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Young researchers nurture passion for science at Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum 2018 which took place in the German city of Heidelberg attracted more than 200 young researchers in the fields of mathematics and computer science from 16 countries.

The talented youths who attended the forum had the opportunity to meet with heavy-hitters in various fields, including American computer scientist Vinton Gray Cerf, widely recognized as a “Father of the Internet,” Jeff Dean, Google director of AI, and Peter Scholze, who at one point was Germany’s youngest professor.

Promoting the passion for research

Andreas Reuter, scientific chairperson of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum 2018, said most young researchers are typically still undecided about their future career.

As such, one of the forum’s main draws is the opportunity it provides for its participants to speak with experts and seek inspiration to pursue new ideas, research projects, and collaborations.

“One of the problems they face is the current trends in the economy. There are so many job opportunities [in other fields] for people with their qualifications so there is a certain danger that the brightest minds will be steered away from science and the whole process of innovation will eventually slow down,” he explained.

Do Trong Hoang, a PhD who currently works at the Hanoi Mathematical Institute and one of the only two Vietnamese selected to join the forum, asserted that the Heidelberg Laureate Forum is a great opportunity for young researchers to meet world-renowned professors and become updated on the latest innovations resulting from their research.

“The program supports young researchers from developing countries like Vietnam by offering them a grant for free travel, meals, and accommodation,” he shared.

Professor Caucher Birkar, the UK-based Kurdish-Iranian mathematician who received the Fields Medal in August this year, said that the students are always welcome as long as they are willing to learn and work hard.

Talking about the initiatives to support students, especially young researchers, director of Google’s AI division Jeff Dean shared that the company regularly offers scholarships and training programs to talented young researchers so that they can improve their experience and knowledge.

Supporting young female researchers

According to Andreas Reuter, many countries face the issue of women being underrepresented in technical fields, a status quo many attribute to traditional gender roles.

“If we want to change something, we need to start at the kindergarten level to make sure that girls are not treated any differently than boys. If we start later, like in primary school, those stereotypes will have already taken root and will be very hard to change,” he emphasized.

The forum’s scientific chairperson shared that besides the one-week meeting, other activities organized by the Heidelberg Laureate Forum include exhibitions and educational events for schools and kindergartens in order to plant the seeds of science, technology, and engineering in youth at a very early age.

He revealed that over the years the forum has actually seen a decline in the percentage of female applicants in each category.

“In the undergraduate category, the percentage of female applicants is around 38 percent. It goes down to 34 percent when we look at PhDs and below 30 percent in the postdoc category,” Reuter noted.

As the level rises, that number continues to fall.

There are far fewer women professors in mathematics and computer science, as well as senior scientists. Therefore, there are fewer female prize winners.

“It means women enter the field but they are not choosing to advance themselves because something has happened along their career path. It is a complex societal problem because women have to take care of their families and children while the way many career systems are set up in many societies is basically that once you leave the system for a while it’s very hard or even impossible to return,” he concluded.