Leadership Academy der German Scholars Organization

Leadership Academy der German Scholars Organization

Interview with Benjamin Schäfer, our new PI at Helmholtz AI

Meet our new group leader - Benjamin Schäfer, who is leading a Helmholtz AI young investigator group at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and investigates how data science can facilitate the energy transition.


A leading physicist and researcher, Benjamin is specializing in the intersection of AI and energy research. He is currently an Assistant Professor at KIT and the head of the Helmholtz AI Young Investigator Group DRACOS. His work focuses on using data and machine learning to understand complex energy systems while prioritizing interpretability. He is passionate about promoting collaboration, diversity, and the sharing of code and data in the field.

What were your previous scientific stations?

  • 2014-2017 PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation (MPIDS) & University in Göttingen, Germany
  • 2017-2019 Post-Doc at TU Dresden, Germany
  • 2019-2021 Marie-Skłodowska-Curie fellow at Queen Mary, University of London
  • 2021 Associate Professor in Physics at NMBU, Ås, Norway
  • Since 2022 Leading the Helmholtz Young Investigator Group DRACOS at KIT, Germany
  • Since 2023 Assistant Professor (with Tenure Track) at KIT and Helmholtz AI YIG head

Since when and in which function have you been at Helmholtz AI? What (research) goals are you pursuing there?

Mid 2022 I received the offer for the professorship at KIT, which is combined with the function as Helmholtz AI YIG head. Since then I have followed Helmholtz AI events, participated in the evaluation and joint some Food for Though seminars. This has already shown me how interesting this community is. I am very happy to be officially part of it now. My research goals are briefly summarized as combining (explainable) AI and energy research: I want to obtain a better understanding of complex energy systems using data and machine learning with a focus on interpretability, i.e. avoiding black box models. Some questions I ask include: Where are machine learning models better than the human models? What can we learn from this for our human models and thus make them better?

What inspires you to come to Helmholtz AI? What is typical of Helmholtz AI for you?

AI is an important topic for many disciplines. For me Helmholtz AI is the platform to bundle the interests in AI within the Helmholtz Association and exchange methods and ideas but also find collaboration partners for projects.

What fascinates you about your research?

The transition towards a sustainable energy system is of essential importance: We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and instead rely on renewable sources. Being able to contribute to such an important problem using my skills as a theoretical scientist is very satisfying and motivating. In my work, I use interesting math and AI methods to make a difference in the real world.

What would you like to achieve in your scientific field?

In energy research sharing code and data is still done more reluctantly than in computer science. I am trying to make more scientific data in energy systems available, advocate for more openly shared code and open access publications to enable interdisciplinary exchange. I would like to connect computer science and energy research further, establish and live good practices and overall generate benefits for both communities and ultimately support the energy transition.

What are the biggest challenges and why is it still worth it every day?

Juggling responsibilities as a scientist, teacher, mentor, manager, reviewer and more. This keeps the job interesting and I can draw joy from each of these aspects.

Was there a formative experience in your scientific career that left mark on you?

My start in an interdisciplinary group during my PhD demonstrated the value of a diverse team to me. Following this impression, I made a concerted effort to hire people from different scientific backgrounds and countries when I started my group. I am very satisfied with the experience and advocate for more diversity to fuel creativity.

In your view, what characterizes the life of a scientist?

Being able to go deep into a topic while also communicating key aspects of it to colleagues, students or the general public on an accessible level.

What do you draw strength from next to your work? What hobbies do you have?

I enjoy taking a run in the forest, while listening to audiobooks (lately those were related on leadership but I often listened to fantasy or science fiction novels). Also, I like to play board games with friends, ideally solving complex puzzles together, as we also do in research.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self today?

Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end.

Tell a secret about yourself!

I really like cakes and do enjoy baking cakes when I find the time.