Press Release No. 54 | 10 December 2020
Leibniz Prizes 2021: DFG Awards Four Female and Six Male Researchers
Germany's most important research funding prize for outstanding work in all fields of research / Virtual award ceremony on 15 March 2021
The latest recipients of the most prestigious research funding prize in Germany have been announced: the Joint Committee of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) today awarded the 2021 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize to four female and six male researchers. They had previously been selected from 131 nominees by the selection committee responsible. Of the ten prizewinners, there are two each from the humanities and social sciences, the natural sciences and the engineering sciences, and four from the life sciences. Each will receive prize money of €2.5 million. They are entitled to use these funds for their research work in any way they wish, without bureaucratic obstacles, for up to seven years.. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Joint Committee met by video conference. The Leibniz Prizes 2021 will be awarded virtually on 15 March.
The following researchers will receive the 2020 "Funding Prize in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Programme" awarded by the DFG:
- Dr. Asifa Akhtar, Epigenetics, Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Freiburg
- Professor Dr. Elisabeth André, Computer Science, University of Augsburg
- Professor Dr. Giuseppe Caire, Theoretical Communications Engineering, Berlin Institute of Technology
- Professor Dr. Nico Eisenhauer, Biodiversity Research, University of Leipzig
- Professor Dr. Veronika Eyring, Earth System Modelling, German Aerospace Center, Oberpfaffenhofen site and University of Bremen
- Professor Dr. Katerina Harvati-Papatheodorou, Palaeoanthropology, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen and Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, Tübingen
- Professor Dr. Steffen Mau, Sociology, Humboldt University Berlin
- Professor Dr. Rolf Müller, Pharmaceutical Biology, Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Saarland University, Saarbrücken
- Professor Dr. Jürgen Ruland, Immunology, Klinikum rechts der Isar, Technical University of Munich
- Professor Dr. Volker Springel, Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Garching
The Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize has been awarded annually by the DFG since 1986. Up to ten prizes can be awarded per year, each with prize money of €2.5 million. Including the ten prizes in 2021, a total of 388 Leibniz Prizes have been awarded to date. Of these, 123 have gone to the natural sciences, 113 to the life sciences, 91 to the humanities and social sciences and 61 to the engineering sciences. As the prize and prize money can be shared in exceptional cases, there have been more award recipients than there have prizes. A total of 415 nominees have received the award to date, including 353 male researchers and 62 female researchers.
Two Leibniz Prize winners and seven Leibniz Prize laureates have also received the Nobel Prize after being awarded the most important research funding prize in Germany: 1988 Professor Dr. Hartmut Michel (Chemistry), 1991 Professor Dr. Erwin Neher and Professor Dr. Bert Sakmann (both Medicine), 1995 Professor Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (Medicine), 2005 Professor Dr. Theodor W. Hänsch (Physics), 2007 Professor Dr. Gerhard Ertl (Chemistry), 2014 Professor Dr. Stefan W. Hell (Chemistry) and 2020 Professor Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier (Chemistry) and Professor Dr. Reinhard Genzel (Physics).
A brief portrait of the 2021 Leibniz prizewinners:
Dr. Asifa Akhtar (49), Epigenetics, Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Freiburg
Asifa Akhtar receives the Leibniz Prize for her cell biology work on mechanisms of epigenetic gene regulation. With this work she has made a groundbreaking contribution to the understanding of X-chromosome regulation, also known as “dosage compensation”. This is a mechanism that ensures that the genes of the X chromosome are produced in equal strength in the male and female sex. Among other things, Akhtar was able to elucidate the molecular mechanism that controls the different function of MOF (males-absent on the first protein) histone acetyltransferases on the X chromosome and the autosomes. Akhtar further recognised that MOFs are also involved in other processes of regulating the genome. These findings are fundamental to understanding developmental and pathological processes such as cancer. More recently, Akhtar discovered that, in addition to their role in regulating gene expression in the nucleus, MOFs are also instrumental in regulating genes in mitochondria. This explains for the first time how epigenetic gene expression is coordinated between the nucleus and mitochondria based on cellular metabolism.
