Student Portrait: Katharina Benz - Suddenly a Scientist

2019-10-28 The student Katharina Benz wrote such an outstanding term paper on overfishing in a mathematics and computer science elective seminar that she was invited to an academic conference, where she won the Best Paper Award.

[Translate to Englisch:] Studierende Katharina Benz ©Leuphana/Patrizia Jäger

Katharina Benz had her doubts. Should she go to Leipzig? Scientists from all over the world would be discussing research results in computer science there. She was a bachelor's student of environmental sciences herself and was not sure whether she would be able to succeed in an international scientific community. The 22-year-old had written such an outstanding paper in the complementary seminar ‘Basic techniques in estimation and in control using Matlab/Simulink for non-engineers’ that she was invited to the Federated Conference on Computer Science and Informatics. Her paper was to be published internationally.

At the beginning of the seminar she had not imagined this course of events. ‘At first I found complex mathematics very difficult. I was not sure if I would pass the exam at all.’ But the student was determined. ‘Slowly I developed a feeling for the equations and which problems can be solved with them. Everything was explained very well.’ Paolo Mercorelli, Professor of Control and Drive Systems, offered the seminar in winter semester 2017/18. He was not only interested in mathematical modelling. Rather, the students were to solve a concrete problem. Katharina Benz focused on overfishing. ‘We developed an algorithm that can determine the appropriate number of active fishermen and a suitable period for fishing. This tool can facilitate sustainable management.’

It was based on the Lotka-Volterra equation, which describes the predator-prey relationship in a closed system. In the model humans were predators and fish the prey. The system was combined with ‘slide mode control’, a mathematical method often used in control engineering, the research field of Paolo Mercorelli. ‘In the seminar description he had explained that technical equations can also be applied to living systems. Since I study environmental sciences, I was interested in this,’ recalls Katharina Benz. 

Despite the challenging subject matter, Katharina Benz does not regret the choice of the complementary seminar: "Professor Mercorelli was incredibly committed. I learned a lot." When she signed up for the seminar, she also hoped to improve her software skills. In the seminar two mathematical programmes were used: Matlab and Simulink. In addition, she had to submit her term paper in the style of a scientific publication. For this she had to use the software Latex. "That wasn't easy either, but I'm glad that I was able to get used to the programmes," says Katharina Benz.

Her seminar performance not only earned her a very good grade, but in the end her courage to attend the conference was rewarded. The student prevailed over around 20 speakers in her field and received the Best Paper Award. ‘That was incredible. But before that, I was extremely afraid of very critical questions.’ They didn't come, however, because Katharina Benz was well prepared and had practiced the English language presentation in front of her roommates and parents. She had also rehearsed loudly in the hotel in the evening. ‘I was very excited, but well prepared for objections regarding the validity of the algorithm. We developed a highly simplified model, I clearly discussed this.’ She shares the award with her co-authors, Paolo Mercorelli and the student Claus Rech.. 

‘With algorithms, many scientific problems can be described and also solved,’ explains Mercorelli. Another conference paper was produced during the course. ‘Controlling a Bank Model Economy by Sliding Model Control with Help of Kalman Filter’ combines business administration with algorithms. The students Helge Ronald Samson, Claus Rech as well as Katharina Benz are co-authors of Paolo Mercorelli. The work will be presented at a conference in Bologna soon. Mercorelli advocates the inter- and multidisciplinary use of algorithms, which for him can extend right into the humanities. For this reason, the scientist will offer further complementary seminars aimed at both engineers and non-engineers.