Member Profile: Olga Sorkine-Hornung

1. What do you do, and how long have you been doing it?

I’m a full professor at the Department of Computer Science of ETH Zurich. I’ve been at ETH since 2011, and overall I’m in computer graphics research since 2001. My research focus is shape modeling and geometry processing, and I try to apply geometric insights to problems in other sub-domains as well, such as image and video processing and digital fabrication. I teach linear algebra for computer science (a first year bachelor class) and specialized graphics/geometry classes in our MSc and PhD programs.

2. What was your first job?

My first faculty job was assistant professor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University. But my very first paid occupation was supervising a language lab at Tel Aviv University where foreign students were learning Hebrew by watching VHS video tapes and listening to audio cassettes. The main part of the job was preparing the lab for each class by copying the required recordings to every workstation according to the teacher’s instructions, and I often got things mixed up! This is when I realized that analog stuff was not for me.

3. Where did you complete your formal education?

I did my BSc (mathematics and computer science) and PhD (computer science) at Tel Aviv University, the latter as part of the direct doctorate program. My PhD supervisor was Danny Cohen-Or.

4. How did you first get involved with ACM SIGGRAPH?

My first SIGGRAPH technical paper submission was rejected, but Danny still sent me and my coauthor (a fellow student) to SIGGRAPH 2002 in San Antonio, “to get inspired”. And inspired we were! In fact, we were desperate to become active participants. We kept discussing how to improve our method and had some eureka moments during the conference, and our next attempt was successful.

5. What is your favorite memory of a SIGGRAPH conference?

There are so many, it is hard to pick one. The first two conferences I attended, SIGGRAPH 2002 in San Antonio and SIGGRAPH 2003 in San Diego, were absolutely overwhelming, I’ve never seen or experienced anything like that before. I remember laughing so hard after watching the “Polygon Family” short at the Electronic Theater in 2002. Also, SIGGRAPH 2009 in New Orleans was very special for me.

6. Describe a project that you would like to share with the ACM SIGGRAPH community.

I’ve been working on interactive shape deformations since my PhD, and I had several PhD students continue the work. Recently I discovered that the algorithm in our SIGGRAPH 2011 paper on real-time skinning-based deformations (co-authored with Alec Jacobson, Ilya Baran and Jovan Popovic) has apparently been used on the Stephen Colbert Show to conduct live interviews with Cartoon Hillary Clinton, Cartoon Donald Trump and other characters. I was so happy to learn about such a cool application of our research! Currently, I am very curious about the possibilities and challenges offered by latest advances in deep learning and digital fabrication, and what role geometry and geometric algorithms play there. I would like to help bring the digital revolution to traditional industries like textile and clothing manufacturing.

7. If you could have dinner with one living or non-living person, who would it be and why?

I would love to meet Mikhail Bulgakov, a Russian writer whose unique language style and fascinating subjects influenced me a lot as a kid. I would also love to have dinner with Marie Curie and talk about her discoveries and her experience as a scientist, a woman and a mother.

8. What is something most people don’t know about you?

I was training in artistic gymnastics when I was very young, at a school that prepared olympic gymnasts. After a year, the school relocated somewhere further away, so that it became logistically impossible for my working parents to take me there five times a week. Unfortunately, I’ve lost all my stretchy superpowers since then!

9. From which single individual have you learned the most in your life? What did they teach you?

I’ve learned the most from my parents. They never applied pressure but also never doubted me and made sure I knew that I could do anything and gave me every support possible. My dad (physicist) tried to explain to me how various house appliances work when he ran out of bedtime fairytales (those explanations were much more effective in helping me fall asleep). My mom (mathematician and software engineer) would solve my indefinite integrals and sorting algorithms homework assignments in my first years of university when I couldn’t crack those. They both taught me, by example, the true meaning of “unconditional”.

10. Is there someone in particular who has influenced your decision to work with ACM SIGGRAPH?

This would be my amazing PhD advisor Danny Cohen-Or. His excitement and passion about research, and SIGGRAPH-worthy research in particular, is very contagious. Thanks to his recommendation I was given an opportunity to serve on the SIGGRAPH Technical Papers committee for the first time, as a fresh (and back then extremely green) postdoc.

11. What can you point to in your career as your proudest moment?

Frankly, I am generally too consumed by what’s directly and further ahead of me to reflect on the past. I was very proud to get the coveted job at ETH Zurich. I was hugely honored to receive awards from my scientific community, including the 2011 SIGGRAPH Significant New Researcher Award (the first woman in this category). And I am very honored and excited to have been selected to serve as the SIGGRAPH 2019 Technical Papers chair. But my biggest and best successes are the achievements of my amazing past and present research group members. The younger generation is really doing everything better and faster, and I am learning so much from them every day. This is what makes my job so much fun!