Press Release No. 4 | March 11, 2021

Four female researchers and six male researchers receive Germany’s top award for early career researchers

DFG and BMBF award Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes 2021 / Award ceremony to be held on 4 May

DFG and BMBF award Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes 2021 / Award ceremony to be held on 4 May

Four female and six male researchers are to receive the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize this year, the top award for early career investigators in Germany. This was the result of a decision made by a selection committee appointed by the DFG and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The prizes are each worth €20,000 and will be presented at an award ceremony on 4 May that is to be held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes 2021 go to:

  • Dr. Julia Borst, Romance Literary Studies, University of Bremen
  • Dr.-Ing. Silvia Budday, Biomechanics, University Erlangen-Nuremberg
  • Dr. Josep Cornellà, Organic Molecular Chemistry, Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim/Ruhr
  • Junior Professor Dr. Tim Dietrich, Astrophysics, University of Potsdam
  • Dr. Jakob Nikolas Kather, Computational Oncology, University Medical Center, RWTH Aachen University
  • Junior Professor Dr.-Ing. Kai Lawonn, Data Visualisation, University of Jena
  • Dr. Patrick Roberts, Prehistoric Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena
  • Junior Professor Dr. Anna Schenk, Physical Chemistry, University of Bayreuth
  • Junior Professor Dr. Monika Schönauer, Neuropsychology, University of Freiburg
  • Dr. Jan Michael Schuller, Biochemistry and Biophysics of Microorganisms, University of Marburg

Since 1977, the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize has been awarded annually to outstanding researchers who are at an early stage in their scientific careers and do not yet hold a tenured professorship. The prize serves to recognise outstanding work as well as acting as an incentive for winners to continue their career independently and purposefully. Established in 1980, it is named after nuclear physicist and former DFG President Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, during whose term of office (1974-1979) it was first awarded The Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize is considered the top award for early career investigators in Germany.

A total of 150 researchers across all disciplines were nominated this year. The winners were selected by the responsible committee chaired by DFG Vice President and mathematician Professor Marlis Hochbruck.

The prizewinners in detail:

Dr. Julia Borst (39), Romance Literary Studies, University of Bremen

In her dissertation, Julia Borst devoted herself to a topic that had not previously received much attention in the field of Romance studies: the fictionalisation of the traumatic experience of violence in the post-Duvalier era in the contemporary Haitian novel. In her habilitation on contemporary Afro-Hispanic diaspora literature, being written as a DFG-funded Principal Investigator, she is currently devoting herself once again to a subject that has hardly received attention to date. Her research is already considered an important point of reference and contributes to anchoring the work of Afro-Hispanic authors – still a very under-researched area – within the field of Romance studies. Borst also made an important contribution to the as yet nascent field of Black Holocaust Studies. The striking features of Borst’s work are her multilingualism, her theoretical and methodological versatility and her dialogue-based, ethically responsible approach.

Dr.-Ing. Silvia Budday (32), Biomechanics, University Erlangen-Nuremberg

Silvia Budday’s work is concerned with the modelling and characterisation of mechanical properties of brain tissue. Budday is one of the world’s leading scientists in the recently established research field of continuum biomechanics. Her work on subjects such as the development of micromechanical models for brain tissue – enabling earlier diagnosis of disease and optimisation of treatment methods – is highly relevant from the point of view of both basic research and clinical application. Since 2019, Budday has led a DFG-funded Emmy Noether Junior Research group and has been Deputy Spokesperson of the Computational Biomechanics specialist committee of the Association of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics (GAMM).

Dr. Josep Cornellà (36), Organic Molecular Chemistry, Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim/Ruhr

Josep Cornellà’s research focus is the development and implementation of practical and efficient methods for organic synthesis based on sustainable and cheap catalysts that are also relevant to industrial use – in active ingredient research, for instance. A research group leader at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Mülheim, Josep Cornellà’s findings have appeared in many high-ranking publications and he secured an ERC Starting Grant in 2019. After completing his studies and a obtaining doctorate in chemistry in Barcelona and London, research stays as a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow took him to Tarragona in Spain and to the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

Junior Professor Dr. Tim Dietrich (32), Astrophysics, University of Potsdam

Tim Dietrich is W1 Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Potsdam and an associate researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam. His research into the dynamics of binary neutron star systems has significantly expanded knowledge in this field, establishing new theoretical models that can be compared with observations. Dietrich has already helped shape his field by creating a database of calculated gravitational wave signals from the merger of two neutron stars. The numerical tools he has developed are also extremely important in the analysis of data from gravitational wave detectors. Dietrich is a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), the group of institutions and scientists that first detected gravitational waves.

