Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prizes 2019

The latest recipients of Germany’s most prestigious research prize have been announced. The Joint Committee of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) selected ten researchers, four women and six men, to receive the 2019 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. The recipients of the prize were chosen by the selection committee from 122 nominees. Three of the ten prizewinners are from the humanities and social sciences, three from the life sciences, two from the natural sciences and two from the engineering sciences. Each will receive prize money of €2.5 million.

The awards ceremony for the 2019 Leibniz Prizes took place on 13 March in Berlin.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Sami Haddadin, Robotics

Sami Haddadin was selected to receive the 2019 Leibniz Prize for his pioneering research in the field of robotics. The award particularly recognises his work at the interface between humans and machines, where he investigates the foundations of safe, intuitive and reliable physical human-robot interaction. Using the human locomotor system as a starting point, he developed a combination of non-linear soft and reflexive torque control and intrinsically elastic and active mechanical design. Robots built in this way move more like humans and can safely interact with people. Haddadin has also used artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to equip robots with reliable collision-free route planning and artificial reflex systems. He has transferred much of his fundamental research into usable computer programmes, allowing them to be used in modern industrial robots. Overall, his work has made a significant contribution to the advancement of robotics in recent years.

Sami Haddadin earned his doctorate from RWTH Aachen University in 2011 with a dissertation on humanoid robots. In 2014, at the age of 34, he was appointed professor of control engineering at the University of Hannover. In April 2018 he was appointed to a professorship at the Technical University of Munich, where he is currently establishing a new integrative research centre, the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence. He has won many awards for his work, most prominently the Deutscher Zukunftspreis 2017, awarded by the Federal President of Germany.

Prof. Dr. Rupert Huber, Experimental Physics

The Leibniz Prize for Rupert Huber recognises his outstanding experimental work in terahertz and solid-state physics at the interface between optics and electronics. Huber first achieved prominence with his research on light wave electronics. The innovative idea behind this field of research is the use of atomically strong light fields as alternating current in solid-state systems in order to observe completely new quantum phenomena on very short timescales. In the future, this fundamental research could be used in ultrafast atomic-resolution microscopes or quantum information processing. Huber is the first to have investigated the very fast charge dynamics in solids in interaction with strong light fields. He discovered that it is not possible to unambiguously determine the energy of the electrons within a very short time span after excitation by the strong light field; instead, the electrons are in oscillating mixed states that cancel each other out or amplify each other depending on the orientation of the light field. In a similar way to collision experiments in elementary particle accelerators, Huber was also able to deliberately collide so-called quasiparticles into each other in solid-state systems. These collisions produce ultrashort light flashes which provide information about the structure of the quasiparticles. Huber has also recorded molecular movement triggered by light waves in an atomic slow-motion film.

Rupert Huber studied physics at the Technical University of Munich, where he also earned his doctorate in 2003. After spending three years at Berkeley, USA, he returned to Germany, where he led a DFG-funded Emmy Noether independent junior research group in Konstanz. In 2010, he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Regensburg, where he works at the Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Reckwitz, Sociology

Andreas Reckwitz, one of today’s leading and most original social diagnosticians, will be presented with the Leibniz Prize for his outstanding research work. He has produced wide-ranging and detailed analyses of structural change in modern western societies, combining sociological investigations of everyday life, work and consumption and digital subjectification. In his habilitation thesis “Das hybride Subjekt” (“The Hybrid Subject”), published in 2006, Reckwitz developed his central theme of modern subjectivity, which he analysed with the aid of a series of ‘subject cultures’ since the 18th century. He further advanced this approach in his widely received book “Die Erfindung der Kreativität” (“The Invention of Creativity”) in 2012. Here, he classified processes of social change as dynamics of aestheticisation in art, consumption and the working world. In 2017, Reckwitz’s work culminated in the social-theoretical design of a ‘society of singularities’. In this work (“Gesellschaft der Singularitäten”) he details the evolution from an industrial society to a knowledge and culture economy, in which the aim is to increase ‘singularity capital’. On this basis, he proposed a new theory of social classes and illuminated the forms of politics that correspond to this society.

