When you were in school, how did you discover you were so good at math?
My math teacher signed me up for all kinds of science competitions – and I won some of them. That’s how I discovered my passion for physics and mathematics. I also just like trying out new things. I played the trumpet and soccer and began tutoring when I was a little older, but I always stayed focused on my core strengths.
Were there people helping to support you along the way?
Mathematics was always a fascinating subject for me. Luckily, I always had teachers willing to help and support me. Once, for Christmas, I ordered myself a kit for building a dye-sensitized solar cell. Part of the process involved coating a piece of glass with titanium dioxide, and you needed an oven that could heat up to 450°C. Most conventional household ovens only go up to 350°C, so I asked for help at the school I was attending at the time. That’s how the teachers got wind of my project. It really impressed them, and they ended up sending me and my solar cell to a youth research competition. I won first prize in the regionals and went on to place second at the state level.
How did you end up at the Fraunhofer Talent Academy?
By tenth grade, I’d improved my grades at school, and I was really starting to feel ambitious. Up to then, I had been a fairly average student. Since I participated in so many activities, the teachers knew who I was, and ultimately it was the school principal who recommended me for the Talent Academy. I needed a letter of recommendation to participate. Of some 200 applicants, only 30 were invited to Lindau, and I happened to be among them. After that, I participated in 11 or 12 other programs at Fraunhofer. I was so impressed by Fraunhofer that I was determined to work there some day. And I'm proud that I was able to begin my career at Fraunhofer as a research assistant during my studies.
What is your current job at Fraunhofer IIS?
I recently started as chief scientist and deputy group manager of the Multimodal Human Sensing group. We study the recognition of psychological states that can be detected by means of monitoring physiological parameters in facial expressions and biosignals. Our current study focuses on the topic of stress. We measure the intestinal activity, skin conductance, pupil size, and other biomarkers of our participants while they complete stressful tasks, such as solving mathematical problems with a time limit. The findings are pertinent to the automotive sector, particularly in the field of autonomous driving, as well as to the advertising and e-learning industries. Our aim is to optimize interactions between humans and machines by way of artificial intelligence.
How do you cope with the enormous workload, and what is it that makes research so easy for you?
The key is variety, I think. During the week, I’m fully concentrated on my work, and every other weekend I help out in my parents’ restaurant. It’s a more physical kind of work and it helps me to clear my mind. I also have a little dog and he makes sure that I get out of the house on a regular basis and take time for myself. It’s important to strike a kind of balance, I think, to keep from becoming overwhelmed.
Structure and organization are also important. I’ve always got a schedule that I stick to. If worse comes to worst, I may have to wake up an hour early to take care of some work if I ended up spending a spontaneous evening out with friends the day before.
One of my professors at the University of Regensburg had a lasting influence on how I structure my research, and he continues to guide me in my career, like a mentor. He supervised my bachelor’s and master’s theses as well as both of my doctorates. By taking multiple classes simultaneously, I was able to complete my studies almost two years early. I was always very curious, and as a dyed-in-the-wool physicist, I was dead set on earning a degree in the natural sciences. But since there weren’t any postgraduate positions in physics available at the time, I started my doctorate in information science, and as part of that program, I completed a course to become a medical physics expert. I wrote my doctoral thesis in physics in my spare time. My professor always supported and encouraged me, and I try to act as a mentor to my students at Fraunhofer IIS, too. I work with them to develop project plans to structure the way we achieve our objectives and impress upon them the value of time management and how important it is to get an early start when writing their research and thesis projects.
Was your family supportive?
Absolutely. My parents aren’t in academic professions – my father works in construction while my mother mainly runs the restaurant and a grocery store. When I decided to pursue a career in physics, they didn’t know what to make of it at first. But they always looked out for my best interests, supported me, and encouraged me to find my own path in life.
What drew you to the Nuremburg area, and why did you decide to settle down here?
I live in Marloffstein – that’s just outside of Erlangen. It’s a wonderful place for a rural life. The region has its share of gorgeous landscapes and great opportunities to hike. I’m also very fond of the city of Erlangen. There are a lot of good restaurants, and that certainly contributes to its charm. It is also very well connected to the public transit system, and it’s a quick journey to Nuremburg. Everything I need is right here.