Press Release No. 9 | March 25, 2024

Four Female Researchers and Six Male Researchers Receive Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize

DFG presents most important award for researchers in early career phases / €200,000 in prize money each / Award ceremony to be held on 4 June in Berlin

This year, four female and six male researchers will receive the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize, Germany’s most distinguished award for researchers at an early stage of their career. This was decided by the Joint Committee of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation). The winners receive prize money of €200,000 each. They can use these funds for their ongoing research for a period of up to three years. There is also a 22 percent programme allowance for indirect project costs. The names of a total of 168 researchers were put forward from all research areas. The winners were selected by the committee responsible chaired by DFG Vice President and biochemist Professor Dr. Peter H. Seeberger. The award ceremony will be held in Berlin on 4 June.

The Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes 2024 go to:

  • Dr. Tomer Czaczkes, Behavioural Ecology, University of Regensburg
  • Dr. Christopher Degelmann, Ancient History, HU Berlin
  • Dr. Katharina Dobs, Cognitive Psychology and Neurosciences, University of Giessen
  • Dr. Claire Donnelly, Experimental Solid State Physics, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids, Dresden, and TU Dresden
  • Dr. Eugene Kim, Functional Genome Research, Max Planck Institute of Biophysics, Frankfurt am Main
  • Junior Professor Dr. Christopher Morris, Machine Learning, RWTH Aachen
  • Junior Professor Dr. Kai Markus Schneider, Experimental Gastroenterology, RWTH Aachen University Hospital
  • Junior Professor Dr. Sebastian Sippel, Climate Research, University of Leipzig
  • Junior Professor Dr. Ze'ev Strauss, Jewish Studies, University of Hamburg
  • Dr. Dominika Wylezalek, Astrophysics, University of Heidelberg

The Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize has been awarded annually since 1977 to outstanding researchers at an early stage of their scientific career. It aims to support the winners, who do not yet hold a tenured professorship, and encourage them to continue to pursue their scientific career. The prize not only recognises the quality of their dissertation, but in particular also whether they have subsequently gone on to develop an independent research profile and enrich the relevant subject-specialist community with the results of their work, suggesting that excellent results can be expected of them in the future.

As of the 2023 round of awards, the DFG has incorporated the prize firmly in its own funding portfolio, having previously awarded it jointly with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Established in 1980, the prize is named after nuclear physicist and former DFG President Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, during whose term of office (1974-1979) it was first awarded.

The prizewinners in detail:

Dr. Tomer Czaczkes, Behavioural Ecology, University of Regensburg

Biologist Tomer Czaczkes works at the interface between behavioural ecology and comparative psychology. In doing so he focuses on small life forms that demonstrate complex ways of thinking: based on ants and bumblebees, he investigates how the behaviour of social insects can be manipulated in their search for food. For example, how do ants process information and use it strategically? How do they perceive their environment and make decisions? By means of sophisticated experiments, he has already been able to show that ants change their behaviour when they have been disappointed by previous experience. In the same way, they are more “enthusiastic” about a food source that is more challenging for them to access. This shows that social insects can be manipulated in a similar way to human beings – such as customers who are exposed to hidden advertising. Among other things, Czaczkes is currently attempting to draw on his findings to control invasive alien ant species.

Dr. Christopher Degelmann, Ancient History, HU Berlin

Ancient historian Christopher Degelmann seeks to explore links between historical and contemporary issues. In doing so, he draws on various modern approaches from cultural studies, sociology and political science, using these to tap into entirely new perspectives on ancient sources. One area he looks at is the practice of Athenian democracy, for example – the origin of today’s Western democratic forms of government. He examines the influence that certain social-communicative mechanisms had even back then, including fake news and rumours, clothing and shaving styles, invective against politicians and even social types such as the “hipster”. In this way, his research explores the significance of our ancient heritage from the point of view of how we view ourselves today. By the same token, he is able to achieve a novel shift in perspective by taking contemporary issues as a key to deciphering ancient history.

Dr. Katharina Dobs, Cognitive Psychology and Neurosciences, University of Giessen

One fascinating example of the brain’s capabilities is the reliability with which we are able to recognise and distinguish faces, even from different angles and when they show different emotional expressions. Katharina Dobs researches the mechanisms of human visual perception, in particular the functional specialisation in the brain, for example the fact that certain regions of the brain process special visual perception processes such as facial recognition. With an academic background in psychology and computer science and with a doctorate in neuroscience, she develops neural network models at the interface between these various disciplines. In order to do so, she draws on the latest methods of artificial intelligence. For example, she has already been able to demonstrate the role of dynamic stimuli rather than static images in the process of facial recognition and how training an artificial neural network leads to functional specialisation which is analogous to that of the human brain.

Dr. Claire Donnelly, Experimental Solid State Physics, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids, Dresden, and TU Dresden

The unique physical properties of nanomaterials, i.e. materials with very small dimensions of one to 100 nanometres (a nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre), have been opening up new possibilities in technology and science for years. Within microscopically small solid-state structures, nanometre-scale areas can be distinguished that have vastly differing magnetic properties. Physicist Claire Donnelly aims to find out more about these magnetic nano ranges. Her research has already made it possible to investigate and spatially visualise the magnetic properties of tiny three-dimensional solid-state systems with an accuracy of a few tens of nanometres – and with a temporal resolution in the picosecond range, i.e. a trillionth of a second. In her current studies she is also focussing on the targeted production of nanomaterials with specific magnetic properties.