Andreas Reckwitz studied sociology, political science and philosophy in Bonn, Hamburg and Cambridge and earned his doctorate in Hamburg, where he completed his habilitation in 2005. In the same year he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Konstanz, where he was involved in the Cluster of Excellence “Cultural Foundations of Social Integration”. Since 2010 he has been Professor of Comparative Cultural Sociology at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder and a regular visiting professor at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Prof. Dr. Hans-Reimer Rodewald, Immunology

The Leibniz Prize for Hans-Reimer Rodewald recognises his outstanding work on haematopoiesis, the formation of blood cells. He has made groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of the biology of the thymus, a lymphatic organ. He has also analysed the development of immune system cells, particularly T cells, which develop in the thymus and are key to the cellular immune response, and mast cells, which are involved in many allergies. In his research on the development of the thymus and T cells, Rodewald demonstrated through meticulous experiments that if adequate replenishment does not take place in the thymus, autonomous cell production occurs, which can lead to leukaemic transformation. By using fundamental biology research, he explained the development of leukaemia following gene therapy of haematopoietic (blood-forming) cells. In haematopoiesis research, Rodewald’s work has clarified the formation of special blood cells. He has also investigated how different kinds of immune cells develop from stem cells and together form a functioning defensive system.

Since 2010, Hans-Reimer Rodewald has led the Cellular Immunology department at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg. He studied veterinary medicine in Hanover and wrote his doctoral thesis at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology in Freiburg. After stays at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Harvard Medical School and the Basel Institute for Immunology, in 1999 he was appointed professor at the University of Ulm, from where he moved to his current role. In 2016, Rodewald was awarded the German Immunology Prize by the German Society for Immunology.

Dr. Melina Schuh, Cell Biology

Melina Schuh was selected for the 2019 Leibniz Prize for her fundamental research into reproductive biology. Her work focuses on the production of fertilised egg cells by a type of cell division known as meiosis. This process forms the basis of sexual reproduction in higher organisms. Studying the basic mechanisms of egg development in mammals is complex because egg cells are only available in small numbers and they develop differently according to species. However, Melina Schuh has demonstrated that human egg cells differ significantly from mouse egg cells and that work with mouse models therefore provides only limited insights into human fertility and reproduction. She has also developed a method for observing chromosome segregation in individual human egg cells using imaging techniques. This method allowed her to investigate in more detail faulty segregation, which can result in trisomy 21. To switch off individual proteins in egg cells in order to understand their molecular functions in meiosis, Schuh developed a technique for the manipulation of gene development, which she was able to observe live under the microscope. It is hoped that this technique will lead to new approaches for the treatment of reduced fertility and congenital disorders in humans.

Melina Schuh studied biochemistry in Bayreuth and earned her doctorate in 2008 at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. She then moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge as a group leader, subsequently becoming a programme leader. In 2016 Schuh was appointed director of the meiosis lab at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.

Prof. Dr. Brenda Schulman, Biochemistry

The Leibniz Prize for Brenda Schulman recognises her important work in the fields of biochemistry and structural biology on the molecular mechanisms of the ubiquitin system. Her research focuses on forms of posttranslational modification in which a cellular protein is modified after complete translation. This modification can be triggered by the small protein ubiquitin (UB) or structurally related ubiquitin-like proteins (UBLs). Thanks to Schulman’s work, modification by UB or UBLs is now better understood: it is now known that faulty regulation results in many functional problems such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. Schulman has also answered the question of how UB and UBL modifications cause the structure and function of their protein targets to be modified so as to regulate diverse cellular processes such as protein transport, cell division and autophagy. She achieved this by combining protein crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy with biochemical and cell biology methods. She has also developed strategies to stabilise transient intermediates of ubiquitination and thus obtain detailed insights into the associated molecular mechanisms. In addition to these fundamental studies, Schulman is working on the transfer of her findings into therapy.

Brenda Schulman studied biology in Baltimore, Maryland and earned her doctorate in 1996 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She held postdoctoral posts in Boston and New York and until 2017, she worked in Memphis at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, most recently as co-director of the Cancer Genetics, Biochemistry and Cell Biology programme. In 2016 she became director of the Molecular Machines and Signalling department at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, and in October 2018 she was also made an honorary professor at the Technical University of Munich.

