“We reconstruct clinical images from data which otherwise can hardly be interpreted”

A Lab Visit to Prof. Martin Burger / interview series by the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence
Prof. Martin Burger is a member of the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence working at the Institute for Numerical and Applied Mathematics.

Prof. Burger, what scientific topic are you working on right now?

Our mathematics research always has a practical application. My group, for example, reconstructs clinical images from data which otherwise can hardly be interpreted. Or we extract from microscopic images certain information which would normally not be seen among the huge amount of detail. In doing so, we work closely with biologists or physicians. They tell us what they want and, as far as we can, we try to put it into practice in such a way that in the end a piece of software delivers the desired results with a simple push of a button. Till we get to that point, a lot of discussions and development steps are necessary. For example: based on their great experience and their good intuition, biologists can say quite simply where one nerve cell ends and the next one begins. In order for software to be able to recognize that, we have to teach precisely this intuition to a computer. However, it isn’t terribly easy to determine, mathematically, where the beginning and the end of a nerve cell are. But only then can a computer mathematically calculate borders, forms and structures.

What characterizes you personally as a scientist?

I come from Austria, I have two children and I’ve been living in Münster since 2006. The fact that I ended up working as a scientist was more down to chance. After I got my PhD I had to do my civilian service and fortunately I had a whole year to think about what I wanted to do. During this time the University of California, UCLA, offered me a job in the working group headed by the mathematician Stanley Osher. The work was great. After that, it was clear for me that I would stick with science. I got my habilitation in 2005, and one year later I got the position as professor. I was only just 30 years old.

What’s your favourite “toy” for research – and what can it do?

Mathematicians live cheaply. We don’t need equipment costing millions. All we really need is a piece of paper, a bit of peace and quiet and some interesting people we can discuss ideas and problems with. If we need any nice toys, we build them ourselves. One PhD student, for example, has programmed a robot to automatically recognize and bring beer.

Can you remember your happiest moment as a scientist?

Just this morning, while I was brushing my teeth, I realized how to make progress on a proof. I’ve been working on a solution for two weeks. It’s moments like these that make me happy.

And what was your biggest frustration?

In 2007 I had applied for an ERC grant. Although the project had been approved, there was not enough money to finance it. At the time, it was disappointing – but it also spurred me on to continue with my research. In 2013 I then got an ERC consolidator.

Which big scientific question would you like to have an answer to?

There are so many fields which have something to do with mathematics. What fascinates me, for example, is how crystals are formed. They take on hexagonal or octagonal shapes. But no one knows why it’s just six or eight sides.  Why does this symmetry exist? Why do crystals have precisely these forms?

How much artistry, creativity and craftsmanship is there in your scientific work?

The ideal, of course, is that as a professor you only busy yourself with creative tasks, and PhD students take over the craftsman’s work. In practice, though, my work contains a lot of craftsmanship.