Asifa Akhtar received her PhD from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London in 1997. She continued her research at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, where – after an interim period at LMU Munich – she headed a Research Group from 2001 to 2009. She then moved to the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, where she was appointed Director of the Department of Chromatin Regulation in 2013. Akhtar has been a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina since 2019.
Professor Dr. Elisabeth André (59), Computer Science, University of Augsburg
The Leibniz Prize is awarded to Elisabeth André for establishing the research field of conversational emotional agents in the field of artificial intelligence. It lays the foundations for future AI systems to be able to act in a more human-centred manner. In her doctoral thesis, André already dealt with verbal and non-verbal signals for human-machine communication. Furthermore, she dedicated herself early on to the current topic of trust in human-machine communication, established pain recognition as a relevant capability for machine-learning-based health assistance and addressed issues regarding the acceptance of the autonomy of machines. With the development of the open-source framework SSI (Social Signal Interpretation) for recording and analysing multimodal signals such as eye movement, speech and gestures, André has finally succeeded in making a contribution that goes far beyond computer science. Today, SSI is used worldwide for a wide variety of tasks, for example to give robots or virtual characters the ability to recognise and react to a human being’s emotions.
Elisabeth André received her doctorate in computer science from Saarland University in 1995. She previously headed several projects at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Saarbrücken. In 2001, she accepted an appointment to the Chair of Multimodal Human-Technology Interaction at the then newly established Institute of Computer Science at the University of Augsburg. André was a DFG review board member from 2008 to 2012 and has been a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina since 2010. In 2019, the Gesellschaft für Informatik (German Informatics Society) chose her as one of the “ten formative minds in German AI history”.
Professor Dr. Giuseppe Caire (55), Theoretical Communications Engineering, Berlin Institute of Technology
Giuseppe Caire receives the Leibniz Prize for creating essential computer science foundations in the field of modern wireless communication and information technology. Among other things, he has developed the theoretical basis for optimising special modulation procedures (Bi-Interleaved Coded Modulation, BICM), which make it possible to decode messages from a transmitter that run over a noisy channel almost without error at the receiver. These methods are standard in wireless communication today. His recent work on distributed caching systems, in which information is stored at several locations separated from each other, has produced completely results that are entirely new in the field of information theory. Technology transfer is also one of Caire’s areas of interest: among other things, he co-founded SpaceMUX, a Silicon Valley start-up that has developed technologies for wireless networks in companies.
After receiving his doctorate from the Politecnico di Torino in Italy in 1994, Giuseppe Caire’s career stages have included work at the European Space Agency in the Netherlands and an appointment as an associate professor at the University of Parma. He was a professor at the Institut Eurécom in Sophia Antipolis, France, from 1998 to 2005, and a professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California from 2005 to 2016. In 2014, Caire became an Alexander von Humboldt Professor at Berlin Institute of Technology and has held the position of Professor of Theoretical Foundations of Communication Technology there ever since. In 2018 he received an ERC Advanced Grant.
Professor Dr. Nico Eisenhauer (40), Biodiversity Research, University of Leipzig
The Leibniz Prize is awarded to Nico Eisenhauer for his outstanding work on the impact of global change on biodiversity and ecosystem functions. He is already one of the leading scientists in his field. Eisenhauer's research yielded significant advances in ecological theory and a fundamental understanding of the functional significance of biodiversity. Eisenhauer has devoted particular attention to the global distribution of soil macrofauna and mesofauna, such as earthworms and springtails, which as “soil engineers” determine the ecological productivity of soils, as well as their interactions with microorganisms and plants. In this way he was able to significantly expand the understanding of the interactions of plants with soil animals as well as the microbial communities of the soil. With his further research work, Eisenhauer was also instrumental in setting the course for a process-based understanding of the function of biodiversity under the conditions of progressive environmental change.
Nico Eisenhauer’s doctorate in biology at TU Darmstadt in 2008 was followed by postdoctoral periods at the universities of Göttingen, Minnesota and TU Munich. In 2012, he took on a DFG Emmy Noether Junior Research Group and accepted an appointment at the University of Jena. In 2014, he received the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize and was appointed Professor of Experimental Interaction Ecology at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig and the University of Leipzig. He is the spokesperson for the “Jena Experiment” – one of the most internationally renowned biodiversity experiments. In 2016 he received an ERC Starting Grant.
