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What exactly happens in our brains when we talk or read? This is a mystery that Fatma Deniz is keen to unravel. To this end, she is conducting research at the brain-computer interface. Her goal is to use computer modelling to reproduce the activity of the brain so precisely that machines will be able to speak and understand just like humans. This could help for example stroke patients in whom the part of the brain that is responsible for language no longer functions.
Intensive exchange in Heidelberg
She recently presented her latest research at the fifth Heidelberg Laureate Forum in September 2017. Staged each year in the southwest German city, the forum gives talented young researchers like Deniz the opportunity to meet winners of the world’s leading awards in mathematics and computer science. After her presentation, says the 34-year-old, "I spent the rest of the week in further discussions with the mathematicians there. The level was really high."
Deniz was born in Germany, attended school in Turkey and studied computer science at the Technical University of Munich – those are the key stages of her life so far. She did her PhD at Technische Universität Berlin and at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin, where she undertook research into visual perception.
Fellowship in the USA
So now she has ended up looking at language, something she is currently researching as a postdoc at the University of California in Berkeley, in the USA. At the same time, she is the holder of a fellowship at the International Computer Science Institute, likewise in Berkeley. The DAAD’s "FIT worldwide" programme for young computer scientists enabled her to obtain the two-year fellowship. Deniz is exploring how meaning is encoded in the brain. For example, she gets test subjects to read a story while using functional magnetic resonance imaging to record images of their brain at the same time. An imaging technique that is widely used in medicine, the functional MRI reveals which areas of the brain are activated during reading. Deniz then attempts to design models that reproduce the brain’s behaviour, using computer science methods. "Once we have understood every last detail of what happens, we will be able for instance to help stroke patients who have lost the ability to speak."
The birth of her child coincided with her period of research in the USA. Looking back, Deniz explains: "I was only able to cope with all the different demands because the DAAD made it possible for me to take maternity leave and provided me with a childcare subsidy."
Work-life balance in Germany
Now Deniz is looking forward to returning to Germany, where she plans to embark on the next step of her career – running a young research group, perhaps. There are many arguments in favour of Germany, says Deniz. "I like the fact that people in Germany respect the idea of a work-life balance, and that there is a lot of support for family life." Another reason, according to Deniz, is that her subjects are really taking off in Germany. Computer-based neuroscience and indeed data science are going from strength to strength in Germany. "I think it is a good opportunity to help drive forward this process in Germany, and believe that there is a good future there for me."
Deniz is one of those researchers who really enjoy teaching, too. "For me it is a privilege to stand in front of a group of young people with a great thirst for knowledge. You have the chance to upload your ideas and to shape people. That is one of the most wonderful aspects of universities, in my view."
Various options for young researchers
Young researchers can find good conditions for studying computer science at many German universities. In studies like the CHE Ranking, the following universities score particularly well:
- RWTH Aachen
- University of Augsburg
- Jacobs University Bremen
- Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg
- Hasso Plattner Institute Potsdam
Young graduate researchers in the field of computer-based neuroscience can also find ideal conditions at German universities and non-university research institutions. Examples include the following:
- European Neuroscience Institute Göttingen
- German Graduate Schools of Neuroscience
- Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Leipzig
- National Bernstein Network Computational Neuroscience
Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin
The Charité, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Technische Universität Berlin have joined forces to create the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin (BCCN Berlin). A graduate programme trains young researchers in the still young discipline of computer-based neuroscience. The two research departments at the BCCN approach the brain from different perspectives: one looks at the cellular processes, while the other studies cognition.