Humboldtians in Focus

Brief Enquiries

What drives researchers and what they are currently doing.

By Lilo Berg

Do Germans Appreciate Their Soldiers Enough, Ms Fogarty?

Francesca Fogarty
Francesca Fogarty 
Photo: Nikolaus Brade 

At Christmas, US soldiers on distant foreign postings receive a particularly large number of parcels. They are sent by their families, but also by unknown compatriots wanting to express their gratitude. “The army risk their lives for us and we respect them for it,” says air force officer Francesca Fogarty.

That was why she could hardly believe her ears two years ago when she visited colleagues in Fürstenfeldbruck. He had never ever been thanked by anyone for his work, a Bundeswehr captain had told her; people didn’t do that in Germany. “I was shocked,” says the 22 yearold. At the time, she had already spent two years studying at the elite US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and knew what a motivating impact public recognition had on soldiers’ achievement potential. But the discussion with the captain sparked her curiosity. Why did the country of some of her forefathers, whose language she still speaks, have so little time for their armed forces? Then, in July 2011, when conscription was abolished, Francesca Fogarty decided she had to find out whether this would change the image of the Bundeswehr. “I expect there to be a positive swing,” says the young officer, summarising her hypothesis. The first findings will be available in summer 2014. That is when her German Chancellor Fellowship, with which she is currently doing her research at the Universität der Bundeswehr München, comes to an end. But she already knows where she wants to go from there: a career in the air force and, alongside it, a Master’s and a PhD. Her dream is to become one of her country’s military attachés in Europe – with a Germany that values its soldiers more than it does today.

  • Francesca Fogarty is a lieutenant in the US Air Force. She has a German Chancellor Fellowship for Prospective Leaders and is working on research with the political scientist, Professor Dr Carlo Masala, at the Universität der Bundeswehr München in Neubiberg.

What’s Really Going on Down There, Mr Ferrero?

Silvio Ferrero
Silvio Ferrero 
Photo: Nikolaus Brade 

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the famous novel by Jules Verne, has fascinated readers for generations. It would be a good 6,000 kilometres to the very centre – from the 50 kilometre-thick Earth’s crust through the 3,000 kilometres of the Earth’s mantle right down to the hot Earth’s core. Will this ever be possible? Silvio Ferrero shrugs his shoulders.

The Italian geologist doesn’t have to travel far to look inside the Earth. He sits at his desk at the University of Potsdam and listens to what is going on down there. The reports are brought to him by garnet crystals which have made their way from the depths to the surface over millions of years. They contain tiny melt inclusions known as nanogranite which are only a few thousandths of a millimetre thick but store their entire genesis: the depth from which they come, how hot it was down there and what the chemical conditions were like. “Here in Potsdam I have all the high-resolution measuring techniques I need for my research – and a super team of colleagues to boot,” the geoscientist enthuses. Nanogranite research is a very recent field which is booming worldwide. And it holds the promise of useful insights. Ferrero says “The inclusions tell us what’s going on down there.” They contain information on how the Blue Planet is going to develop. We don’t have to journey to the centre of the Earth to find out – but we can still dream about it.

  • Dr. Silvio Ferrero from the University of Padova, Italy, is a Humboldt Research Fellow and has been working in the Institute of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Potsdam since November 2012.

Can African Medicine Help to Fight Cancer, Mr Kuete?

Victor Kuete
Victor Kuete  
Photo: Nikolaus Brade 

In Africa, too, many people suffer from cancer. In Cameroon, for example, the number of new cases is growing steadily. But only a few sufferers have enough money to consult a doctor. Everyone else goes to the local healer.

