Two Top Researchers Appointed Humboldt Professors at RWTH


Heike Vallery and Hector Geffner have now been presented with the most valuable internationally oriented research award in Germany.

  A man and a woman looking at the camera Copyright: © Peter Winandy Thanks to the award of the Humboldt Professorships, RWTH succeeded in appointing Heike Vallery and Hector Geffner.

At a ceremony in Berlin on May 11, 2023, Sabine Döring, state secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and Robert Schlögl, president of the Humboldt Foundation, presented Germany's most valuable research award, the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, to 12 award recipients.

This year, RWTH succeeded in appointing two Humboldt Professors – Professor Heike Vallery (Medical Robotics) and Professor Hector Geffner (Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning). Both were awarded one of seven professorships in the Humboldt Foundation’s Artificial Intelligence Priority Program.

“Generous investment in outstanding science and scholarship is what makes Germany attractive as a location for research,” said Robert Schlögl. “The Alexander von Humboldt Professorships in Artificial Intelligence (AI) reflect the enormous relevance of AI for science, business, and society. That is precisely why it is important for us to play a global role in this field,” commented Sabine Döring.

  A woman looking into the camera. Copyright: © Peter Winandy Heike Vallery, a researcher at the interface of mechanical engineering and medicine, has been awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship.

Top Level Research at the Crossroads Between Mechanical Engineering and Medicine

Funded by the Humboldt Professorship, Heike Vallery transferred from TU Delft to RWTH’s Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. She is an internationally recognized researcher at the crossroads of mechanical engineering and medicine; her work in robotics has led to both theoretical contributions and practical applications.

For example, she developed guidelines for robots that assist people with motor impairments. She designed the first 3D robotic therapy environments that provide gait training and designed wearable systems that help stabilize gait. This development also helps stroke survivors improve their balance. She has been working closely with clinicians and industry partners on technology-assisted rehabilitation and prosthetic legs.

For Heike Vallery, accepting the appointment marks a return to her alma mater in a professional capacity. In 2004, she received her mechanical engineering degree with distinction from RWTH. After completing her doctorate at TU Munich, she worked as a postdoc at ETH Zurich from 2008 to 2011. At that time, she and her team started to implement several transparent robotic interfaces for 3D gait training, enabling groundbreaking research on recovery from spinal cord injury. From 2011 to 2012, she was an assistant professor at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi; in 2012, she joined Delft University of Technology as full professor.

Heike Vallery has published in prestigious scientific journals such as Science Robotics and Nature Medicine, filed 15 patent applications, and received various grants and awards, including the first prize of the 2014 euRobotics Technology Transfer Award and a 2016 Vidi Fellowship from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Vallery co-led Project Inspiration at TU Delft, an initiative to bring respiratory technology to low-income countries by empowering local companies to produce the devices themselves.

  Copyright: © Peter Winandy

A Thought Leader in Automated Planning

His research in the field of artificial intelligence is recognized worldwide: Hector Geffner is considered a thought leader in automated planning and has been devoting himself to machine learning techniques for several years. Thanks to the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, he transferred from Spain to the Department of Computer Science at RWTH on January 1, 2023.

Before coming RWTH, Geffner conducted research at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, and he is founder and director of the AI Lab at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Since 2019, he has been a Wallenberg Visiting Professor at Linköping University in Sweden. Previously, he held positions at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center and the University Simon Bolivar in Venezuela.

In 1989, the computer scientist completed his doctoral dissertation on the relationships between logical, probabilistic, and causal inference at the University of California at Los Angeles. In the 1990s, his research shifted to the area of planning, one of the key areas in Artificial Intelligence.Hector Geffner is one of the most influential researchers worldwide in this field.

Enabling computers to plan actions autonomously and adapt them to changing circumstances is a highly complex task – what children learn intuitively or by trial and error can only be programmed with great effort. Geffner's work includes theories based on logic, probability, heuristics, and algorithms, as well as practical computational experiments. Together with his team, he established the so-called heuristic search as a special form of planning that became the general standard.

Again and again, the generalizability of his methods has been emphasized, as they are not tailored to specific areas of application. In 2020, he received an ERC Advanced Grant for the project “From Data-based to Model-based AI: Representation Learning for Acting and Planning,” which addresses the problem of how action descriptions can be learned automatically from data. Hector Geffner’s research has now become another key building block of RWTH’s activities in AI research.

The Humboldt Professorship

Each year, up to ten Humboldt Professorships are awarded to researchers from all disciplines. Between 2020 and 2024, funding will be provide for the establishment of up to 30 additional Humboldt Professorships in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Funding of 5 million euros is available for researchers conducting experimental research and 3.5 million euros for those undertaking theoretical research. The Alexander von Humboldt professorships are funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Humboldt Professors at RWTH include Matthias Wessling (2010, Chemical Process Engineering), David di Vicenzo (2011, Quantum Physics, jointly appointed with Forschungszentrum Jülich), Raul Fidel Tempone (2018, Applied Mathematics), Wil van der Aalst (2018, Computer Science/Process Mining), and Holger Hoos (2022, Machine Learning).