Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prizes 2018

The latest recipients of Germany’s most prestigious research funding prize have been announced.The Joint Committee of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) selected eleven researchers, four women and seven men, to receive the 2018 Leibniz Prize. The recipients of the prize were chosen by the selection committee from 136 nominees. Three of the eleven prizewinners are from the humanities and social sciences, three from the life sciences, another three from the natural sciences, and two from the engineering sciences. Nine of the prizewinners will receive €2.5 million each, while two researchers will share one prize, each receiving €1.25 million. The recipients can use these funds for their research work in any way they wish, without bureaucratic obstacles, for up to seven years.

The awards ceremony for the 2018 Leibniz Prizes took place on 19 March in Berlin.

Film portaits of the awardees and the recorded ceremony are available at "DFG bewegt" on YouTube.

Prof. Dr. Jens Beckert, Sociology

Jens Beckert was selected for the 2018 Leibniz Prize for his contribution to the renewal of an interdisciplinary perspective in the social sciences, particularly at the intersection of sociology and economics – two disciplines that have largely developed separately from each other for a long time. In his dissertation entitled ‘Grenzen des Marktes’ [Limits of the Market] (1996), Beckert was already laying the groundwork for embedding economic questions in a sociological context. In his habilitation thesis, ‘Unverdientes Vermögen’ [Unearned Wealth] (2003), he developed a comparative sociology of inheritance law in which he examined how different ideas about family cohesion, merit and recognition are reflected in law. This also brought him considerable recognition in the fields of law and history. In his most recent book, ‘Imagined Futures. Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics’ (2016), Beckert discusses various economic practices and illustrates how different visions of the future are socially coordinated and enable people to deal with uncertainty in the present. In this way, Beckert has combined new empirical research questions with conceptual reflection to examine current problems facing economies and societies.

Jens Beckert has been the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne since 2005. He studied sociology and business administration in New York and Berlin and earned his doctorate in Berlin in 1996. After a period as a visiting researcher at Harvard University and one year as an Associate Professor in Bremen, he completed his habilitation in Berlin in 2003. Between 2003 and 2005 he was Professor of Theory of Society at the University of Göttingen.

Prof. Dr. Alessandra Buonanno, Gravitational Physics

Alessandra Buonanno will receive the 2018 Leibniz Prize for her contributions to gravitational physics, particularly her work on the physics of gravitational waves. The first direct detection of gravitational waves – produced by the collision of two black holes – in 2015 provided spectacular proof of the general theory of relativity. Theoretical models developed by Buonanno were a key component of this success, enabling scientists to identify and interpret gravitational wave signals. As a postdoctoral researcher, together with Thibault Damour she developed the so-called Effective One Body (EOB) formalism, an extremely efficient method for describing the motion of binary systems and their emission of gravitational waves. Buonanno further developed this approach to include the merging of neutron stars. These extremely dense, massive stars are deformed before merging, which allows researchers to draw conclusions about their internal structure.

Alessandra Buonanno studied physics in Pisa, where she also earned her doctorate in 1996. She subsequently worked at CERN, a number of renowned institutions in Paris, and the California Institute of Technology. In 2005 she became an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland, where she has held a full professorship since 2010. Since 2014 she has been director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam and in 2017 she was made an honorary professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Buonanno has won numerous awards, including the State Prize of Lower Saxony in 2016, which she shared with Bruce Allen and Karsten Danzmann.

Prof. Dr. Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, Economics

Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln will be recognised with the Leibniz Prize for her methodological innovations and continuous development of the field of economics. Fuchs-Schündeln’s research is grounded in macroeconomics but is characterised by the fact that she introduces microeconomic questions and microeconometric methods into macroeconomics. This basis has given rise to an influential body of empirical work. For example, the ‘natural experiment’ method has been widely used in microeconomics since the 1990s but had encountered justified reservations in macroeconomics. In the reunification of Germany, Fuchs-Schündeln recognised an event that could be investigated as a ‘natural experiment’, since it marked a coming-together of populations with different economic and political experiences whose behaviour could be studied against the background of these experiences. Starting with this breakthrough, she has also concentrated on studying individual saving and consumer behaviour and the formation of individual preferences, for example in relation to availability of employment, which in economics were previously regarded as being exogenously determined.

Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln studied economics and Latin American studies at the University of Cologne and earned her doctorate from Yale University in 2004. Starting in 2004, she spent five years as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University before accepting the position of Professor of Macroeconomics and Development at Goethe University Frankfurt in 2009.

Prof. Dr. Veit Hornung and Prof. Dr. Eicke Latz

Prof. Dr. Veit Hornung, Immunology

Veit Hornung and Eicke Latz will share the Leibniz Prize as two of the world’s most influential researchers in the field of innate immune responses.
Their seminal papers on cytosolic sensing, which uniquely complement one another, have contributed to the international advancement of this area of research.