There they are usually given a mixture of herbs, the composition of which is a well-kept secret. “We really wanted to find out more about it and so we visited healers all over the country,” reports the Cameroonian biochemist Victor Kuete. He and his colleagues collected more than 200 plants purported to have medicinal properties – plants with such evocative names as giant globe thistle, wild pepper, speargrass and Ethiopian pepper. In the lab they then extracted the active substances. But do these substances really have any effect on cancer? And if they do, how can the effects be explained? The first time Victor Kuete visited Mainz, four years ago, he had a lot of questions in his mind – and a lot of little glass tubes of plant extracts in his suitcase. More than 100 Cameroonian samples have since been investigated. Experiments in petri dishes have revealed that some substances do indeed slow down the growth of tumour cells which have become resistant to high-potency cancer drugs. Animal testing and clinical trials still have to be done, but Victor Kuete is already thinking a long way ahead: “Medicines deriving from African plants could drive cancer therapy worldwide and allow the people in my country access to better, more affordable treatment.”

  • Biochemist Dr Victor Kuete conducts research at the Université de Dschang, Cameroon. He is currently a Humboldt Research Fellow at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

Is Love Allowed to Hurt, Ms Illouz?

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz 
Photo: Nikolaus Brade 

They head companies and hold top positions in politics, culture and science. Across the world, women are starting to conquer their half of heaven. And then millions of them go out and buy the erotic romance, Fifty Shades of Grey, in which a female student eagerly subjects herself to the will of her lover. How do you square that.

Security is the key to understanding, says the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz. The sadomasochistic constellation provides a clear structure in the face of disintegrating gender roles. And in the end, it is the woman who triumphs in Fifty Shades of Grey because she manages to draw her lover onto the path to intimacy – that is precisely what fascinates so many women readers. Illouz conducts research on romantic feelings under Capitalism. Love has become a trade-off amongst market actors, she tells us in one of her widely-acclaimed books. The sociologist exposes apparently authentic expressions of emotion as standardised forms of expression. Today, the epitome of the romantic is a champagne breakfast, for example, not a shared hot dog. “We have to discover a new ideal of romantic love,” she demands. One that is based on the equality of men and women, one that allows for devotion, passion – and even pain.

  • Cultural sociologist Professor Dr Eva Illouz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem won an Anneliese Maier Research Award in 2013. She will now spend two or three weeks a year working at the Institute of Social Research at Goethe University Frankfurt.

How Clean Is the Air in Berlin, Mr Taheri Shahraiyni?

Hamid Taheri Shahraiyni
Hamid Taheri Shahraiyni  
Photo: Nikolaus Brade 

There is a famous German song about the special quality of the air in Berlin, its sweet scent which only seldom goes up in smoke. In truth, when Paul Lincke wrote these words in 1904, Berlin was a dirty, stinking industrial city. Today, the quality of the air in Berlin is much better, although the pollutant levels sometimes exceed the limits. This can lead to cardiopulmonary disease in city dwellers.

“Everyone should be able to avoid at least this kind of health hazard,” says Hamid Taheri Shahraiyni. As part of his work at Freie Universität Berlin the Iranian environmental researcher is developing a sophisticated calculation method for predicting the distribution of particulate matter and other pollutants on a small scale. To do this, he uses the city’s existing infrastructure: just under 50 devices, some fixed, some mobile, for measuring hazardous substances with which the distribution of these substances can be roughly determined. Taheri Shahraiyni’s computer calculations are much more precise. Whether they actually tally with reality is something the visiting researcher wants to investigate in the coming year in Berlin. If the test is successful, asthma sufferers may soon be consulting their mobile phones before they go out for a walk – to find out a few hours in advance which part of the city has the cleanest air. Taheri Shahraiyni sees the greatest need for his low-cost technology in the polluted megacities of transition countries. Clean air is vital – just ask Berliners, they may burst into song.

  • Dr. Hamid Taheri Shahraiyni teaches and conducts research in environmental science at Shahrood University of Technology, Iran. From January 2014 he will be a Georg Forster Research Fellow in the Institute of Meteorology at Freie Universität Berlin.
published in Humboldt Kosmos 101/2013

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