Chao Mbogo selected to attend the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany

Chao Mbogo gives us a report back on her visit to the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany:

October 2014 I had the opportunity of being one of the eight thousand women in computing who attended the Grace Hopper Convention, where Professor Shafi Goldwasser gave the keynote address. As one of the few women who have received the ACM Turing award, I was excited and keen to listen to her. She talked about the cryptographic lens through which theoretical computer science can be viewed. Further, she talked about how modern cryptography can be used not just to fight the bad guys, but how to improve correctness and privacy of information.

Professor Goldwasser’s talk inspired me not only because she is a woman in computing, but also because her work contributes valuably to the disciplines of mathematics and computer science. Through her example, and of many others doing great work in the field of computing, young researchers such as myself learn how to apply the skills and knowledge that we gain to solve real-life problems. This keynote was one of my sources of inspiration to apply for the 2015 Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

The third Heidelberg Laureate Forum was held in August 23-28 2015 in Heidelberg, Germany.   I was one of the 200 young researchers worldwide in Mathematics and Computer that were selected to attend the forum. The slogan of the forum - Abel and Turing Laureates meet the next generation - summarises its aim. Past winners of the ACM Turing award, the highest prize in Computer Science, and the Abel and Fields medal awards, the highest prizes in Mathematics, spend one week with the 200 young researchers. This year’s forum also included one Nobel Laureate, Prof Dr Stefan Hell, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014. In addition, a few of us were invited to have lunch with the German Vice Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, just before the forum started (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Lunch with the German Vice Chancellor

The spirit of the forum was felt during the opening ceremony when the invited laureates walked into the room with their spouses, to a standing ovation. It felt to me that the standing ovation was less about how much in awe we were of the people who have pioneered some of the works we may have only heard of in our classrooms, and more about the appreciation that the laureates were a symbol that any of us, indeed each of us, can be able to make a worthwhile contribution to Mathematics and Computer Science.

There were many inspirational lectures given during the forum. It is worth noting that the marriage of mathematics and computer science was very much highlighted in most of the talks. For example, Leslie Lamport (ACM Turing Award 2013) talked about the mathematical view of computer systems. Very brilliantly, Lamport took us back to the fundamental importance of mathematics in Computer science and highlighted that the mathematics needed to describe computer systems is, in fact, very simple. Shigefumi Mori (Fields Medal 1990) talked about the compelling desire to do mathematics. Not only did he probe the audience on the reasons behind doing Math research, but he also showed how curiosity and beauty are perhaps the fundamental reasons behind the desire to do mathematics.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Vint Cerf (Figure 2), who won the ACM Turing award in 2004 for pioneering work on networking, including the design and implementation of the Internet’s basic communication protocols, TCP/IP. Further, I listened to Fred Brooks’ talk on ‘A personal History of Computers’. I first heard of Fred Brooks in my undergraduate software engineering class when I heard of his famous paper - No silver bullet: Essence and accident in Software Engineering. Another highlights was meeting and interacting with Leonard Adleman, who together with Ronald Rivest and Adi Shamir, won the ACM Turing award in 2002 for their ingenious contribution to making public key cryptography useful in practice.

figure 2: With Vint Cerf 

The other highlight was meeting Louis Nirenberg who, together with John Nash – the ‘beautiful mind’, won the Abel Prize in 2015 for their contribution to the theory of nonlinear partial differential equations and its application to geometric analysis. Lastly, I also met Sir Antony Hoare (Figure 3) who was knighted in 2000 for his contribution in research and education in Computer Science. He and I share a birthday!

figure 3: With Sir Antony Hoare 

Importantly, I met brilliant young researchers who are all doing incredible work around the world. I was able to make new connections and new friends. To say that the week-long forum was an absolute inspiration would be an understatement. However, perhaps the most important thing that I took away from the 2015 Heidelberg Laureate forum was that I was challenged to do better - to be better.

Lastly, it is my wish that in future forums, we will see more talks that focus on research Mathematics and Computer Science in the developing world. Consequently, this is a call to young researchers in the developing regions to submit applications for selection and also to hold workshops in the 2016 Heidelberg Laureate forum and beyond.