Olga Sorkine-Hornung wins Rössler Prize

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ETH President Lino Guzzella with Olga Sorkine and Max Roessler at the award cere
ETH President Lino Guzzella with Olga Sorkine and Max Roessler at the award ceremony. (Photograph: Nicola Pitaro)
Computer scientist Olga Sorkine has won this year’s Rössler Prize for her work in the field of computer graphics. The prize comes with a research award of CHF 200,000.

Since 2009, the Rössler Prize has been awarded annually to young professors at ETH Zurich who are building their careers. The award is sponsored by ETH alumnus and mathematician Max Rössler. Olga Sorkine is only the second female winner of the prize.

Naturally she is delighted with this accolade. ‘Blue-sky money for blue-sky projects - this means I can get some ideas off the ground which I didn’t have funds for until now,’ she says. These ideas include the digital design and manufacture of garments, to modernise the textile industry for the long term. An ETH spin-off is already producing tailor-made, digitally manufactured jeans. ‘But for other garments, suitable technologies are lacking. Today’s design and manufacturing processes are still mostly reliant on mass production and overproduction under conditions that are unacceptable for people and the environment,’ she adds.

A creative computer scientist

For ETH President Lino Guzzella, who spoke at the award ceremony, the name of this year’s prizewinner came as no surprise: ‘Olga Sorkine proved from a very young age that she is a highly creative computer researcher. She has done ground-breaking work in computer graphics, and we can’t wait to see what else she has in store.’

Prize sponsor Max Rössler is also impressed by the 36-year-old computer scientist: ‘As a mathematician, I am particularly fascinated by the way in which Ms Sorkine creates true-to-life computer graphics built on complex mathematical models.’

An early starter in computer science

Olga Sorkine has already won several prestigious awards in the course of her career, not least the ETH Zurich Latsis Prize 2012. In the same year she was awarded one of the coveted ERC Starting Grants. Her work has also been acknowledged with two of the most important prizes in the field of computer graphics: the ACM SIGGRAPH Significant New Researcher Award 2011 and the Eurographics Outstanding Technical Contributions Award 2017.

Olga Sorkine was born and raised in Russia. Her family emigrated to Israel when she was 12. At the age of 15, she was accepted by Tel Aviv University to study mathematics and computer science. She had to interrupt her studies to do military service, which is compulsory for both men and women in Israel. But even during her military service she began working toward her master’s degree and doing computer graphics research. In 2011, after interludes at Berlin’s Technical University and New York University, Sorkine accepted an assistant professorship in computer science at ETH Zurich. In 2014 she was appointed associate professor.

Refined method of geometric modeling

The prize-winner has made a name for herself with her innovative methods for manipulating and animating the surfaces of complex geometric models, represented by innumerable tiny triangles, in real time. She is one of the world’s leading experts in the field of geometric modeling and digital geometry processing.

The applications of this technology include animated fantasy figures for the entertainment and film industry. But Sorkine’s techniques are also used in entirely different sectors: she has worked with - among others - Swiss hearing-aid manufacturer Sonova to design personalised hearing-aid shells on a computer and produce them from a single piece. Similar methods are used in dentistry, and also in completely unrelated disciplines such as architecture.

An entirely different project concerns the virtual reconstruction of damaged parchments belonging to the ‘Great Parchment Book’ in the London Metropolitan Archive. These historically important documents were severely damaged by fire in 1786, since when the book’s pages have been inaccessible to historians. Working with researchers from University College London, Olga Sorkine and her team virtually reconstructed and smoothed the parchments, making the pages legible and amenable to transcription.

A close-knit team

Her team currently comprises only six doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. To give her staff the necessary personal support, she feels it is important to keep the group small and manageable. From time to time she has worked with more people, but is convinced she can work and conduct research better and more efficiently with a small number of staff rather than a large group. A smaller team also makes it easier for her to reconcile work and family life. In late 2015 Olga Sorkine and her husband became the parents of twins: ‘Twice the joy, but also quite a challenge!’ she says.

Max Rössler Prize

In 2008, Max Rössler bequeathed ten million Swiss francs to ETH Zurich Foundation. The interest earned on the capital is used to fund an annual prize for ETH professors who are ‘rising stars’ in their particular area of research. Worth 200,000 Swiss francs, it is ETH Zurich’s most generous research award and is presented at an annual Thanksgiving event held by the ETH Zurich Foundation. Max Rössler studied mathematics at ETH Zurich and wrote his doctorate on orbit calculations in space travel. After a spell as guest researcher at Harvard University, he returned to ETH, where he was a senior scientist and lecturer at the Institute of Operations Research from 1967 to 1978. He later worked in wealth management before retiring from business life.