Professor Dr. Veronika Eyring (52), Earth System Modelling, German Aerospace Center, Oberpfaffenhofen site and University of Bremen
Veronika Eyring receives the Leibniz Prize because she has made a significant contribution to improving the understanding and accuracy of climate predictions through process-oriented modelling and model evaluation. Her research originally related to assessing the impact of ship emissions on atmospheric composition, climate and human health, and she expanded this to include Earth system and climate modelling. More recently, she has focused on developing innovative methods to improve the predictive power of the models. As part of a large international research network, Eyring is leading the development of the so-called Earth System Model Evaluation Tool, which allows climate models to be compared – a decisive step towards reducing uncertainties in predictions of future climate development. Eyring also contributes her findings as coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment Report on “Human Impact on the Climate System”.
Veronika Eyring received her doctorate from the University of Bremen in 1999 and habilitated there in 2008 in environmental physics as part of a Helmholtz Young Investigators Group. From 2000 onwards she was also a research associate at the DLR Institute of Atmospheric Physics. This was followed by visiting professorships and stays at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, USA, and an honorary visiting professorship at the University of Exeter, UK. In 2017, Eyring was appointed jointly by the University of Bremen in conjunction with DLR as Professor of Climate Modelling at the Institute of Environmental Physics. Since 2018, she has also headed the Earth System Model Evaluation and Analysis Department at DLR.
Professor Dr. Katerina Harvati-Papatheodorou (50), Palaeoanthropology, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen and Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, Tübingen
Katerina Harvati-Papatheodorou is awarded the Leibniz Prize for her groundbreaking findings on the evolution of humans and their closest relatives. Using a combination of field research and 3D morphometry imaging techniques, she was able to gain crucial new insights into the processes of human evolution. In her diverse research she has been able to show that Neanderthals also had a highly developed behavioural repertoire, and this has fundamentally revised the idea of man’s closest relative. In field research, she has focused on the hitherto little-studied region of south-eastern Europe as a distribution route and glacial retreat area. With the help of the methods she developed, she was able to prove for fossil finds from Greece that these originate from a first settlement wave of modern humans (Homo sapiens) from Africa to Europe 210,000 years ago and that the settlement history was much more dynamic than previously assumed.
Katerina Harvati-Papatheodorou received her PhD in anthropology from the City University of New York in 2001 before moving to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in 2004. In 2009, the University of Tübingen appointed her Professor of Palaeoanthropology. She received an ERC Starting Grant in 2011 and an ERC Consolidator Grant in 2016. She is co-spokesperson of the DFG-funded Centre for Advanced Studies “Words, Bones, Genes, Tools: Tracking Linguistic, Cultural and Biological Trajectories of the Human Past”.
Professor Dr. Steffen Mau (52), Sociology, Humboldt University Berlin
The Leibniz Prize for Steffen Mau recognises his innovative sociological analyses of the diverse social transformations that characterise our present era. In his research, Mau has devoted himself to studies on the dynamics of social inequalities and social polarisation as well as comparative welfare state analyses and processes of the transnationalisation and Europeanisation of social living environments. Mau always combined macro-sociological structural analyses with a dense description of individual and social life on a micro level. In his book “The Metric Society” (2017), for example, he traced the dynamics that accompany digitalisation and described how they relate to both old and new inequalities. In his most recent monograph, “Lütten Klein” (2019), he takes a close sociological look at the Rostock neighbourhood where he himself grew up and shows how deep-seated the changes were that occurred in East German society after 1989.
After training as an electronics technician at VEB Schiffselektronik Rostock, Steffen Mau studied sociology and political science at the Free University of Berlin and received his doctorate from the European University Institute in Florence in 2001. From 2005 onwards he was initially a professor of political sociology in Bremen, and in 2015 he accepted an appointment at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Visiting professorships and fellowships have taken him to Sciences Po in Paris and Harvard, among other places. From 2012 to 2018 he was a member of the Scientific Commission of the German Council of Science.
