Lessons from Conversations with Legends of Math and Computer Science

Over the last week, I was able to attend the 5th Heidelberg Laureate Forum where laureates of the ACM Turing, the Fields Medal, and Abel Price awards had the chance to meet us, the next generation of young researchers (roughly 10% from 1700 who started the application process). But, needless to say, the value of this event was much higher for the selected young researchers than for the laureates.

Legends of Math and Computer Science!

The Forum is a yearly event that is structured like a conference, but where basically every talk is a keynote. The great thing about it is the emphasis on networking and interaction between the laureates and the young researchers, as one of whom I am incredibly thankful for the time the laureates invested and the seriousness and passion with which they engaged in conversations and discussions. None of the laureates had an obligation to do what they did there and it was really refreshing to see how down to earth they are even though they have these incredible achievements and already dedicated the greatest part of their lives to science and spreading knowledge. The talks are available online on the HLF youtube channel and I highly recommend at least skimming through them, and also to get some impressions at the HLF photo gallery.

So, during the course of the event, I found myself discussing Deep Learning with Jeff Dean (bottom line: eventually we will deep learn everything!), talking about conscious machines with Manuel Blum (who, for example, believes we can get machines to feel the agony of pain), having lunch with a Knight of the British Empire and the inventor of Quicksort, Sir Tony Hoare, and getting all kinds of advice from Fred Brooks, a pioneer in the design of computer architecture. And these were only a fraction of all the interesting talks and discussions I was able to participate in since the laureates pro-actively approached us during the whole week in one-on-one and group conversations. It was also a great chance to meet fellow researchers and make new connections all over the world.

One of the cultural events held at the Speyer Museum of Technology, where students sat with laureates in a relaxed atmosphere.

From those conversations, I learned so many things and got so many impressions that I feel I must pass on the most remarkable ones. So, my top three takeaways with respect to general motivation and mindset for young researchers are:

  • Stay foolish! Be a fool in a sense that you don’t let the mainstream and established boundaries be the limit to your research and imagination. Follow your instincts and challenge the state of the art even against resistance if you believe in your idea.
  • Be different! Don’t do what’s hot. You can’t lead if you always follow in someone’s steps. Find your niche, be passionate about it and have a real impact when (maybe even years later) people start following you.
  • Be humble! All of these exceptional scholars I met have achieved so much in their lives, often having an impact on the whole of society, but they are still approachable, easy to talk to, open, and interested in so many things. If they can be humble, you can too!

Another question I was asking many laureates was how to persevere even when it gets difficult and how to keep up the drive to achieve meaningful research results:

  • Try to solve a real-world problem! This will help you to not lose track of your goal and also functions as a great benchmark for your progress. But be careful when you do that, so you don’t forget about the general aspect which is always very important in research.
  • Know your problem and your research area! Always be ready to give a short pitch of your research efforts. Really prepare different length presentations of your work so no one can take you by surprise. Know your publications to an extent that you can answer questions about it and discuss the decisions you made to get to your results.
  • Find mentors and learn from them! In your career, you will always need to discuss your work to get an additional perspective and make meaningful progress. Find people that you trust and that are willing to talk to you about your work, that are critical and supporting at the same time. Don’t shy away from successful people, if you have an interesting topic they will always be curious.

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum seeks to inspire the next generation of scientists by introducing them to their heroes. It aims at providing motivation for young people to enroll in scientific university curricula to work against the decrease in the number of students that choose this kind of career. It is the result of a joint initiative of the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies and the Klaus Tschira Stiftung and has been held yearly since 2013. I can highly recommend applying for this event every year to anyone who is pursuing a Master, PhD, or Post-Doc program in Math or Computer Science.

The organizers of the forum, the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation, have done an incredible job and made every day an unforgettable experience. I want to conclude by thanking everyone involved and send special thanks to the laureates for sharing their experiences and for their world-changing achievements.

All the lucky young researchers from all over the world and the attending laureates in one picture at the conference venue at the Heidelberg University.