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Helene Lange Visiting Professorship

The Helene Lange Visiting Professorship Programme is funded by the federal and state governments as part of the Female Professors Programme III and enables outstanding female academics to spend time at the University of Oldenburg. The candidates were each nominated by a professor at the University of Oldenburg and work in a subject area in which women are strongly underrepresented. The stay in Oldenburg also includes a concept of how the respective visiting professor will contribute to teaching, research and the promotion of young female academics. In the summer, the University of Oldenburg will receive the physicist Prof. Talat Shahnaz Rahman from the University of Florida, in late summer the philosopher Dr Hilkje C. Hänel from the University of Potsdam..

Networks for Female Mathematicians


Prof. Dr Renate Scheidler

Institute of Mathematics

  • Renate Scheidler is sitting in a café, talking and gesticulating with her hands.

    Mathematician Renate Scheidler from Calgary, Canada, will spend the year 2022 as a Guest Professor at the University of Oldenburg. Photo: University of Oldenburg / Daniel Schmidt

Between worlds

When she went to Canada for her doctorate, Germany was still divided. Since then, Renate Scheidler has come back only for short visits. The scientist is now staying for a whole year: as a Helene Lange Visiting Professor.

When she went to Canada for her doctorate, Germany was still divided. Since then, Renate Scheidler has come back only for short visits. The scientist is now staying for a whole year: as a Helene Lange Visiting Professor.

With a good Abitur in her hands, all doors were open to Renate Scheidler in the early 1980s. Medicine interested the young woman from the Cologne area just as much as physics and biology. "But when it came time to go to university, I had just had my maths phase," recalls Prof. Dr Renate Scheidler. So she studied mathematics at the University of Cologne and then did her doctorate at the Canadian University of Manitoba. Her topic: the application of algebraic number theory in cryptography. This earned the mathematician a doctorate - in computer science.

Since the 1990s, the 61-year-old has been teaching and researching in both subjects as a professor at US and Canadian universities. Until today, it has remained a balancing act: The scientist divides her time at the University of Calgary, which has now been her workplace for around 20 years, equally between the two departments "Mathematics and Statistics" and "Computer Science".

Bridge between Mathematics and Computer Science

Scheidler feels at home in both worlds, because her native research field– cryptography from the perspective of theoretical mathematics – acts as a bridge between these two sciences. And as special as her field may be, it is easy for her to inspire even those outside the subject. "Pure mathematics has a lot to do with creativity," Scheidler enthuses. If you are looking for a solution to a problem, you often need a good idea first. Proving that such an idea actually works is the fascinating core of mathematics for Renate Scheidler. "A mathematical statement is either right or wrong, there's no compromise and the correctness must be rigorously and logically proven," she says. One example of how a creative idea ensured that centuries-old knowledge helped to solve current problems are prime numbers: Some of their properties were already discovered in ancient Greece. More than 2,000 years later, the right idea led to the so-called prime factorisation, that is, the representation of natural numbers as a multiplication task with only prime numbers as factors, becoming the core of modern encryption technologies.

The mathematics behind encrypted e-mails, secure online bank transfers and short messages protected from spying ensures the security of these methods - and is Scheidler's field of research. "Encryption technologies are usually based on mathematical problems that are difficult to solve," the scientist explains. In this case, difficult to solve means that even powerful computers take far too long to decrypt them.

Dilemma or win-win situation?

In her day-to-day research, Scheidler operates in an almost curious field of tension. As a computer scientist, on the one hand, she is interested in building secure encryption systems based on mathematical problems that are as complicated as possible. As a number theorist, on the other hand, she is looking for methods with which precisely these mathematical problems can be solved more easily. "It's a win-win situation. Either the number theorist is happy or the computer scientist is happy," says the Canadian by choice with a laugh. That could change as soon as quantum computers no longer exist only in theory but are used in reality. According to Scheidler, their expected computing capacity is likely to exceed anything that has ever existed before and present cryptography with completely new challenges. A development she is following with excitement.

That Scheidler chose cryptography as her research focus was more by chance than anything else. Above all, the freshly graduated mathematician had been looking for an opportunity to spend time abroad after her studies. A colleague who was a friend of her former thesis supervisor put her in touch with a scientist in Canada. Scheidler was fascinated by his cryptography lectures. "Of course," she says, "the subject fascinates a lot of people because it has a bit of James Bond about it." It took her three attempts to convince her doctoral supervisor that encryption methods would be her doctoral topic.

Commitment to young female scientists

As an established number theorist and cryptographer, she now supports young female colleagues who are at the beginning of this path. In Canada, she helped establish the "Women in numbers" network, which not only regularly organises the conference of the same name, but has also become a model for similar initiatives all over the world. This summer, for example, the fourth conference of European women number theorists will take place in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

The network wants to reach young women who are at the end of their university education or at the beginning of their scientific career and help them to gain a foothold in academia. The conferences offer an environment that is not about gender issues, but about the matter at hand, number theory.

Scheidler was nominated for the Helene Lange Visiting Professorship by Oldenburg mathematician Prof. Dr Andreas Stein and his colleague Prof. Dr Anne Frühbis-Krüger. Frühbis-Krüger, a mathematician, has often been involved in equal opportunities topics herself in the past, and was also active at the University of Hanover as a decentralised equal opportunities officer. She was one of the initiators of the Helene Lange Visiting Professor Programme. Stein and Scheidler have known each other for many years and have conducted research together on several occasions. In the summer semester, the visiting scientist will offer courses in Oldenburg, but during her stay she also wants to support young female researchers in her field - among other things in the Graduate Academy's mentoring programme, which also bears the name of the Oldenburg-born politician, educator and women's rights activist Helene Lange.

Anyone who hears Renate Scheidler talk about mathematics can well imagine that she infects young female colleagues with her enthusiasm for her subject - and ensures that mathematics does not remain one thing: just a phase.

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