#5QW: Laura Kovacs
Maths competitions braced Laura for the field she is now researching. She also explains why computer scientists are supposed to live in eternal happiness.
Laura Kovacs is a full professor at our faculty and head of the research unit Formal Methods in Systems Engineering. She designs new computer-aided program analysis and verification methods by combining automated theorem proving, automated assertion generation, and symbolic computation. Laura won an ERC Starting Grant, ERC Proof of Concept, and the ERC Consolidator Grant 2020.
How did you get in touch with Informatics?
I think it was in the seventh grade when I was 13. The course was called Informatics. We learned more about the mathematical aspects rather than programming, actual programming in addition to algorithms was when I was 15 in the ninth grade. Algorithmic thinking and what the computer can do in principle. Coding came afterwards in an optional course. I chose the technical branch, and then it became part of my school curriculum. I liked it because it came with a combination of logic, discrete maths, combinatorics, number theory, how you learn it in Algebra. It was very much like mathematics, but I did not know that I would study Informatics. As a pupil, I took part in all kinds of competitions: in maths, physics, chemistry, computer science. I also liked the Hungarian language and literature and the Romanian grammar. As a result, during my school years, I was always in study competitions in February and March. I actually decided what I wanted to do for university studies only three months before university admission. I wanted to do maths with Hungarian literature, but this is impossible in Romania. So I was planning to go to Budapest. Just three months before the university admission, the West University of Timisoara announced they would open a new study curricula in maths and computer science. My parents mentioned that I should reconsider my decision and study in my home town instead of leaving for Budapest, which I have done.
What makes Informatics so fascinating for you?
You think you reach a limit, but then, of course, this is not the case. You always try solving tricky problems, and then you are happy when it worked out. Immediately, the next open challenges show up. That is why you will be eternally happy because when you solved the problem, you find out that there is no perfect solution and you are faced with new problems. The challenge in theoretical computer science is both theory and practice, ideally optimizing solutions so results can be computed within one minute. Six months later, solving would take maybe only ten seconds or even less. The faster one comes up with an optimal solution the better—since other people are working on the same issues.
What makes you happy in your work?
The solving of problems is my favorite, that would be my perfect day. But it is also a lot of administration and managing. As an academic beginner in computer science, when you do your PhD and postdoc, you have the perfect years—hopefully, you have a supervisor who takes care of you, and then you have four or five years of solving problems and challenges. It is about finding your spot and your area, defining your field of expertise. I am still doing this, but I don’t have eight hours a day for doing this now. In my group, I try to have at least one hour working meeting per week with each of my students: We sit in front of the blackboard and try to describe the problem, then try to come up with a solution; it is like a circle.
Which talents should people bring along for a career in Informatics?
Mathematical thinking and algorithmic problem solving definitely, a bit of software engineering is helpful, too, to show that what you develop could work in practice. Students with a solid math background should have no problem. The other way round is hard; it is tough to adapt to new issues if you only learned to code in one particular language, but never understood what/why you could solve. At least in my field of logic-based reasoning, this is the case. People should also bring a sense of competing since competition is high. If you go for science, you have to be open to competition. Your research results cannot be published if you are second. It is not like in sports where you have a silver and a bronze medal. If someone publishes faster than you, it can be frustrating. Various groups in the world are working on the same topics, and whoever goes first will get the credit. It is tough, and the competition is quite challenging.
Why do you think there are still so few women in Informatics?
I am from an Eastern European setting, and we had a 50:50 ratio in my undergraduate studies. So I was never alone or underrepresented, but that was in math. When I came to do my masters in Linz, I became one of the few. It is also a cultural aspect. Look at Hungary, Romania, Iran … they have potent women scientists. But if I would have been approached by computer science by going into the hardware structure and immediately starting coding without even understanding what I code, I might not have ended up in Informatics either. It is also about opening up these technical issues to girls. Until the age of five, boys and girls are pretty much doing the same. Afterwards, their world is scattered: When you are a girl, you should do more languages and draw more, and when you are a boy, you are driven in the technical direction. Maybe it also influenced me that I had an older brother, and I did what he did.
Discover the whole #5QW series.