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Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes 2019

This year, ten researchers – three women and seven men – will receive the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize, the most important award for early career researchers in Germany. The recipients were chosen by a selection committee in Bonn appointed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The prizewinners were awarded with the €20,000 prize on 28 May in Berlin.

Prof. Dr. Stefan Cihan Aykut, Sociology

Stefan Cihan Aykut’s research focuses on the sociological study of climate discourse and climate policy. He is particularly interested in the comparison of Germany and France. Aykut has studied and researched in both countries, publishing in German, English and French. He has placed national discourses and policies in their European and global context, which gave rise to his dissertation “How to Govern a Global Risk? The Construction of Climate Change as a Public Problem at the Global and European Levels, in France and Germany” (in French in the original). In his research, Aykut innovatively brings together research approaches and methods from political science, sociology, and science and technology studies. He combines empirical observation with hermeneutics and discourse analysis, with historical depth of focus. Aykut’s analyses also have impact in a political and social context.

Dr. Karl Bringmann, Theoretical Computer Science

Karl Bringmann has written two master’s dissertations, in computer science and mathematics, and published nine conference papers while he was still a student. As a doctoral and postdoctoral researcher, he presented his work on algorithms and complexity theory at many leading international congresses on theoretical computer science, where he was also invited on several occasions to serve on the programme committee. Bringmann has made extremely important contributions to his two fields of research, also addressing questions in many areas which are distantly related to one another. One of his most significant findings is the calculation of new fundamental ‘lower limits’ for important problems such as the Fréchet distance of curves.

Dr. Fabian Dielmann, Inorganic Molecular Chemistry

Having held posts in Regensburg and California, Fabian Dielmann has led a DFG-funded Emmy Noether independent junior research group at the University of Münster since 2013. There, he investigates questions relating to molecular chemistry and catalysis, in particular the development of methods to activate very inert small molecules such as carbon dioxide and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). These molecules are of fundamental economic and social importance, being the starting materials for various industrial processes but also pollutants, particularly carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. As well as closing the gap between academic research and application, Dielmann has moved beyond standard paradigms and thought models in his discipline, for example in the activation of SF6 with nucleophilic phosphanes he himself developed. His research has been published in internationally relevant journals and is respected worldwide.

Dr. Jonathan F. Donges, Statistical Physics and Climate Science

By introducing innovative methods from statistical physics into climate and Earth system research, Jonathan F. Donges has significantly advanced this field. He has also carried out pioneering work in the analysis of recurring events, establishing it as an analytical method for climate data before big data methods became common practice. More recently, he has used additional network-based approaches and methods drawn from complexity theory for the purposes of climate research. An article which he co-authored, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”, is expected to influence debate in climate science for several years to come. In this paper, the authors identify in the transitions between more stable and more variable climate conditions a trigger for human development in Africa, providing evidence of a reciprocal relationship between climate development and human development. Donges studied and earned his doctorate in Bonn, San Diego, Potsdam and Berlin. Since 2013, among other roles he has served as one of two leaders of a flagship project (COPAN) at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Prof. Dr. Knut Drescher, Microbiology and Biophysics

Knut Drescher, who works at the intersection of physics, biochemistry, materials science and biotechnology, has made important contributions to the study of cellular processes during the formation of bacterial biofilms. His findings are being used to develop measures to intervene in the growth and proliferation of these multicellular collectives. This brings closer the goal of reducing the mortality risk from infections triggered by certain pathogens. Drescher’s work also provides important insights that improve our understanding of how self-organised patterns of interaction that differ from individual behaviours arise within cellular collectives. In 2014, after spending periods working at the universities in Oxford, Cambridge and Princeton, Drescher was appointed head of a Max Planck research group and since 2015 he has also been Professor of Biophysics at Philipps-Universität Marburg. In 2016, he was awarded an ERC Starting Grant and was selected to lead a project within a DFG-funded Collaborative Research Centre.