Dr. Eugene Kim, Functional Genome Research, Max Planck Institute of Biophysics, Frankfurt am Main

Cells are masters at cramming information into the smallest of spaces: as carriers of genetic information, chromosomes are compressed by almost three orders of magnitude so that they fit into the cells. But how do chromosomes manage to adopt their three-dimensional structure in the cell nucleus? This is the subject of biophysicist Eugene Kim’s investigations. In order to reveal the molecular processes behind the packing process, she uses and develops imaging techniques drawn from single-molecule biophysics. She has already made a significant contribution to understanding how chromosomes are organised and compacted with the help of the protein complex condensin. Among other things, she discovered how several such condensins work together to form the structure of chromosomes without colliding and interfering with each other. Incorporating her methodological developments and discoveries, Kim has established her own research programme on the 3D organisation of the genome.

Junior Professor Dr. Christopher Morris, Maschine Learning, RWTH Aachen

Artificial intelligence – and machine learning methods in particular – have permeated almost all areas of computer applications in recent years. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many people frequently use machine learning, for example in image and language processing. It is less commonly used in other areas such as transport links, social networks or molecular structures, however, since these are based on more complex networked data structures. These networks can be visualised as graphs consisting of nodes and edges. Christopher Morris is working on developing machine learning methods for such networked data and has already made key contributions to the theory of graph neural networks. His studies show when these methods are capable of making reliable predictions, resulting in a new class of machine learning methods for graphs that are demonstrably superior to previously established methods.

Junior Professor Dr. Kai Markus Schneider, Experimental Gastroenterology, RWTH Aachen University Hospital

The functioning of the human body is complex and involves interaction between different organs. The physician Kai Markus Schneider includes these interactions in his research work, recently enabling him to contribute to further deciphering the so-called gut-brain axis. A molecular circuit he discovered shows that psychological stress increases inflammation of the intestine. The results are reflected in modern treatment methods which now also seek to reduce stress signals from the brain to the gut in connection with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases. Schneider has been working on this integrative approach since his student days – his research initially focused on how the gut influences inflammatory processes in the liver and bile ducts. According to the selection committee, the term “gut feeling” has taken on a new meaning as a result of his research.

Junior Professor Dr. Sebastian Sippel, Climate Research, University of Leipzig

Drought, heavy rain, storms and hail – to what extent are extreme weather events linked to climate change? This is the question being investigated by geoecologist and climate researcher Sebastian Sippel. As such, he is active in the only recently established research field of climate attribution, which involves the assessment of how a range of different causal factors contribute to a climate event relative to each other. His work has contributed in a fundamental way to our understanding of climate change and its effects. Using a newly developed methodology, for example, he demonstrated that climate change can be detected as a global fingerprint in every single daily weather pattern after 2012. In another study, he succeeded in quantifying the influence of natural climate fluctuations on time scales over several decades. His multi-faceted studies also address the effects of global climate change on the water and carbon cycle.

Junior Professor Dr. Ze’ev Strauss, Jewish Studies, University of Hamburg

How did the late medieval scholar Meister Eckhart arrive at his bold theological and philosophical ideas? And how was the philosopher Hegel inspired to develop an idealistic system at the beginning of the 19th century? These are the kinds of questions Jewish studies scholar Ze’ev Strauss looks into as he examines the relationships and interlinking of intellectual history between Jewish and Christian traditions. In doing so, he reveals fresh insights into unfamiliar and overlooked aspects, and in particular into relationships between texts that have previously gone unnoticed. It was Ibn Gabirol, an Andalusian Jewish philosopher, who helped Meister Eckhart explore Christianity from its speculative side, for example; and it was the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (* around 15/10 BC) who had a profound influence on Hegelian philosophy. Strauss’ research contributes to a new historical contextualisation of the debate surrounding the equality of Jewish people and the development of modern antisemitism.

Dr. Dominika Wylezalek, Astrophysics, University of Heidelberg

Astrophysicist Dominika Wylezalek conducts research into how galaxies form and the particular role played by supermassive black holes at their centres. To this end, she observes active galactic nuclei (quasars), which are among the most luminous objects in the universe. She has already provided initial evidence that the energy pumped into the environment by supermassive black holes has a relevant influence on star formation and therefore on the current shape of galaxies. In a NASA research project, she collected data from the James Webb Space Telescope and found a galaxy cluster with a large number of massive galaxies in the process of forming around an extremely red quasar. The galaxy cluster dates back to the cosmological epoch of highly active star formation (“cosmic noon”) some ten billion years ago. This observation helps understand how galaxies in the early universe merged to form the cosmic web we see today.

Further information

The award ceremony for the 2024 Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes will take place on 4 June at silent green Kulturquartier in Berlin. Representatives of the media will receive further details prior to the event.

Information on the 2024 prize winners will be available shortly at: 


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