Alexander von Humboldt Professorship 2023

Hanna Kokko

Hanna Kokko enjoys a worldwide reputation as a theoretical biologist. With her arrival, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz is set to become an internationally recognised centre for theoretical biology.

  • Nominating University: Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Porträt von Hanna Kokkko
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Theoretical evolutionary ecology

The theory of natural selection states that living organisms that are better adapted to their environment are more likely to survive than others. But why does selection benefit different characteristics in males and females that do not actually help them to adapt to their environment? And why is reproduction in so many species regulated by sexual intercourse when there are also asexual forms of reproduction that would be more efficient for ensuring the survival of the species?

Questions like this occupy the world-famous theoretical evolutionary ecologist, Hanna Kokko. Her goal is to acquire a better understanding of the interaction between evolutionary and ecological processes. To this end, she works at the intersection of theory and empiricism, applying model calculations to the logic of evolution. Her research work has achieved groundbreaking results which have reconstructed the foundations of "sexual selection". And her contributions to key questions in evolutionary biology, such as the evolution and maintenance of sexual reproduction, cooperation and, more recently, the evolutionary ecology of cancer, have decisively and sustainably shaped her field. One of her most influential pieces of research delivered theoretical proof that, in some species, cooperative behaviour can increase group members’ chances of survival.

Appointing Hanna Kokko is a decisive step on Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz’s path to continue expanding the life sciences. It has been accompanied by a fundamental restructuring in recent years and is now to be advanced further by the establishment of an Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences (IQCB). With her expertise in theoretical model calculations and her wide-ranging experience at the intersection of theory and empiricism, Hanna Kokko is invited to become one of the designers of IQCB. She will also head the Department of Theoretical Biology (DTB) in the Institute of Organismic and Molecular Evolution which focuses on amalgamating empirical and theoretical strengths in the biosciences.

Brief bio

Hanna Kokko was born in Finland in 1971 and has been a professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Zurich since 2014. She gained her doctorate in 1997 from the University of Helsinki, which granted her an award for her dissertation. Amongst others, her academic career path has taken her to the University of Cambridge, the University of Glasgow, the University of Jyväskylä and the Australian National University. Hanna Kokko was inducted into the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters as a lifelong member in 2007; in 2010, she received the Per Brinck Oikos Award, which is granted annually by the journal Oikos, honouring her as "a world-leading ecologist."  She has been a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science since 2014 and an International Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2020.

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