Professor Dr. Rolf Müller (55), Pharmaceutical Biology, Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Saarland University, Saarbrücken
Rolf Müller is an outstanding scientist in the field of natural substance research and biomedical microbiology. Müller succeeded in using new methods from molecular biology and synthetic biology, bioinformatics and functional genomics in drug research, thereby contributing to the fight against antibiotic-resistant pathogens. One focus of his research into biologically active agents from microorganisms is myxobacteria living in the soil. They form a variety of natural substances, for example to eliminate microbial competitors or enemies. Müller established a worldwide programme for the discovery of new myxobacterial strains, which has already led to the discovery of new bacterial species, genera and families as well as numerous candidates for new natural compounds. The natural substances obtained, also known as secondary metabolites, are a suitable source of lead substances for the development of new therapeutics.
Rolf Müller was awarded his doctorate in pharmaceutical biology in Bonn in 1994 and also received his licence to practise pharmacy there. He then spent two years engaged in research at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 2000 he habilitated at TU Braunschweig and in 2003 accepted a professorship in Pharmaceutical Biochemistry at Saarland University. Since 2010, he has also been Managing Director of the newly founded Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland there.
Professor Dr. Jürgen Ruland (54), Immunology, Klinikum rechts der Isar, Technical University of Munich
Jürgen Ruland is awarded the Leibniz Prize for his outstanding scientific work in the field of immunology, which has led to a fundamentally new understanding of signal transduction pathways in immune and cancer cells. Ruland is a world-leading immunologist and oncologist who studies healthy signalling processes in the immune system and those that are deregulated in disease. With his research group, he investigates how immune cells recognise pathogens, initiate immune defence and how pathologically deregulated signals in blood cells lead to the development of cancer. He also succeeded in elucidating the molecular recognition of fungi by the so-called dectin receptors of the immune system and their signalling processes. These fundamental findings are important in the diagnosis of immunodeficiency and the therapy of oncological diseases. Ruland's work impressively illuminates how insights from pathology and oncology can lay the foundations for deciphering fundamental mechanisms of the physiology of the immune system.
After completing his doctorate in 1996 at the Institute of Pharmacology at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Jürgen Ruland initially worked at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto. In 2003, he moved to TU Munich as a clinical and research assistant. In 2010 he became professor and director of the newly founded Institute for Molecular Immunology there, and in 2012 director of the Institute for Clinical Chemistry and Pathobiochemistry at Klinikum rechts der Isar. Since 2018, Ruland has been spokesperson for the Collaborative Research Centre “Aberrant Immune Signalling in Cancer”. He received an ERC Advanced Grant in 2013 and 2019.
Professor Dr. Volker Springel (50), Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Garching
Volker Springel receives the Leibniz Prize for his groundbreaking work in the field of numerical astrophysics. He developed new numerical methods that have considerably raised the standard of precision in this field of research. This has led to a breakthrough in understanding how the manifold-structured cosmos emerged from an early, almost uniform universe. Springel has investigated many aspects of non-linear structure growth, and in particular the critical role that feedback processes play in the evolution of galaxies and their central black holes. In short, his work has shown that galaxy formation is a self-regulating process. Many of the observed properties of galaxies are a consequence of this feedback within the current standard on the origin of cosmic structures, the “cold dark matter” paradigm.
After completing his doctorate in astrophysics at LMU Munich in 2000, Volker Springel went to Harvard as a postdoctoral researcher before holding various positions at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching from 2001 onwards. He turned down calls to Cambridge and Harvard in 2009 and decided to accept a professorship at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) as one of the founding group leaders. In 2018, he returned to the MPI in Garching as Director. Springel has been awarded the Otto Hahn Medal, the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize and the Gruber Prize for Cosmology. He has been a member of the Leopoldina since 2016.
The Leibniz Prizes will be awarded virtually on 15 March 2021. Details of the time and event format will follow in due course. The media will receive a separate invitation.
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Further information on the 2021 award winners will be available from the DFG’s Press and Public Relations office from the beginning of the new year or at Interner Linkwww.dfg.de/en.
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