Dr. Jakob Nikolas Kather (31), Computational Oncology, University Medical Center, RWTH Aachen University

Jakob Nikolas Kather conducts research in the newly established field of computer-based methods in clinical imaging. The results of his work help further develop the evaluation and interpretation of complex image data, thereby enabling the enhancement diagnosis and treatment in oncology in particular, for example in the prevention of colon cancer. This makes Kather one of the few scientists and physicians able to develop IT solutions that are considered highly recognised contributions in the field of medicine. He acquired the necessary knowledge base for this by taking a master’s degree in medical physics, which he completed alongside his medical studies. The findings of the research group led by Kather at the University Medical Center at RWTH Aachen have been published in high-ranking journals. Since 2019, he has also been a member of the Junges Kolleg (Young Academy) of the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts.

Junior Professor Dr.-Ing. Kai Lawonn (35), Data Visualisation, University of Jena

Kai Lawonn’s research on data visualisation ranges from medical visualisation and illustrative visualisation to geometric computing, computer graphics and visual analysis. In his work, Lawonn develops new theoretical concepts which he always links to applications in fields as diverse as medicine, chemistry and heritage conservation. He is a mathematician who has achieved enormous thematic breadth in an exceptionally short time: he completed his doctorate and habilitation in Magdeburg within five years, as well as conducting research at TU Delft and the ETH Zurich. The international contacts established at the latter institutions have resulted in numerous (co)publications in high-ranking journals. Lawonn has received several grants for his investigative work, including DFG research grants. One of the distinctions he has won that is particularly worthy of mention is the EuroVis Young Researcher Award 2020, a prize for outstanding young researchers in the field of computer graphics and visualisation.

Dr. Patrick Roberts (29), Prehistoric Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena

Patrick Roberts is one of Germany’s leading researchers in the development and application of bioarchaeological methods: these are based on the analysis of stable isotopes in the remains of prehistoric humans and animals and allow conclusions to be drawn about diet and lifestyle. His focus is on hitherto little studied early human-environment relationships in tropical rainforests – a particularly important habitat and one that is particularly at risk today. Roberts’ work also shows how archaeological and palaeoenvironmental knowledge can contribute to modern conservation goals and policy-making in relation to such vulnerable regions, in which more than half of the world’s population will live by 2050. Roberts received his PhD from Oxford University. In addition to his group leadership role in Jena, he holds positions at the University of the Philippines and the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Roberts secured an ERC Starting Grant and is a member of the Global Young Academy.

Junior Professor Dr. Anna Schenk (36), Physical Chemistry, University of Bayreuth

Anna Schenk’s research is at the interface between physical chemistry and the materials sciences. She uniquely combines interdisciplinary concepts from biomineralisation with physical-chemical concepts of electrocatalysis. The novelty of this approach is to apply nature’s designs to the structuring of crystalline materials to catalyst materials. In this way, Schenk’s work has contributed to a better understanding of the synthesis and analysis of complex hybrid and hierarchically structured crystalline systems. Applying the structuring concepts of biominerals to electrocatalysts such as cobalt oxide also enables a completely new approach to synthesising this class of catalyst for the energy transition. Schenk is the project leader of a DFG-funded Collaborative Research Centre and secured DFG funding for a major piece of research instrumentation. She is also the Deputy Spokesperson of the Junges Kolleg (Young Academy) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Junior Professor Dr. Monika Schönauer (32), Neuropsychology, University of Freiburg

An engram is an experiential impression that leaves a memory trace in the brain; human memory is made up of the totality of all engrams. Together with her DFG-funded Emmy Noether Junior Research Group, Junior Professor Monika Schönauer is investigating the development of the engram and the process of memory consolidation during wakefulness and sleep using imaging techniques. In a highly regarded publication, Schönauer showed, among other things, that just one hour after a learning episode, brain structural changes in the neocortex occur that fulfil all the criteria of a memory engram. This contradicted the prevailing assumption in memory research that neocortical memory representation is established only slowly and through frequent reactivation of hippocampal activation patterns. Having conducted postdoctoral research in Princeton and Tübingen, Schönauer was awarded the 2019 Leopoldina Early Career Award.

Dr. Jan Michael Schuller (33), Biochemistry and Biophysics of Microorganisms, University of Marburg

Jan Michael Schuller’s research has produced fresh insights into fundamental biological mechanisms in various fields of structural biology, biophysics and biochemistry. In this way, Schuller has contributed significantly to a deeper understanding of the function of photosynthetic complexes in cyanobacteria, which is also relevant with regard to aspects of practical application. With his DFG-funded Emmy Noether Junior Research Group, Schuller is investigating the structure of enzymes involved in carbon fixation and the carbon concentration mechanism in cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic bacteria that make up a high proportion of marine phytoplankton, for example. Using these organisms, Schuller was able to show the way in which carbon concentration is affected by the interplay between the enzyme RuBisCO, which is responsible for fixing CO2 from the atmosphere, and a carbonic anhydrase that provides CO2 replenishment. The elucidation of this mechanism was made possible by Schuller’s innovative structural biological methods, such as the application of cryoelectron microscopy at the single-molecule level.

Further Information

The virtual award ceremony for the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes 2021 will take place on 4 May. Representatives of the media will receive further details prior to the event.

Information on the 2021 prizewinners will be available shortly at:


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