatest minds in computer science and mathematics—winners of the ACM A.M. Turing Award, Abel Prize, Fields Medal, and Nevanlinna Prize.

Designed to inspire and motivate a new generation of researchers, the forum mixes formal lectures and scientific panel discussions with social events like dinners, receptions, and tours of the surrounding historic area.

According to doctoral student Matt Sinclair, the forum was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “One really powerful aspect was to be able to have informal conversations with these famous people who have done great things in our field,” said Sinclair, who interacted with many laureates, including distributed systems pioneer and 2013 Turing Award winner Leslie Lamport and programming language pioneer and 2008 Turing Award winner Barbara Liskov.

Matt Sinclair (left) with Turing Award winner and Heidelberg Forum laureate Robert Tarjan
Matt Sinclair (left) with Turing Award winner and Heidelberg Forum laureate Robert Tarjan
 A member of CS @ ILLINOIS Professor Sarita Adve’s research group, Sinclair is exploring ways to apply memory consistency models to systems that use many different types of processors, including CPUs and graphics processors. He recalls Liskov telling him that providing good consistency models to heterogeneous systems is quite challenging.

“It was really cool to get the opportunity to share with her what I’m working on, what I’ve observed, and what I think works well,” he said, noting how much he appreciated having a give and take discussion with a person who’d been working in this field for several decades.

Vincent Bindschaedler, a doctoral student in Professor Carl Gunter’s research group, also appreciated interacting with such accomplished scientists. “My interactions were quite different than exchanges I’ve had with senior people at CS conferences,” said Bindschaedler, whose research explores ways to share sensitive data sets in a privacy-preserving way. “Computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland had a Socratic way of asking questions and challenging me, which got me thinking about things at a different level. This made me reconsider some of the motivation behind my work.”

Vincent Bindschaedler
Vincent Bindschaedler
Although the networking aspect was interesting, Bindschaedler said, the forum’s greatest value was enabling the young researchers to do some deep thinking and exploration. “The forum forces you to consider CS research as a whole—things like what are the important open problems, what’s going to be the next big thing, and what should I work on after my PhD,” he said.

Another highlight of the forum, according to CS @ ILLINOIS doctoral student Helen Wauck, was meeting and interacting with fellow young researchers from many different countries and computing-related fields. “I was surprised by the diversity of the participants—there were people from bioinformatics, theory, human-computer interaction, parallel computing, and architecture,” said Wauck, who works with CS faculty Wai-Tat Fu and Brian Bailey on studying game-based approaches to training children's spatial reasoning skills.

“I met a woman graduate student from Austria who is doing research very similar to mine,” added Wauck, who saw an opportunity for a potential collaboration. “I also had a long conversation with a young professor about how the strength of a research group depends on the students’ willingness to support each other.”

One of the most memorable things about the forum for Wauck was the depth and breadth of some of the laureates’ careers. She had dinner with Frederick Brooks, a 1999 Turing Award winner, who designed IBM’s first transistor-based supercomputer, founded the CS department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and currently conducts research in virtual reality. 
Helen Wauck
Helen Wauck

“What I really got out of this experience was that you can take your research in any direction,” said Wauck, who aims to pursue a career in academia.

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum is sponsored by the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies and the Klaus Tschira Foundation. Graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and young faculty interested in attending the 2017 forum may apply beginning November 14, 2016. 

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This story was published October 24, 2016.