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“He gave me the freedom to find out what I wanted”

“He gave me the freedom to find out what I wanted”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Gerhard Weiss inspired by Wilfried Brauer

His openness, kindness and sharp mind; this is what Gerhard Weiss, chair of the Department of Knowledge Engineering, remembers most about his former PhD supervisor Wilfried Brauer (1937–2014). “His style made people feel committed.”

Brauer, professor emeritus at the Technical University of Munich, was one of the pioneers of computer science. “He was a member of almost every important international committee or advisory board in the field, and played a big role in determining what should be taught in computer science study programmes”, says Weiss.

But although Brauer’s scientific achievements are significant, it was his personality that made him important to Weiss, who did his PhD in Munich. “He was quite famous, but he never put himself in the foreground. He was always friendly, humble and patient. His students could fully rely on him. For instance, it was normal for PhD students to have six-month contracts. But we were never worried that we wouldn’t get a renewal; he’d always somehow manage to find the funding.”

Weiss was impressed by how open Brauer was to new ideas. “He would never say: ‘That’s not what we’re doing here.’ He was always curious about why you found something interesting and what you would do with it. He was on top of ongoing developments, but didn’t stick to mainstream themes.” Today’s scientific world could do with a bit more of that attitude, Weiss feels. “To have topsectoren [sectors the Netherlands aims to excel in –Ed.] is useful in many ways, but we should also encourage and support academics, especially young ones, to do research outside these sectors.”

Weiss tries to approach PhD students with the same openness; in the same way that Brauer gave him the freedom to find out what he wanted to do. “I encourage them to be curious and to risk failure. To show that something doesn't work can also be a very useful result. Brauer would give hints about research topics you might like, but the final decision was up to you. He was great in helping you find the right questions. He could dive into details, but never forgot the big picture.” Brauer asked his students questions to identify the possible flaws in their design. “If there was an inconsistency, he would find it within minutes. He had such a sharp mind, it was amazing to see.”  

The PhD students in Brauer’s research team felt safe, almost like part of a family, says Weiss. “His style made people feel committed. We wanted to show him that he could rely on us, like we could rely on him. Be worthy of his trust and loyalty.” His former PhD students get together for annual meetings. “It’s really a community. Until he became seriously ill, Brauer would also attend. Or his wife Ute – they were a unique, great team.”

This is a series in which researchers talk about the person who inspired them most

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