Today, I sat down around a table for dinner with Leslie Valiant, the inventor of machine learning, Tony Hoare, one of the fathers of programming languages and the inventor of quick sort, and their lovely wives. I have talked to them with a group of fellow PhD students for almost four hours. I have asked them all sorts of questions one can imagine. Questions about marriage, children, mobility and family sacrifices of researchers. We got advice, tons of advice, that I cherish. Their wives, two fascinating personalities that I will remember forever, gave us lots of advice as young researchers. Tony told us his fascinating story of travelling to Moscow State University to study with Kolmogorov, and how this did not work out. Leslie told us tons of stories and experiences, and how he ended up working on complexity.
Yesterday, I sat down around a table for dinner with Vint Cerf, one of the inventors of TCP/IP, the protocol that glues the Internet together. Vint is one of the people who have inspired my choice of doing research. When I graduated with my Bachelors and decided to work as a researcher, I thought that I have to work on Computer network protocols, because I kept thinking of how fascinating the work that Vint has done with Kahn is.
The HLF has been an inspiring experience on so many levels, personal, technical and academic. There is one man who has helped make this possible, and he is some one I have never met. He never knew of my existence in this world, yet he has inspired me and touched my life in a very positive way. This man is unfortunately not here with us this year, but his legacy is. I would have loved to shake his hand and tell him “Thank you Klaus Tschira, you are an inspiration to me. I hope that one day I can touch people’s lives the way you did”.
This week, I am in Heidelberg, a lovely city in Germany, home to the oldest University in Germany, and the fifth oldest in Europe. I have been one of a few lucky young researchers selected to attend the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, a one of a kind event which I encourage all young researchers to apply to in the coming years. Today I had the chance to talk to two very inspiring and pioneering computer scientists, Turing Award winner Leslie Lamport and Turing award winner Ivan Sutherland. Leslie is known to be the pioneer of distributed systems, while Ivan is known to be one of the pioneers of computer graphics. Both are legends and have inspired and created the world as we know today. I asked both of them roughly the same question, how should a young researcher pick a research problem?
Both answers were very similar. Leslie said that you should pick a problem that is fun to solve. If you end up successful, then you will have gained both success and having fun. If you fail, then you will still have the fun. Ivan told us that he never cared if the problem was important, but rather if it was interesting. He said that as a researcher, you should go in a direction different from where everyone is going. He gave some examples of things that people claimed to be the “next big thing” during his life, but have just died. He said “I was there when electrostatic memory was the next big thing” :). He gave other examples of things very popular now which he does not believe in.
Now this is a very interesting perspective, quite different from the ones I as a young researcher got from my discussions with, e.g., people in some industries. As a young researcher, one is tempted to go in directions where everyone is going because after all, this is where all the money and the grants are. Many available funding schemes do not encourage this kind of “go where no one else is going” research or “do what you think is fun”. I understand that funding agencies can not start funding “go where no one else is going” research projects until a researcher is well established in his field since after all, this is tax-payers money. A young scientist is then torn between doing things where his passion really is versus things that will end rapidly published and/or funded. This catch-22 situation can be demoralizing and at times depressing. There are no clear solutions, but one temporary solution that I can see is to make sure that young researchers. specially those doing a Postdoc, can get some time where they work on their own projects besides their mentor’s projects. This will allow them to benefit a lot from learning from their mentor while also “having fun”.
For more on the state of young researchers in CS:
2- Jones, Anita. “The explosive growth of postdocs in computer science.” Communications of the ACM 56.2 (2013): 37-39.
PS. Our team at Umeå University has been doing great in many aspects that touch young researchers compared to any other institution I know. I will try to some up these aspects in a future blog. Do consider joining our team!