Daniel Kráľ, who has been working on the borderline between informatics and mathematics since he was a student, began work at the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University this September. He came to Brno from the University of Warwick in the UK thanks to a unique grant from Masaryk University – the Muni Award in Science and Humanities.
You are one of the most successful Czech scientists; at the moment, you are already working on your second ERC grant. What research topic are you focusing on?
I won the ERC Consolidator Grant for developing mathematical models of large graphs that represent computer networks in informatics and can also be applied in maths. However, the graphs I work with are not the same graphs that most people know from secondary school. My graphs are sets of discrete objects that make it possible to model computer networks or networks of towns used by navigation systems. In informatics, graphs may have tens or hundreds of millions of nodes.
What made you focus on this area?
The models I work with began life in Microsoft Research Labs, where they were developed to predict the behaviour of large networks for the purpose of, for example, efficient server distribution. This is when I became interested in them, but I focus mainly on basic research – any potential applications in practice will be developed by others.
People outside of mathematics might think that you cannot really discover anything new in this field. But you still manage to come up with new things.
I am lucky that I work in the area of maths that is powered by informatics, so it is developing at almost breakneck speed. Even though it contains a few classic, hundred-year-old topics, most of them are relatively new and only appeared ten or twenty years ago.
Maths is not exactly one of the favourite subjects for children and many adults do not like it, either. How did it attract your attention?
My class at elementary school had extended mathematics education and I enjoyed learning maths there. Then I started participating in various school competitions and ended up enrolling at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University. I studied informatics there and I became more interested in the theoretical part.
Since then, I have been working on the borderline between mathematics and informatics. At present, I feel more like a mathematician, and both my ERC Grants were awarded by the mathematics panel of the European Research Council.
Is the fact that you studied informatics helpful for research in maths, or is it the other way round?
My education in informatics is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that I can see how you can apply mathematics to informatics and I can take things to the next level.
The disadvantage is that you learn a lot of basic information in your undergraduate studies and I have a more thorough knowledge of this in informatics than in maths. This means that I sometimes need to learn things that I would have known, had I studied maths.
After graduating from your studies in Prague, you left for the UK. What attracted you there?
First, I looked for internships as a postdoc. I spent one year in Berlin and one year in Atlanta, US. Afterwards, I earned my associate professor degree at Charles University and in 2012, I moved to Warwick, where I was offered a position as a professor. I was particularly attracted by their DIMAP multidisciplinary centre, which combines mathematics, informatics, and economics and was supported by EPSRC, a British grant agency.
At that time, you moved your first ERC grant to Warwick, now you have come to Masaryk University with your second one. Why did you choose Brno?
The reason was the Muni Award in Science and Humanities grant that provides me with generous research funding for five years. Its greatest advantage is its flexibility, which allows me to immediately focus on any new ideas and promising topics that come along. Most of the grants do not offer this possibility, because they are aimed at specific things. The funding from the Grant Agency of Masaryk University, on the other hand, gives me the option to immediately move resources to a new topic without waiting for a specific grant.
Is it really such a unique form of funding?
Research funding works differently in different countries; for example, in Germany or Switzerland, professor’s positions usually come with research funding from the university. There are also various funded prestigious positions abroad. But I think that the Masaryk University scheme, which specifically aims to attract new first-rate people, is unique and very interesting.
You will continue to study mathematical models of large graphs at the Faculty of Informatics. Are you planning to branch out into other research areas?
For the time being, I do not want to be tied down by anything and when I am talking to PhD students, for instance, I want to be free to start working on topics that would be interesting. I will also continue to work with my colleagues at the faculty that I worked with earlier on the research of difficult algorithmic problems and effective solutions to those problems.
Are you going to teach as well?
I will be teaching a course called Computability and Complexity. However, we also have bigger teaching ambitions with my colleagues from Prague and Poland – we would like to start an intensive PhD programme. That’s because many universities have professionals who deliver very high-quality lectures, but they only have very few students. PhD students could, therefore, go to different universities to learn from the experts, broaden their knowledge and find their specialisations.
You worked abroad in various positions and spent six years in the UK. Can you compare the different research environments?
In my opinion, the most important difference is that the western academic environment is more open. In the Czech Republic and in the countries of the Eastern Block, mobility between universities is very low and that’s not good. In developed countries, it is unthinkable that somebody would get their PhD and spend the rest of their career at the same university without ever going anywhere else for an internship, at least for a year or two. Exchanges like this can open your eyes, show you that things can be done differently and provide the experience that moves you forward both professionally and in terms of your research practice. It is very good that some universities, including Masaryk University, view the current situation as a problem and are trying to change it.