March 23, 2020

Pulling together

A message from Thomas Henzinger, President of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria

Dear Friends of IST Austria!

IST Austria has successfully gone into remote mode, meaning that almost all scientific and administrative staff members have moved to home office, except for a small core team which secures the basic supplies, operations, and facilities on campus. A task force consisting of the management and experts organizes the efforts and ensures that research can continue as best as possible, even over distance. Our professors and students meet, teach, and attend classes online. The many stories I have heard over the past few weeks of IST members pulling together and supporting each other, and others, make me proud of our community. 

This is the hour of the first responders, such as the ambulance drivers, nurses, and doctors. We salute and support them.

It is also the time of applied and clinical researchers in the fields of virology, immunology, and medicine who are working tirelessly to develop faster tests, better treatments, and in the long run, effective vaccines.

These achievements rely on the knowledge and the science provided by the network of basic researchers worldwide. IST Austria is a hub in that network: we excel at discovering new insights through basic research, and we will continue to do so.

Science is the only way to increase our knowledge and truly learn from a crisis like this, to understand its causes, mechanisms, and consequences. In order to avoid or alleviate similar crises in the future, the underlying phenomena have to be examined and understood at every level. This ranges from the level of molecules, cells, and organisms to the sphere of behavioral patterns, social interactions, stochastic processes, and resource optimization.

IST Austria is a campus where scientists of very diverse domains do frontier research in their respective fields. To give you a few examples:

In the life sciences Florian Schur studies the molecular interactions between viruses and cells, Michael Sixt and Calin Guet the crosstalk between microbes and the immune system, Sylvia Cremer the responses of insect societies to infectious diseases, and Nick Barton the genetic adaptation of populations to environmental changes.

In the computer and system sciences Christoph Lampert and Matthew Robinson invent new machine learning and statistical approaches to analyze extremely large data sets, Krzysztof Pietrzak new methods in cryptography – the science that underlies all efforts to ensure data privacy – and Krishnendu Chatterjee new algorithms for game theory, which help predict the rules of cooperation, cheating, and defection in societies.

These and many more researchers, also from mathematics, physics, and chemistry, form the fertile ground on which the unexpected can sprout. Complex problems of societal importance, from pandemics to climate change, can be addressed effectively only by a multidisciplinary effort of world-class scientists.  The researchers of IST Austria do so by collaborating across disciplines at the institute, and by contributing to their well-established networks with other leading scientists all over the world.

In parallel, we are sharing our passion for science and our expertise with the general public. We have set up an online PopUp Science lab for children who are now at home from school. A citizen science project about studying human behavior in the face of the current threat is under way. Educating teachers, pupils, and the public about the critical importance of science for society is one of the main missions of IST Austria, and the current crisis provides a vivid lesson: a threat like the corona virus can be fended off only by gaining new knowledge, not withdrawal, by harnessing the expertise of the many, not the few, and by trusting evidence-based analysis, not ignorance.

These are challenging times. We have the privilege to be scientists and the compassion to be helpful. And at the end of the day – no matter how long that day may be – it will be science which will beat the virus.

Stay safe.

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Message from Tom A. Henzinger, President of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria


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