As a teenager growing up in Germany, Martin Erwig, who played classical guitar, decided it would be much cooler to play in a rock band. So, to earn enough money for an electric guitar and amplifier, he worked at construction sites doing physical labor like shoveling gravel and carrying stones.
“It was that experience of ‘getting my hands dirty’ that made me appreciate working with my head!” he laughs. It also succeeded in getting him the required equipment to form a band, and they played their own songs at school functions.
“I’ve moved beyond that now, though, and returned to my classical guitar roots,” he says.
And the opportunity to work with his head soon presented itself — an optional after-school class on computers sparked his interest in computer science.
“Being able to create your own world and then change the rules to see what happens — that was very fascinating to me. It still is!” he says.
After that experience there was no question that he wanted to study computer science in college. Although more physical work was in store for him first — he completed a 15-month compulsory stint in the Army as a tank driver before he started on his studies at University of Dortmund in Germany.
Wanting some hands-on experience with computers, in college he designed databases for different companies. “Working with these clunky databases was very cumbersome. I was always thinking about how this could've been done in a much better way and expressed more clearly,” he says explaining that it later became the topic of his thesis.
Although he has done some research since then in databases, more recently his work has focused on domain-specific languages (DSL). It’s an area that appeals to his interest in creating an environment where things can be expressed in a more succinct way. For example, he helped researchers in oceanography who needed to make simulation programs for ocean modeling, and the DSL developed by Erwig simplified their job by creating the ocean modeling tools they needed.
DSLs can be applied to any domain, he explains, for example, one language he has developed helps people understand cause and effect relationships between events, and another one that demonstrates how probability works, which he hopes will be useful to educators.
He delights in the applications his students come up with in his class on DSL including salsa dancing, juggling, and game theory. “It’s fun to tap into the creativity of the students and their interests outside of computer science,” he says.
His desire to think deeply and analyze various topics extends also to his leisure time. Both he and his son share an interest in debate.
“This might be a natural inclination for both of us that we uncovered here in the U.S.,” he explains. For his son, it was a summer camp inspired his desire to join the debate team in high school. Erwig enjoys discussing debate topics with his son, but more formally he participates in the Socratic Club debates, and is also the faculty advisor for the Advocates for Freethought and Skepticism at OSU.
“I view the University as not just a place where we infiltrate students with specific technical knowledge, but I see it as a place where students learn how to think and how to be independent as people,” he says.
Indeed, what he values about being a professor is mentoring students and watching them develop into people you can then learn from, and the academic freedom to pursue challenging and interesting problems.
And wherever he goes, even on a bus ride to work, he finds opportunities for thoughtful discussions. “The interesting thing there is that any topic you pick up has to be dealt with within five minutes!” he says.
—By Rachel Robertson