HLFF Spotlight: Alumni in Action

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Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Bridges between numbers and literature

Underlying the week of the HLF is a single purpose: Provide some of the brightest minds in mathematics and computer science with the space and time to make connections and find inspiration. Some of the connections made at the HLF will echo into collaborations and projects, with some of those efforts leading to concrete developments. The HLFF Spotlight series will unpack a few of those examples.

Makrina during her workshop “Mathematics and Climate” at the 7th HLF in 2019.

This HLFF Spotlight shines on mathematician Makrina Agaoglou, a Juan de la Cierva Incorporación Researcher in the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) at ICMAT – Institute of Mathematical Sciences and a member of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Group. As an HLF alumna, she is also a member of AlumNode, a network to nurture alumni in their careers through various events and funding offers that was put in place by the HLFF and the German Scholars Organization (GSO), which is supported by the Klaus Tschira Foundation (KTS). In 2021, Makrina received AlumNode project funding with community member and literary scholar Dr. Sibylle Erle for an ambitious interdisciplinary project, “Perceptions of Death in Collective Memory: Numbers | Spaces | Texts,” which took shape during a discussion at an AlumNode event.

“Our collaboration seeks to push boundaries of understanding by generating visual and textual interpretations of death while addressing the complexity of existing data on that, and survival in the modern age.”

Now, more than ever, effective bridges between disciplines are necessary to bring clarity to situations that have left many people looking for answers to difficult questions. However useful they may be, creating clear channels across very diverse backgrounds is often difficult and usually requires an immense amount of effort. Simultaneously, these collaborations can produce results that help the public understand not only what is happening, but also explain how.

“This project aims to inform and teach non-mathematicians how mathematical modeling can give some inside information on what is happening and how outcomes can be predicted.”

Clarification can stem from unexpected sources and there are times when conventional approaches are inadequate, so turning toward the unconventional can make an impact. Makrina and her partner on this project, Sibylle, are not the most obvious pairing. Sibylle teaches at Bishop Grosseteste University and is an expert on the poetry of William Blake. Standing at the center of their collaboration is William Blake’s “London,” which is a response to a poverty-stricken society at the mercy of corruption.

William Blake’s “London”.

On the surface, poetry does not appear to be the best method to transfer understanding of mathematical modeling, but the intent of poetry was never to explain what is already apparent. Poetry is a vessel for interpreting our emotions and realities by distilling them into expressive language. Mathematical modeling describes real-world problems through equations that help comprehend and reveal different aspects of the problem. Analyzing mathematical models through a poetic lens may not be orthodox, but if applied well, it could provide a compelling perspective that transforms them from obscure to transparent.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the threat of death is omnipresent and has shaped our society. So our project is unique in that it brings mathematics, literature, and architecture together. It’s about the different stages in the perception of death in collective memory.”

Makrina and Sibylle were convinced that combining the two disciplines could lead to discovery, but they needed a bridge to connect it to the perception of death and how COVID-19 has altered society. Sophie Ungerer, an architect and senior lecturer at Brighton University and Regent’s University, provided the missing “Spaces” between the “Numbers” and “Texts.”

“Death has played an important role in architecture, it is closely connected with memory through the design of memorials and other spaces.” Makrina continued, “COVID-19 has affected how we move in our minds, through the cities, including the spaces.”

Threading three dramatically different specializations together is an intricate process, made more challenging by a theme that sheds light on the collective perception of mortality. Regardless, some people are discouraged by difficulty and others find inspiration within the adversity.

“It is the greatest challenge to make someone who was thinking that math is so abstract and almost nonsense, to love mathematics.”

Most anyone who spends the vast majority of their academic life amassing knowledge in a highly specialized area is hesitant to go through such a painstaking process, especially because it means putting research on hold to explain their work at an elementary level. Makrina can sympathize with that viewpoint, but recognizes the value in working out of her comfort zone and can clearly identify how she has evolved during this project.

Poster Session at the 7th HLF.

“I am more open now to bigger challenges, because it’s a big challenge, and to listen to what the other disciplines have to say, so this collaboration has definitely changed my way to work and my perspective.”

Makrina and her collaborators are about halfway through their cooperation, and she is certain they are on the cusp of some compelling findings, though she was careful not to reveal any critical details. Her excitement was tangible, which creates plenty of anticipation for their results. In the meantime, she was quick to impart the qualities she feels are vital to interdisciplinary research.

“Researchers that work in these types of projects have to be patient, to listen carefully to what the rest are saying and to put a lot of effort to change their point of view.”

Not everyone is up for answering such a call, for exerting that amount of effort into what is, in the end, a deviation from a specialization. If you can step away, there is opportunity for revelation. For instance, the mathematical modeling behind making predictions can be transferred in a way that excites the curiosity of non-mathematicians.

“We are so focused on our research from a specific angle and that we think this is the epicenter of the work, whereas if we look at it through other directions, we could set up the greatest questions that need to be answered.”

Science needs laser precision research that continues to plot points deeper into any given field. It also needs collaborations bridging disciplines so alien to each other that the combination appears irrational, until perspective is shifted and the connections become visible. Widen the lens and worlds can be revealed.

More inspirational stories are to come in the HLFF Spotlight series, so stay tuned.

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Wylder Bergman Green is a freelance writer, editor and translator. He received a degree in journalism, then moved to Germany from Texas in 2011 and worked for the HLFF communications team for over 7 years. He considers himself creative and enjoys telling stories with flowery language.

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