Prof. Dr. Stefanie Gänger, Modern and Contemporary History

Since 2013, Stefanie Gänger has been Junior Professor of Iberian and Latin American History at the University of Cologne. Prior to this she studied and researched in Augsburg, Seville, Cambridge and Berlin, as well as in Konstanz as part of the Leibniz Prize research team “Global Processes” led by Jürgen Osterhammel. Gänger, whose main interests lie in the history of science and medicine from the 18th to the early 20th century, has broken new ground with her consistent integration of Latin America into global historical frameworks. Her first monograph dealt with the collection and generation of knowledge of and about Pre-Hispanic objects and the development of archaeology in Peru and Chile. Her second book discusses the history of the worldwide use of, and global trade in, medicinal plants from South America. Here too, Gänger – who is internationally well networked with researchers in the history of science and global history – adopts a genuinely global historical approach. Her use of sources from many parts of the world in different languages is remarkable in its own right.

Prof. Dr. Nicolas Perkowski, Probability Theory

Perkowski has been Junior Professor of Stochastic Analysis at the Humboldt University of Berlin since 2015, and since 2018 he has also been based at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig, funded through the DFG’s Heisenberg Programme. His research focuses on singular stochastic partial differential equations (SPDEs), questions relating to applied stochastic analysis, and robust methods in financial mathematics. Together with co-authors, he developed a highly regarded alternative approach to the solution of singular SPDEs, such as the Kardar-Parisi-Zhang equation, and was able for the first time to prove that the energy solutions to these are unique. Since 2016 Perkowski has been a project leader in a DFG Research Unit as well as participating in a DFG-funded International Research Training Group.

Dr. Uta Reinöhl, General Linguistics

Uta Reinöhl’s field of research is historical linguistics, and specifically the development of individual languages. She also carries out research into grammaticalization, an area that demands familiarity with many different languages and current theories as well as a capacity for generalisation. Reinöhl therefore brings together two academic traditions that have largely existed in parallel. Her main focus is on questions of syntax, or the structure of sentences. In her dissertation she shed new light on one of the most important developments in sentence structure in the Indo-Germanic languages, namely the emergence of hierarchical structures in the nominal phrase. Her linking of data from very different areas is unusual: for instance, she has opened up new insights through a detailed comparison of Vedic Sanskrit and various Australian languages. Since 2019 Reinöhl has been the leader of a DFG-funded Emmy Noether independent junior research group at the University of Mainz. Since 2017 she has been a project leader in a Collaborative Research Centre at the University of Cologne and co-applicant in a DFG project to develop a research environment for Vedic and Sanskrit texts.

Dr. Thimoteus Speer, Nephrology

Lipid metabolism disorders are one of the key risk factors for arteriosclerotic changes to the arteries, which can cause strokes and heart attacks. However, not all blood lipids are harmful. Thimoteus Speer has demonstrated that only certain modified lipids have a damaging effect on arteries in people with kidney disease. Crucially, he linked these findings with newly discovered processes of chronic inflammation and was able to explain certain mechanistic details of this fatal interaction. He therefore made an important link between these two common damage processes. Speer’s findings have made it possible to establish diagnostic precision medicine and, in the medium term, the development of new treatment strategies. The importance of his work is therefore due to its strong translational research approach. Working from the basis of a joint doctorate in human medicine and biology, he has conducted outstanding basic and translational research. This is reflected in his roles as senior physician, laboratory director for experimental and translational nephrology, and project leader in a DFG-funded Collaborative Research Centre.

Prof. Dr. Nina Henriette Uhlenhaut, Experimental Endocrinology

The field of endocrinology is concerned with disorders of hormone-producing glands, such as the thyroid gland, and disorders caused by an excess, deficit or other imbalances of hormones. Nina Henriette Uhlenhaut investigates the signal transmission of glucocorticoid hormones at a molecular level and its physiological effects on the immune system and metabolism. Uhlenhaut’s work has significantly contributed to proving that these hormones can mediate both stimulating and inhibiting effects, and to explaining this mechanism. Since 2018 she has been Professor of Metabolic Biochemistry and Genetics at the Gene Center at LMU Munich and the leader of a junior research group at Helmholtz Zentrum München. Since 2017 she has been a project leader in a DFG-funded Transregio and a Collaborative Research Centre. In 2014 she was awarded an ERC Starting Grant and between 2013 and 2018 she led a DFG-funded Emmy Noether independent junior research group.