Hermann Mena, Ph.D.

Hermann Mena, Ph.D.

All about his passion for mathematics and Ecuador

In 2004, Hermann Mena was one of eight pioneer students in the graduate program of Applied Mathematics developed by the Escuela Politécnica Nacional (EPN), in Ecuador, and Technische Universität Berlin, in Germany. Hermann describes his experience as enriching but difficult. However, the small challenges didn’t stop him from finishing his Ph.D. en 2007, which led him to present his results on the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, a series of seminaries at the City of Ideas: considered the most important space for young mathematic researchers to present their ideas to the “Nobels” of mathematics, so to speak. Now, ten years later, Hermann Mena has returned to open the field for other researchers in Ecuador.

Hermann was born in Otavalo, where he live until he was five years old. Shortly, his family moved to Ibarra and then to Quito where he ended up studying his undergraduate degree and his masters degree in pure mathematics at EPN. When he finished his studies, Hermann received several scholarships to study abroad and, for the first time, he could have gone out of the country;  in the end, he chose to stay. Here in Ecuador he had a life, his family was close and so the decision to stay was made. It was then that he decided to do his Ph.D. in the joint program and recalls that, like him, other seven students from all over the country started the program as well. Due to some difficulties, common on first attempts of this nature, he was the only student to finish the program. He got his Ph.D. in 2007.

Even though Hermann aspired to obtain his Ph.D in Pure Mathematics, his only options where numerical analysis and optimization. He didn’t know it back then,  but that would be positive for him. He chose the second program, which is about the use of mathematical models to optimize physical, industrial and environmental processes, among others.

When he finished his studies, he did a postdoc in Germany, at the Chemnitz University of Technology. His doctoral thesis entered an international contest that opened many doors for him: one of those was the opportunity to be the first ecuadorian to be an invited professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he gave  few courses while continuing to do research. However, Hermann wanted to return to his country, here he could become a professor at his alma mater, EPN. Nevertheless, he received another opportunity and accepted an assistant professor position in Austria, where he wrote his habilitation: an academic degree that guarantees his capacity to supervise doctoral thesis, in Europe particularly.

When he left the country and as he gained experience in research, Hermann also adopted new mathematical models that pictured reality better. He wrote his habilitation thesis on stochastic optimization, optimization of models that represent physical phenomenons on a more precise way. The experiences he gathered along the way helped him improve in every step of his career.

A very special example of his work is a research project he lead as a professor at EPN. In 2008, the Ecuadorian Government placed a lawsuit against the Colombian Government in the international court of justice, due to glyphosate fumigations at the border between the two countries. Ecuador argued that the fumigations were crossing the border and, in order to prove it, the Government had to ask for scientific expertise. It was a collaborative research team which required biologists, chemists, physicians and mathematics to determine if the glyphosate had, in fact, crossed the border. The problem turned more complex when, as a preventive measure, fumigations stopped, and the glyphosate’s “life time” became limited as a few weeks later it’s impossible to determine any traces of the compound. This was one of the first mathematical projects financed by Ecuadorian Government. With his team, Hermann decided to make a simulation of the glyphosate fumigations by the Ecuadorian-Colombian border.

The project also worked with people, anfibia and soils to detect if there were any left over of glyphosate. The team used optimization techniques to measure glyphosate in the air and therefore predict the course of the fumigation planes. Hermann worked on the computational part, in collaboration with Peter Benner, director of the Max Planck Institute, in Germany. At the end of the project, for various circumstances he couldn’t continue his career in Ecuador.

His conclusion is that getting a Ph.D. in Ecuador is possible, but back then it was definitely easier to do it abroad.

Now, Hermann Mena has done research, been part of conferences and worked in Europe, Asia, and the U.SA, but he always finds his way back home, to Ecuador. His main interest has always been being in his country, now the reason of why he got so interested in Yachay Tech. He knows the system and understands that it is a completely new, innovative, proposal. Now he hopes to help the project advance and grow.

Hermann still carries international collaborations, he is currently supervising two Ph.D. students in Austria. He also has won a research project with the Austrian Science  Foundation and is working right now in simulations of El Niño with his students, modeling the phenomenon with differential stochastic equations to improve predictions that can benefit Ecuador on prevention. Now he expects to continue and collaborate from Yachay Tech, in Ecuador, where he always wanted to come back.

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