ASU student joins meeting of the greatest minds in computer science and mathematics

Artificial intelligence and cooling atoms is just a glimpse into the topics of discussion when the greatest minds in computer science and mathematics get together. It was in this environment that Michelle Stuhlmacher, a PhD candidate studying geography at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, recently found herself as a participant in the annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

According to the organization, the Heidelberg Laureate Forum is a gathering of laureates of some of the most prestigious prizes in mathematics and computer science, including the Abel Prize, Fields Medal, Turing Award and Nevanlinna Prize. Held annually for a week in Heidelberg, Germany, the Heidelberg Laureate Forum brings these laureates at the apex of their careers together with 200 high-achieving graduate student and postdoctoral scholars from around the world. 

One of those 200 high-achieving graduate students was Stuhlmacher, who combines the worlds of computer science and geography in her work to use machine learning to classify urban areas from Landsat satellite imagery.

“Michelle's work is a unique combination of differing aspects of geography, linking quantitative and ‘big data’ approaches with social sciences dimensions, a true testament to her unique skill set,” said Matei Georgescu, an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “Her work exemplifies the broad purview of geography and aligns with the broader mission of ASU in trying to develop solutions to global environmental change through optimal design of land systems to maximize socio-environmental benefits.”

The opportunity to attend the Heidelberg Laureate Forum provided a unique opportunity for Stuhlmacher to bridge the divide between the two disciplines that create her area of research.

“Despite my application of methods from computer science, I very rarely I have the opportunity to interact with the scholars that produce the image processing and machine learning scholarship that I build my remote sensing analysis from. I knew that I could learn a great deal from being able to hear from the researchers directly,” said Stuhlmacher. “Additionally, it was my hope that sharing how my work applies computer science methods to questions of environmental sustainability would be of interest to many of the leading scholars.”

These interactions were not only something Stuhlmacher hoped to glean from her experience at the forum, but a driving force behind the forum’s creation. The Heidelberg Laureate Forum gives early career researchers an opportunity for interaction that is typically not available within the normal university environment, whereby the laureates provide formal plenary lectures and lead small group discussions. In doing so, it creates the opportunity to bridge the gap between the generations of computer science and mathematics researchers.

“Conversations with and talks given by the laureates provided a great overview of the field and how they approached their research,” Stuhlmacher said. “I noticed that many of the laureates are big-picture thinkers who able to see where their discipline is now and where it is going. It was a good reminder to me about the importance of stepping back occasionally.”

Two memorable moments for Stuhlmacher included meeting Jeffrey Dean — who currently leads research of artificial intelligence at Google — as they discussed satellites and Google’s work in remote sensing, along with his experiences of working at Google since it was a startup, and hearing a lecture from William Phillips, Nobel Prize winner in physics in 1997.

“I was very impressed with [Phillips’] science communication skills,” said Stuhlmacher. “He gave a talk on his work using lasers to trap and cool atoms. It was very accessible and involved lots of fun with liquid nitrogen to help make the point about cooling atoms.”

It was a rigorous selection process to attend the forum: Stuhlmacher was nominated by ASU, following which her application then went through multiple selection committees. A testament to her outstanding work, Stuhlmacher was not only selected to attend the forum but also selected as a recipient for funding provided by the Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

“The Heidelberg Laureate Forum is a very competitive and very prestigious event,” said Georgescu. “Having [Stuhlmacher] not only be selected by ASU, but to be one of only a few to be selected from around the world, is a testament to her growth as a researcher and, just as important, exemplifies the tremendous potential that others are now beginning to notice in her.”

While at the forum, Stuhlmacher was one of 20 young researchers selected to provide a two-minute presentation of their work. Watch Stuhlmacher’s presentation here.