Veit Hornung became interested in core questions relating to innate immunity early on in his career. He studied the molecular basis of nucleic acid sensing in the cytoplasm, the cell substance enclosed by the membrane. He identified both the first virus ligand, which is detected in the cytoplasm, and the first cytosolic receptor (RIG-I) for viral DNA, which functions inside the cell. Both mechanisms are part of the complex innate immune response; their discovery is not only groundbreaking in basic research but also has useful applications in immunotherapy. Hornung’s work has also laid the foundations for the development of new ‘small molecules’ as therapeutically effective immune modulators.

After studying human medicine, Hornung’s research interests began with his doctorate at LMU Munich. As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, he collaborated with Eicke Latz, who now shares the Leibniz Prize with him. In 2008 he was appointed Professor of Clinical Biochemistry at the University of Bonn before returning to LMU Munich to take up a professorship in 2015. Hornung already has multiple awards to his credit, including the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize, presented by the DFG in 2007.

Prof. Dr. Eicke Latz, Immunology

For many years Eicke Latz has been studying the ‘inflammation workshop’ of cells. He is especially interested in the activation mechanisms of the inflammasome, a multiprotein complex stimulated by bacterial components or uric acid crystals. Latz discovered the DNA-sensing AIM2 inflammasome and demonstrated the effect of crystalline or aggregate structures in immune system cells. Since the activation of inflammasomes plays an important role in lifestyle diseases such as diabetes or Alzheimer’s, his research has important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of these conditions. Through his work, Latz has had a profound impact on the field of innate immunity, developing new therapeutic concepts and influencing other research areas such as metabolic science and neuroscience.

Latz earned his doctorate from the Humboldt University of Berlin in 2001 and, after completing his medical training, began working at Merck Research Laboratories in Rahway, New Jersey. He subsequently held various positions at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMass), most recently as a professor. In 2009 he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Bonn, where he founded the Institute of Innate Immunity, while continuing to work as a professor at UMass in Worcester.

Prof. Dr. Heike Paul, American Studies

Heike Paul’s work has contributed to a greater understanding of American literature and culture and of American-German relations past and present, in recognition of which she will receive the 2018 Leibniz Prize. From an early stage of her career, Paul focused on the observation of transatlantic relations in the context of a broadly defined concept of migration. She often adopted a cultural studies perspective, which takes the experiences of socioculturally marginalised groups as its starting point. Her habilitation thesis, for example, examined the representation of African Americans in German literature between 1815 and the start of the First World War. Later on, she studied conflicts between rural and urban areas in the USA and elucidated how these became the object of cultural debates. In her comprehensive study ‘The Myths That Made America’ (2014), she traces the construction and visualisation by the media of US founding and transformation myths. Paul’s research brings together questions and methods in literature, media, social and cultural studies with a topicality and relevance that give it impact far beyond her own field.

Heike Paul studied in Frankfurt am Main and Seattle before joining the DFG Research Training Group ‘Gender Difference and Literature’ at LMU Munich and earning her doctorate at the University of Leipzig. In 2004 she completed her habilitation there with a thesis on ‘Kulturkontakt und Racial Presences’ [Culture Contact and Racial Presences] before accepting a professorship in American studies at FAU. She has also had research stays at Harvard, in Toronto and at Dartmouth College.

Prof. Dr. Erika L. Pearce, Immunology

The Leibniz Prize will be presented to Erika L. Pearce for her outstanding work in metabolism and inflammation research. Her main research interests are the regulation of the immune system and of T cells, a group of white blood cells, and, in particular, the influence of metabolism on control of the immune response. Pearce demonstrated that a modified supply of glucose and the associated metabolic changes influence T-cell response. She has also decoded the signalling mechanisms that determine immunometabolic programming in T cells. She has therefore illuminated fundamental mechanisms in cell biology and linked them to important clinical applications: her findings are of immense importance to the current understanding of the way the body defends itself against tumours and pathogens and to the development of immunotherapies.

In 2015 Erika Pearce was appointed director of the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, where she heads the Department of Immunometabolism. Pearce studied biology at Cornell University and earned her doctorate in cell and molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. In 2011 she became Assistant Professor and later Associate Professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, from where she moved to her current role.

