Feb 22, 2018

Time travel to Buffalo in the 1980s

By Heike Faßbender

My student card

This past October I had the opportunity to enjoy the Indian summer in Arcadia National Park after spending four intensive weeks at the Courant Institute in New York. This reminded me of the first time I have seen such a bright fall foliage. That was during my time as a student at SUNY Buffalo more than 25 years ago, a period in my life which had definitely a major impact on my later life. My stay in Buffalo was made possible by a Fulbright travel grant as well as a job as teaching assistant (and the never ending encouragement by my family). Buffalo might not seem an obvious choice. At least, I did not know much about Buffalo before I arrived just that it is close to the Niagara Falls. I chose Buffalo as for my Diploma thesis I had read and made use of some papers written by a professor at SUNY Buffalo who was interested in working with me. Thus, after receiving a degree in mathematics from the University of Bielefeld, I entered the computer science program at SUNY Buffalo in September 1989.

SUNY at Buffalo

Of course, I did learn a lot of new and interesting technical and vocational skills. Homework, midterms and final exams kept me far more busy than expected, the pressure seemed different than what I was used to. There were periods when everyone worked like crazy, pulling an all-nighter or two at the office as there were too many deadlines to meet.  I was not used to write exams at all, in Bielefeld essentially I had to pass eight oral exams (besides writing my Diploma thesis), four exams after the first two years and four more at the end of the program. Each of those oral exams covered a couple of lectures, it was necessary to develop a fine grasp not just of each individual class but also of their interrelation. Of course, besides working hard, there have been the usual parties and outings. E.g., leaving Buffalo in the afternoon for skiing at Kissing Bridge and coming back late at night or having a barbecue in one of the many parks.

User's Guide to SUNY Buffalo, 256 pages!

But even more important than studying hard, I did learn a lot about America. I got to know a number of people, some of them became close friends till today. I took every opportunity to travel the US during breaks, some of the trips were organized by Fulbright, some organized on a very low budget basis by small groups of foreign students. My guest family arranged a number of great outings and invited me to join them for holidays like Thanksgiving. Moreover, we had a lot of discussion about the political situation in Germany and the US in general as well as on the differences in the social welfare system. Two things that struck me as irritating when I arrived in Buffalo was a discussion in Buffalo on whether or not the basically non-existing public transport system should be improved and the fact that my first land lady did not have any health insurance. I still have my very German point of view on those aspects of the general weal and believe in taxes for the collective good. But at that time I started to develop a comprehension and appreciation of foreign countries and some insight into the global world. Since then I definitely esteem the benefits of the German welfare system.

This car took me all across the US

My stay in Buffalo took place at a time while there were no social media yet. Not everyone had access to email. Phone calls to your friends or parents were way too expensive. So writing a real letter was the preferred way of communication. I do believe that this lack of possibility to ask for immediate help or advice from home in whatever new situation I found myself in, forced me to be open to immerse into and to learn about a different culture, a different way of life, a different way of approaching problems.

One of the highlights during my stay in Buffalo was the participation in my very first professional mathematics conference in San Francisco (the Second SIAM Conference on Linear Algebra in Signals, Systems & Control). Fulbright granted me the opportunity to attend. Due to some unforeseen events (two talks of my German thesis advisor were scheduled for the very same time slot) I had the opportunity to give my first talk in front of some of the world leading researchers in numerical linear algebra. The positive feedback as well as the easy-going atmosphere among all participants of the conference were encouraging. I did meet and made friends with some of the researchers with whom I am collaborating nowadays. This great experience certainly strengthened my interest in pursuing a PhD. The focus of my research is on state-of-the art numerical mathematics. Whenever computer simulations of physical, engineering or economic processes are performed, at the bottom of the computation a system of equations of some sort has to be solved. The simplest example of that is a system with two unknowns, e.g., one is trying to determine x and y such that 2x+4y=10, 3x+5y=13 (the answer for this example is x=1, y=2). Of course, it is well-known when such a system of equations has a solution or none and if it has a solution, whether it is unique or whether there may be many different solutions. But checking this for systems with a couple of hundred thousands of unknowns is not always an easy task. More important, some of the standard algorithms used to solve such systems of equations are suitable for solving only small problems (up to a couple of hundred unknowns). The ever increasing complexity and size of the problems to be solved require a steady progress in developing new algorithms and/or implementations. Especially, the availability of advanced-architecture computers has a significant impact on all fields of scientific computations including algorithm research and software development in numerical linear algebra. New implementations of known algorithms or new algorithms are needed for each new architecture in order to exploit its features. Most of my research and development activities are application driven. This can only be done in cooperation with many different national and international researchers to foster the interdisciplinary exchange and scientific advance. 

In early 1991 I left Buffalo (right after the Bills lost the Super Bowl -- just as they did the next three years in a row). I joined the University of Bremen where I received a PhD in Mathematics in 1993 and a Habilitation in 1999.  After two years at the Technical University of Munich I accepted an offer as full professor at the Technische Universität Braunschweig. I have been back to the US almost every year since I left Buffalo, mostly for math conferences. But I have also been back for longer periods of time, for research stays of a couple weeks to stays of a couple of months in different parts of the country (e.g., Berkeley, New York, Kalamazoo, DeKalb, Seattle, Santa Barbara, Houston), but unfortunately, so far, I have never been back to Buffalo. I have also been to countries in Southern America and Asia as research in mathematics is done on an international level. Whenever possible I tried to learn about the culture, society and political system. In the fast changing global world it is necessary to be open to others!

Heike Faßbender is a 1989/90 grantee of a Fulbright travel grant at SUNY Buffalo. She received her Diplom in mathematics from the University of Bielefeld and her MA in Computer Science from SUNY Buffalo. She has a PhD and a Habilitation from the University of Bremen. Since 2002 she is a full professor at the Universität Braunschweig where she has served as dean of the Carl-Friedrich-Gauß-Fakultät and as vice president for higher (and continuing) education and academic affairs. Currently she is president of the International Association of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics, a member of the university council of the Bergische Universität Wuppertal and a member of the Accreditation Council. Whenver time permits, she is happy to work on her research projects.

Go back