24. April 2023

Growing up in Academia with Viola Priesemann

Viola Priesemann today ...

Viola Priesemann today ...

...  and in younger years riding a horse, her second passion.

... and in younger years riding a horse, her second passion.

What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Academia is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.

Each event features an open conversation (interview) with a different faculty member, representing the broad spectrum of academic life. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that universally inform the profession, but that too often remain unspoken. These events will be hosted and presented by Lucia Melloni (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics). 

On Monday, April 24, 6 p.m. CET, Growing Up in Academia features Viola Priesemann, Max Planck Research Group Leader, MPI for Dynamics and Self-Organization, Göttingen, Germany

You can register for the event by using this link.

The Official CV

Prof. Dr. Viola Priesemann is a physicist and neuroscientist. She leads a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization and is professor at the department of physics at the Georg August University Göttingen. After research projects at the Ecole Normale Superieure Paris (France) and the Caltech (USA), she obtained her PhD at the MPI for Brain Research and the Goethe University of Frankfurt. As Postdoc and Fellow at the Bernstein Center Göttingen she applied for an independent Max Planck Research Group, which started in 2017 at the MPI in Göttingen.

Viola Priesemann investigates how collective intelligence emerges from the self-organization and learning in living and artificial networks. In particular, she showed how local dendritic balance enables efficient coding and derived the respective learning rules a priori. For the collective network dynamics, she derived how homeostasis together with input strength leads to a reverberating regime, where networks can flexibly change their computational properties. She demonstrated this ability in neuromorphic chips. Her work builds on statistical physics, non-linear dynamics and information theory; in particular, she derived a subsampling theory that enables one to infer properties of the full system from just a small sample. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, she use that to investigated the spread and mitigation of SARS-CoV-2, coordinated several international position and overview papers (e.g. for The Lancet), and she is member of the advisory board of the German government.

Her work has been recognized by several awards, including the Communitas Award of the Max-Planck-Society, the “Niedersächsische Wissenschaftspreis”, the “Medaille für naturwissenschaftliche Publizistik” of the German Physical Society (DPG), the Dannie-Heineman-Award, the Minerva Award (Jülich), the Arthur-Burkhardt-Preis, and the Lise-Meitner-Lecture of the DPG & ÖPG. She is board member of the Campus Institute for Data Science, member of the Cluster of Excellence “Multiscale Bioimaging”, of the the Max Planck – University of Toronto Centre for Neural Science and Technology, of the Götingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and of “Die Junge Akademie” of the National Academy Leopoldina and BBAW. 


The Unofficial CV

The world today is vastly different from the one of my childhood in the 1990s. Back then, all the moms I knew were at home, and cooked for their children when they returned from school at noon. Schools in (Western) Germany operated only in the morning, and kindergarten accepted only children above the age of three or four (with a few exceptions). I do not recall any mothers who had "interesting" jobs. This was a privilege reserved for men, and people like my aunt: She was not married and became one of the first programmers.

Growing up in such a world, I never imagined that I could become a professor. It simply wasn't part of my "world model". I remember one incident that exemplifies this mindset, which, in my view, kept many bright young girls from pursuing their careers. I was about twelve years old when a friend's father told us about his work on automatic conversion of spoken language into written text. At that time, we didn't even have a computer at home, and I didn't know how to program. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that automatic speech recognition could become a reality, and I found the work utterly fascinating.

But, at the same time, I was certain that I had no role to play in such a field. It wasn't a conscious reflection, just a fact. And so, I didn't even start thinking further about such research. I though do still remember how intrigued I was by that subject - but it was from a different world. Even years later, when I had started to study, I recall attending conferences on similar topics - artificial neural networks and robotics. But again, I doubted that I would ever be able to do make any contribution.

This is one of the reasons why my studies were not goal-oriented. I studied physics because I was fascinated by the ability to describe complex systems absolutely precisely with equations. However, without a clear perspective in science, I also pursued alternative career paths in parallel: I was at that time also training to become a professional horse rider. However, towards the end of my studies, I decided to start a PhD, and keep horses as my hobby (and backup plan). Sure, I could have been more goal directed and faster in my studies. However, without the pressure of a clear career goal, I had the freedom to follow my interests. I went for a magic, year-long Erasmus exchange to Portugal (instead of the UK or USA), I continued horse riding, and I studied neural networks because I was fascinated by them long before the steep rise of artificial intelligence. In brief, I had no specific goal, but the freedom to followed my genuine interests.

Only after establishing my own independent group, I began to see a professorship as a feasible prospect. However, that path turned out to be far from straight again. I had to decline an offer for a professorship in physics at a distinguished university, as well as a directorship at a prominent research institute - because of the absence of a viable dual career solution for both my partner and me. (My contribution to the "leaky pipeline" phenomenon.) It was an unconventional choice, given I did not have tenure, let alone a tenure track. Nonetheless, everything went well: Both, my partner and me, now hold tenured professorships in Göttingen. And I really enjoy working with my great research group.

The event will be held on Zoom. Pleaso note the Data Protection Information Regarding Zoom Webinars.