Prof. Dr. Claus Ropers

Claus Ropers, a leading researcher in electron microscopy who has made a significant contribution to the new field of quantum optics of electrons, will be recognised with the Leibniz Prize for his outstanding work. Among his most recent achievements, in 2015 he demonstrated that it is possible to manipulate the quantum state of a free electron beam in a transmission electron microscope. Prior to this, his work on the control of photoemission from extremely thin metal tips using terahertz and optical fields made a fundamental contribution to the future development of ultrafast scanning probe microscopes. His research into the generation of energy-rich ultraviolet radiation on plasmonic nanostructures gained worldwide attention. Ropers has consistently translated complex theoretical concepts into experimental form, initiating a variety of innovative research approaches and opening up new dimensions in time-resolved electron microscopy.

Claus Ropers studied physics in Göttingen and at Berkeley and, after working at the Max Born Institute Berlin, earned his doctorate from Humboldt University. He subsequently returned to Göttingen, initially as a junior professor and head of his own working group. In 2011 he was appointed Professor of Experimental Solid-State Physics. Among other accolades, Ropers has been awarded the Walter Schottky Prize of the German Physics Society.

Prof. Dr. Oliver G. Schmidt, Materials Science

The Leibniz Prize for Oliver G. Schmidt recognises his outstanding work in the investigation, manufacturing and innovative application of functional nanostructures. Schmidt, a physicist, is a pioneer in the field of rolled-up nanotubes and his research moves between physics, chemistry, materials science, electronics and microsystems engineering. His work is concerned with the integration of self-organised three-dimensional nanostructures on a chip. To achieve this, Schmidt developed a technique for tensioning nanometre-thin layers in such a way that materials can be structured in numerous ways in a three-dimensional space. He has translated fundamental research findings into numerous new applications in photonics, sensors, medicine and environmental process engineering or demonstrated how this could be achieved. These applications include the production of micromotors, ring resonators, optofluidic sensors and capacitors.

Oliver G. Schmidt earned his doctorate from TU Berlin in 1999 and worked as a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart. After a research visit at the University of Southern California, he returned to Stuttgart as a research group leader and then embarked on his habilitation at the University of Hamburg. In 2007 he was appointed Professor of Material Systems in Nanoelectronics at TU Chemnitz and Director of the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research Dresden.

Prof. Dr. Bernhard Schölkopf, Machine Learning

Computer scientist Bernhard Schölkopf was selected to receive the Leibniz Prize for essential contributions to the theory and success of machine learning. At the beginning of his research career Schölkopf was already interested in support vector machines (SVMs), which enable the classification of input data. SVMs are not machines in the traditional sense, but a mathematical procedure for pattern recognition. Schölkopf developed an algorithm that uses a kernel to perform calculations implicitly in a higher-dimensional space. This elegant simplification laid the foundations for the tremendous success of SVMs. The research field of these ‘kernel machines’ is now among the most important paradigms in machine learning. The process detects patterns in the learning data and can then recognise these patterns in previously unknown data. More recently, Schölkopf turned to the little-studied field of causal inference, the use of causality in statistical learning processes. These processes could provide a future basis for reliable intelligent systems, such as robots or autonomous vehicles.

Bernhard Schölkopf studied physics in Tübingen and then worked at Bell Laboratories, New Jersey with Vladimir Vapnik, the pioneer of support vector machines. After earning his doctorate from TU Berlin in 1997, he worked at the Society for Mathematics and Data Processing (GMD) and at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. In 2001 he became director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen and in 2011 he moved, with his research group, to the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems as its founding director. Schölkopf is an honorary professor at TU Berlin and the University of Tübingen.

Prof. Dr. László Székelyhidi, Applied Mathematics

László Székelyhidi was selected for the 2018 Leibniz Prize for his important research in the theory of partial differential equations. The methods he developed have enriched the interchange between geometry and analysis in mathematics. His new insights have a significance far beyond his own research area, for example in the understanding of Euler equations in hydrodynamics and elasticity theory in continuum mechanics. Euler equations have posed a major challenge in mathematics for over 200 years. Together with Camillo De Lellis, Székelyhidi has developed new approaches to the construction of non-smooth solutions to Euler equations. These led to a complete proof of Onsager’s conjecture, which states that solutions below a certain Hölder continuity do not conserve energy but can reduce or, in a non-physical way, increase it. In the field of elasticity theory in continuum mechanics, Székelyhidi, in his doctoral thesis, succeeded in constructing a polyconvex variation problem with an extremal that cannot be differentiated at any point. In collaboration with Daniel Faraco he achieved another scientific breakthrough with a compactness result, which is closely related to Morrey’s conjecture.

László Székelyhidi studied mathematics at Oxford University and wrote his dissertation in the natural sciences at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Leipzig. In 2003 he earned his doctorate from the University of Leipzig, which was followed by research stays at Princeton University and ETH Zurich. In 2007 he was appointed professor at the University of Bonn and since 2011 he has held a professorship at the Institute of Mathematics at the University of Leipzig. In 2017 he was awarded a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council.