Prof. Dr. Ayelet Shachar, Law and Political Science

Ayelet Shachar’s multidisciplinary work on citizenship and legal frameworks in multicultural societies has made her one of the leading experts in her field, for which she has been selected to receive the 2019 Leibniz Prize. Shachar achieved global resonance with her first book, published in 2001, “Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women’s Rights”. In this work, she investigated the status of women in religious minorities and analysed the tensions between tradition, religious diversity and the general standard of gender equality. In her second book, “The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality” (2009), Shachar addressed questions of justice that arise from the fact that citizenship is typically acquired at random and not due to merit. She called for those who have been fortunate in the ‘citizen lottery’ to reduce inequalities in the global distribution of opportunities, for example in the form of transnational obligations on the part of affluent states towards poorer ones. More recently, Shachar has turned her attention to the phenomenon of shifting borders, the resolution of nation-state border regimes with a clearly defined territory into flexible and variable zones, and areas in which more intensive control and surveillance measures are permitted.

Ayelet Shachar studied political science and law at Tel Aviv University. She earned her doctorate in 1997 from Yale Law School in the USA and then taught in various roles at the University of Toronto, Canada. In 2007, the University of Toronto appointed her to the Canada Research Chair in Citizenship and Multiculturalism. Since 2015, she has been Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen.

Prof. Michèle Tertilt Ph.D., Economics

Michèle Tertilt is being presented with the Leibniz Prize for her work and achievements at the interface of macroeconomics, development economics and family economics, with which she has opened up new perspectives in economic studies. Tertilt’s research focuses on the influence of gender roles and family structures on economic growth, investments in human capital and economic development. Through this approach she has integrated family economics into development economics and macroeconomics. In her paper “Women’s Liberation: What’s in It for Men?” (2009), for example, she investigated the assertion of women’s rights in the second half of the 19th century. Especially in its early phase, this was associated in Great Britain and the USA with a drastic decline in the birth rate and a rapid increase in general school education. For this topic, as with others, Tertilt combines complex economic equilibrium models with empirical and economic-historical investigations. She also engages in debates on current economic policy issues.

Michèle Tertilt studied economics in Bielefeld and at the University of Minnesota, where she also earned her doctorate. For eight years she was Assistant Professor at Stanford University before returning to Germany in 2010 to accept a professorship at the University of Mannheim. In Mannheim she is currently a project leader in the DFG-funded CRC “Economic Perspectives on Societal Challenges”. Between 2013 and 2017, she also served as a Managing Editor of the “Review of Economic Studies”, one of the most renowned journals in economics.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Wernsdorfer, Experimental Solid-State Physics

Wolfgang Wernsdorfer will be presented with the Leibniz Prize in recognition of his pioneering work on nanomagnetism and single-molecule magnets. Wernsdorfer epitomises the enormous progress that has been made in this field, which ranges from fundamental investigations of single-molecule magnets to molecular quantum spintronics. As a doctoral researcher he developed a groundbreaking measuring instrument known as nano-SQUID that allowed him to study the magnetic properties of individual nanostructures and molecules. Using this apparatus he was also able to investigate other physical phenomena, including the mechanism of magnetisation reversal. In addition, Wernsdorfer demonstrated that individual molecules have a significant magnetic moment and can exhibit a stable orientation similar to conventional magnets for a long period of time – something previously considered impossible. These single-molecule magnets possess not only the classic properties of magnets but also quantum properties that could be used in the development of quantum computers. To this end, Wernsdorfer is currently working on integrating small molecular quantum processors into state-of-the-art quantum electronics.

Wolfgang Wernsdorfer studied physics at the University of Würzburg. He then moved to the Louis Néel Institute in Grenoble, where he earned his doctorate in 1996 and completed his habilitation in 2002, serving most recently as Research Director. In 2016 he was appointed a Humboldt Professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Matthias Wessling, Chemical Engineering

Matthias Wessling is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of membrane technology and polymer research. He has been selected to receive the Leibniz Prize for his seminal work on the synthesis, description and understanding of semipermeable synthetic membranes. Membranes are generally thin material layers that separate two spaces. This makes them important components in many industrial processes, such as water desalination and the treatment of wastewater and waste gas, as well as the production of high-performance batteries and fuel cells. Wessling’s research made it possible for the first time to precisely adjust the functionality of a membrane and to analyse and understand the resulting mechanisms of action. His fundamental work is now put to practical use in many products in industry and medical technology, for example in kidney dialysis. Wessling is currently working to combine synthetic and biological membrane technology.

Matthias Wessling studied chemical engineering in Dortmund and Cincinnati. He then worked as a researcher in the Netherlands, where he earned his doctorate from the University of Twente and held a professorship in membrane technology. In 2010, he was appointed Humboldt Professor at RWTH Aachen University as part of the research initiative “Next Generation Processes and Products”. In Aachen he has also helped to expand the Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials (DWI).