On a Single Piece of Paper, Explain Your Research Area

a dispatch from the fourth annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum

One of the hardest things about research in technical fields: Explaining what the heck it is that you do.

The natural sciences have it easy: they study physical, tangible things. Perhaps those things are weird and exotic (bosons, mRNA, kangaroos, etc.) but hey, at least they’re things.

Mathematicians and computer scientists face a taller order. They study concepts, processes, algorithms. The “things” they research aren’t really things at all: they’re creations of rigorous human thought, abstract structures of logical language.

Not so easy to explain.

So as they sipped on coffee and Coke, waiting for the HLF opening ceremony to begin, I ambushed seven young researchers and goaded them into explaining their work to me. Characterizing your specific research can be simply too hard, so I gave them a slightly broader invitation: On a single piece of paper, illustrate what your research area is about.

Here is what they (very gamely!) contributed:

From Tetiana Klychmuk, studying linear algebra in Ukraine:

Here’s some poetic algebra for you: each vector space is like a flourishing leaf, and linear maps are the rough bark that runs between them. As a researcher, Tetiana wants to understand the whole tree.

From Opeyemi Aborisade, studying cryptography in Senegal:

As Opeyemi was illustrating the mathematical essence of internet security, I bugged her by asking why the middle man has six limbs. “Because he’s an attacker!” she explained.

From Mariia Fedorova, studying automata in Ukraine:

The graph in the upper left is a famous example in the study of automata. To visualize the program carrying out its commands, picture an ant crawling from vertex to vertex on the graph, choosing its next direction based on the instructions it finds there.

From Collins Amburo Agyingi, studying topology in South Africa:

A quintessentially mathematical problem: how can we embed this abstract structure in another abstract structure? When are there lots of ways to do this, and when is there only a single way?

From Gilbert Bernstein, studying computer graphics in the USA:

The furry fellow is an iconic character from the history of computer graphics: the Stanford Bunny, a ceramic rabbit that in 1994 became one of the first objects to be reconstructed three-dimensionally via scanning.

From Pacome Ambassa, studying information security in South Africa:

“That’s the attacker?” I asked. “But he looks so innocent!” Apparently you can’t trust anyone these days.

And from Haji Ali, studying mobile health systems in South Africa:


“Why is the mobile phone the same size as the person?” I asked Haji. He politely laughed it off, rather than pointing to my own awful drawings, which make his look like Rembrandt.

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