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Jacobs University

Bremen, Germany

Embrace Big Challenges

12 Nov 2016

More than 2.3 million Euro ($2.500.000) in EU grants for mathematics research at Jacobs University. Mathematics Professor Dierk Schleicher was the subject of this sensational report in the summer of this year. Now he and his international team have begun their work on challenging mathematical questions. Having courage, daring to something new, and having the confidence to tackle big jobs – these are qualities that Schleicher feels fit Jacobs University well.

The European Research Council (ERC) had awarded him a grant of more than 2.3 million Euro for his HOLOGRAM project, which links various disciplines of mathematics together. A remarkable sum and one of the biggest research grants the ERC has ever given to a single mathematician.

For months, Schleicher had worked intensively on the application – and now, suddenly, he had received the award.  “It took a while before I really grasped it. My first feeling was of great gratitude,” he recalls. “At first, I made an unbelievable number of phone calls, because I wanted to thank so many people.” There were colleagues who had encouraged him to apply for this innovative EU research program. There were students and doctoral researchers who had enriched the application with their good ideas. Academic colleagues who had supported him in his scientific career. And, last but not least, a good friend who had lent him his notebook on short notice. “Mine had suddenly gone broken. So he spontaneously offered me his shortly before the submission deadline, so that I was able to keep working on the concept basically around the clock wherever I was. It was a really terrific gesture.”

Dierk Schleicher tells an exciting and vivid tale of the weeks before submission of the application. He speaks of courage and good ideas; but also of worries and time pressure. And some of it sounds like the experiences of students shortly before the deadline for their thesis. A parallel of which he is quite aware: “We professors at Jacobs University often encourage our students to have the courage to do something, to think bigger, and not to let themselves be deterred from reaching their goal. Looking at it that way, during that period, I became my own student,” says Schleicher with a smile.

In the area of mathematics, he deals primarily with dynamics, meaning with mathematically definable processes in which movement plays a role. But he also embodies dynamics outside mathematics. Standing still is a foreign concept to him; the search for new challenges is the hallmark of his professional career: “In school and later while working on my degree in mathematics, I was often bored. I understood the subject mattter, did what was required of me. But I did not see much in it that really spurred me on.” As a guest at Princeton, his view of things changed dramatically: “The professors there were on fire for their areas. There were exciting discussions, big research questions, and ambitious projects. That got me really excited.”

Schleicher remained in the USA, got his doctorate at Cornell University, an Ivy League university in New York state, and, after a year at Berkeley, returned to Germany, where he began his first professorship at Ludwig-Maximilians University in the year 2000. Since 2001 he has been doing research and teaching at Jacobs University and knows that the slogan “Inspiration is a place” is not just a high-sounding advertising buzzword here, but reality. The word team is heard often, when he talks about his work. After all, he knows that good ideas often develop in the group. “It is important to me to create an inspiring atmosphere and to bring people together who go through life with a wakeful mind. And it is not just my students learning from me. I also learn a lot from them.”

Supporting young mathematics talents is also important to him off campus. For a long time, Schleicher has been involved in the Mathematics Olympics and a few years ago made a decisive contribution that led to the largest mathematics competition in the world being held in Bremen. In various workshops, he continues to advise students who are interested in math and especially in research questions. He also involves them in the large research projects, “so that they see the current challenges at an early stage and experience mathematics as more exciting than I did in my school days.”

He remained true to his idea of teamwork, as he began to bring top mathematicians from around the world to Bremen following the receipt of the ERC grant. It is not without reason that he has taken to heart a quote from the recently deceased head of Apple, Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do;  we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.“

Schleicher’s team includes mathematics talents from Belarus, Germany, the Philippines, Ukraine, the USA, and Uzbekistan. Even at the multi-day kick-off event, Dierk Schleicher already became convinced of the potential of his new team and is effusive in his praise of their energy, creativity, and power. “The very different backgrounds of the team members are precisely what produces exciting and inspiring feedback on many different subprojects. We have a good setup and are attacking the challenge with enthusiasm.”

So the team will now be pursuing many ideas at Jacobs University. Schleicher had already set up an office here, while the last excavators were still rolling around the site. As a free spirit, as his friends call  him, he has always appreciated the atmosphere of openness to the world on the campus in the north of Bremen. Above all, however, at this comparatively small university, he loves the courage to take up the really big research questions.

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