Computer experts quit Silicon Valley for Lausanne

Thomas and Monika Henzinger. epfl

Two leading computer scientists - Thomas and Monika Henzinger - are leaving top jobs in the United States to join the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne as professors.

This content was published on May 9, 2004 - 11:56

Thomas Henzinger, who was full professor at Berkeley, told swissinfo he and his wife were attracted by the institute’s philosophy.

The couple are considered experts in their information technology fields. Thomas Henzinger is a pioneer in program verification, while his wife is a specialist in algorithms.

German-born Monika Henzinger is currently director of research at the search engine, Google. She starts work at the institute on October 1.

Her Austrian husband has already taken up his new post.

swissinfo: We often hear talk of a “brain drain” from Switzerland to the United States. Do you think the Americans could one day lose their leading position in scientific research?

Thomas Henziger: Of course, I would love to see the rest of the world, and Europe in particular, becoming more competitive.

One of the reasons that the Americans are such a strong force in science is that they know how to attract the world’s most brilliant students. If you want to compete in this area, you need real commitment and financial backing.

The American universities are unrivalled in the world. I think everyone would agree with that, whether they like it or not. And their strength is their students.

swissinfo: To pick up on that idea of commitment and funding, do you think that a small country like Switzerland can sustain world-class universities?

T.H.: I think you have them already. The federal institutes of technology in Zurich and Lausanne are of a very high standard compared with what’s available in most European countries.

And there is certainly enough money here to achieve something. That’s another reason why we decided to come.

swissinfo: Why have you chosen Switzerland and the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne in particular when you could have gone to the other Swiss federal institute in Zurich?

Thomas Henzinger: We have lived in the United States for a long time, but we are both Europeans and we have wanted to come back for some time.

We looked at a variety of things, and probably the most important was the philosophy behind this school. That really attracted me. They’ve made a lot of changes recently that I think are in the right direction, like the English-speaking graduate school and the tenure-track system for professors.

swissinfo: Your work is in embedded systems. Can you explain what that involves?

T.H.: Embedded systems are not PCs, they’re computer systems that control more and more things in our lives – from elevators, to cars, to aircraft. There’s a lot of software that runs on these systems and it’s very often in safety critical situations, like the software that runs the fuel injection of your car or the braking system.

It’s very important that you do not have errors in safety critical systems. My research focuses on methods to find and prevent such errors.


Key facts

Monika Henzinger was born in 1966 in Weiden, Germany.
After completing a doctorate at Princeton and working at Cornell University she moved to the digital research centre in California in 1996.
In 1999 she became research director at Google.
Thomas Henzinger was born in 1962 in Linz, Austria.
He was awarded a doctorate from Stanford in 1991.
He went to Berkeley in 1997 as professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences.

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