#5QW: Marcel Moosbrugger
Math-enthusiast Marcel had a hard time deciding what to study. Lucky for us, he chose informatics and is on his way to an exceptional career.
Marcel Moosbrugger is a PreDoc Researcher at the Formal Methods in Systems Engineering Research Unit and a rising star at TU Wien Informatics. Part of TUW Under 30 in 2022, he is also a Bachelor with Honors graduate and Distinguished Young Alumn Award winner, a nominee for the Austrian Master Thesis Prize and the Christiana Hörbiger Prize. Marcel deals with formal methods and probabilistic programming, currently focusing on verifications.
How did you get in touch with informatics?
I always had the privilege of having mentors who believed in me. The first one was my high school’s informatics teacher. The commercial school I attended was definitely not IT heavy, but our teacher had a regular job as a programmer and opened up a whole new world to me. I started programming with web languages, PHP and HTML. In the beginning, I was excited by all the little things like changing the colors of a button or background. It’s great that you can create something with your own hands.
Before starting my bachelor’s, I worked at a web agency, where I did my first large-scale projects, like programming a content management system. Being part of a web development team was fun, and I increasingly started to program in my spare time. Although I had programming experience, the first few months of studying informatics were very hard. I remember lectures where I understood hardly anything. One must learn an entirely new way of thinking and approaching problems, but if you stick with it, it’s worth it.
When I was already done with my regular bachelor’s, Ulrich Schmid brought the Bachelor with Honors program to life. I am very grateful for being one of the first students to gain from this opportunity, which eventually led me to strive for an academic career. Because you have the liberty of delving into so many different topics, you can really grasp what academia is all about. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to do a Ph.D. What I like most about scientific work is how detailed you can go into a problem. I also love teaching; it’s wonderful when you can explain things in a way people understand. Having had great teachers myself, that is what I want to go after. My supervisor Laura Kovacs, who also nominated me for the TUW Under 30, inspires me, she is an outstanding researcher and superior.
What makes informatics so fascinating for you?
I pondered for a long time whether I should study mathematics or informatics. Informatics is math-heavy, but what fascinated me is that with just a laptop, you can create something from nothing. For me, it’s the ideal mixture of exact science and freedom to create and improvise.
How would you describe your work in 90 seconds?
My research group at the Research Unit for Formal Methods in Systems Engineering works in verification. We develop mathematical models and tools that guarantee the security and functionality of a computer system. I work on methods for computer systems that include probabilities, for example, sensors with a certain probability of error. Here the code is not straightforward but probabilistic, and I develop new methods to make it run safely.
One of my latest research topics was whether a probabilistic program terminates. A famous problem inspires this question in computer science: the “Halting Problem” by Alan Turing. It ultimately describes the question of whether the execution of an algorithm comes to an end, that is, generates an output. In probabilistic programs, there is not just one output but many different outcomes with different probabilities. Last year I tried to characterize their distribution. This is important, for example, if you want to prevent bad or unwanted program behaviors that happen with low probabilities.
Where do you see the connection between your research and everyday life?
I work in theory because I love math – but that doesn’t mean we are still closed up in the ivory tower. On the contrary, verification is used if a lot of money or human lives are at stake, e.g., in space travel. Here, you want to ensure that programs don’t just run but mathematically prove that programs work properly. Even big cloud providers like Amazon use verification to make their systems secure.
But at the same time, I think it’s vital in science to have the freedom to think about problems independent of their application. The best example of the value of basic research is Bernhard Riemann, a famous mathematician and student of Carl Friedrich Gauss. More or less as a mathematical exercise, he developed a new geometry in the 1850s, completely alienated from any application. He calculated crooked straight lines and curved space, which was entirely abstruse for that time. Years later, Albert Einstein used this geometry to formulate the theory of relativity. Bernhard Riemann, who had the freedom to think about curiosities, now enables us to send satellites to space.
Why do you think there are still so few women in computer science?
One of our professors jokingly said that we need more math to have more women excited about informatics. Although there might be some truth to it – the female student share of technical mathematics at TU Wien is 30% after all – I think it’s because of many societal prejudices still existing. Support during studies is important, precisely because women are still in the minority, we have to retain those who have already decided to study informatics. I have outstanding female computer scientists as colleagues and superiors, and people need to see that things have changed and are changing for the better still. Part of the problem is that many prevalent stereotypes are simply not true. Informatics does not equal nerds dwelling in basements; it is such a broad science. From mathematics to engineering and societal issues, we must continuously and persuasively explain what informatics is truly all about.
Marcel Moosbrugger is also a science communicator – visit his website for straightforward explanations of complex topics.
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