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Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winners 2006

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Kristina Güroff
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Jens Bredenbeck


Molecule dynamics - mainspring of chemistry and biology
Elementary vital functions, chemical reactions, the behaviour of substances in our environment - the driving force behind all of these phenomena is the movement of molecules. Molecules interact and change their structure, sometimes slowly, sometimes at incredible speed. Jens Bredenbeck is developing new measuring techniques which can keep up with the molecules' pace. Multidimensional infrared spectroscopy is the name given to the method which measures molecular motion with ultrashort infrared laser pulses. This molecular motion detector should help us to understand what important processes on the molecular level look like in real time, such as how biomolecules fold themselves into the right structure and how they fulfil their vitally important tasks. 

Host Institute: Frankfurt a.M. University, Institute of Biophysics
Host: Prof. Dr. Josef Wachtveitl

Dossier Sofja Kovalevskaja Award 

Dr. Jens Bredenbeck,
born in Germany in 1975, studied chemistry at Darmstadt Technical University, Göttingen University and Zürich University, Switzerland, where he completed his doctorate at the Institute of Physical Chemistry in 2005. He is currently continuing his research at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Jure Demsar

Solid State Physics

New impulse for developing usable superconductors
Greenhouse gases, climate change and rising prices - the consequences of our use of energy are onerous. The idea that it might be possible to conduct electrical current without loss, to transform it and use it in engines - in a completely new way - sounds rather like a fairytale. Precisely this, however, i.e. the superconductivity of certain materials, has long since become reality. But only in the lab. Problems with the materials as well as the low temperatures required make it difficult to transform the new superconductors into usable electricity conductors. Thus, Jure Demsar is investigating novel so-called strongly-correlated high temperature superconductors. With the aid of ultrafast laser pulses he is observing in real time how electrons and other excitations behave and interact in this highly correlated superconducting state, and drawing inferences for optimising the material. The dream of loss-free conductors and other new electronic applications could move a step closer thanks to superconductivity research. 

Host Institute: Konstanz University, Department of Physics, Modern Optics and Photonics 
Host: Prof. Dr. Thomas Dekorsy

Dr. Jure Demsar,
born in Slovenia in 1970, studied physics at Ljubljana University, where he took his doctorate in 2000. He continued his research in Ljubljana at the Jo¿ef Stefan Institute, in the Complex Matter Department, before receiving a two-year fellowship to research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States. Since then, Demsar has been working at the Josef Stefan Institute where he attained his professorial qualification (Habilitation) in 2005.

Felix Engel

Cell biology

Hearts that heal themselves
The human heart is a unique organ in the true sense of the word: adult heart cells are unable to divide. If they die off as a result of a heart attack, for instance, the tissue cannot rebuild itself. Felix Engel is searching for a way of encouraging adult heart cells to divide - a capacity inherent in youthful cells, but one which they lose shortly after birth. As Felix Engel and his colleagues discovered, responsibility for this lies with a protein. If it is blocked, the cell regains its capacity to divide. What has worked in experiments on animals is now supposed to be used to treat humans successfully and thus be developed as an alternative to the controversial treatment with stem cells. 

Host Institute: Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research, Bad Nauheim
Host: Prof. Dr. Thomas Braun

Dr. Felix Engel,
born in Germany in 1971, previously worked at the Children's Hospital/Harvard Medical School in Boston. Engel studied biotechnology at Berlin Technical University and completed his doctorate there in 2001 after working on his thesis externally at the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin.

Natalia Filatkina

Historical Philology

Vom Kerbholz zur Datenbank 
What did the German expression, einen blauen Mantel umhängen, mean in the Middle Ages? What is a tally stick, what has it got to do with committing a criminal offence and how does it come about that this term is still used in the same context in modern German? These are the questions being answered by Natalia Filatkina who is investigating the history of such formulaic figures of speech in German. These so-called phraseologisms are, after all, a salient feature of all languages and essential for understanding them. What are the social, historical and cultural phenomena underlying these ancient phraseologisms? What conclusions can be drawn for modern language? So far, there have only been fragmentary investigations in this field. In her pioneering work, which is combining historical philology with the international technologies of markup languages, Natalia Filatkina is preparing an electronic body of texts from the 8th to the 17th centuries and interpreting them according to modern linguistic criteria. In this way, a data base is being created that will bring a part of cultural history nearer not only to an interdisciplinary circle of experts but also to a broad non-academic public and will generate new knowledge for the present day. 

Host Institute: Trier University, Department of German, Older German Philology  
Host: Prof. Dr. Claudine Moulin

Dr. Natalia Filatkina,
born in the Russian Federation in 1975, studied at the Moscow State Linguistic University, the Humboldt University Berlin on a DAAD scholarship, the University of Luxembourg, and Bamberg University where she took her doctorate in 2003. Her dissertation on the Luxembourg language was awarded the Prix d'encouragement for young researchers by the University of Luxembourg. She is working in the field of Older German Philology in the Department of German at Trier University.

Olga Holtz

Numerical Analysis

The way out of the data jungle
Whether you are looking at the handling and flying qualities of the new Airbus, developing a new drug to combat Aids or designing the ideal underground timetable for a city with more than a million inhabitants - at some time or other you will have to do some complicated computations. The amount of data computers have to cope with is extremely large, we are talking in terms of millions of equations and unknowns, and they only have a finite number of digits for representing a number. In order to solve this problem using reliable and fast algorithms you need to know as much about computers as mathematics. Olga Holtz is working at the interface of pure and applied mathematics. She is searching for methods which are both fast and reliable - which in this field of applied mathematics is usually a contradiction in terms. Her project, developing a method of matrix multiplication, should provide the solution to a multitude of computational calculations in science and engineering. 

Host Institute: Berlin Technical University, Institute of Mathematics
Host: Prof. Dr. Volker Mehrmann

Dr. Olga Holtz,
born in the Russian Federation in 1973, studied applied mathematics in her own country at the Chelyabinsk State Technical University and at the University of Wisconsin Madison in the United States, where she received a doctorate in mathematics in 2000 and subsequently continued her research in the Department of Computer Sciences. She was a Humboldt Research Fellow at Berlin Technical University before being appointed to the University of California, Berkeley, where she has been working ever since.

Reinhard Kienberger

Electron and Quantum Optics

Using x-ray flashes to visualise inconceivable speed
If you want to observe and understand how chemical bonds evolve, how electrons move in semi-conductors or how light is turned into chemical energy through photosynthesis, you have to be pretty fast, because in these chemical, atomic or biological processes we are dealing with fractions of a second, so-called attoseconds, which last no longer than a trillionth of a second. Reinhard Kienberger has significantly contributed to developing observation methods which use ultra fast, intensive x-ray flashes on the attosecond scale to visualise and, in future maybe even to be able to control what has so far been unobservable. Novel lasers based on ultraviolet light or x-rays as well as improved radiation therapies in medicine are just a few of the possible future applications ensuing from the young discipline of attosecond research. 

Host Institute: Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Laboratory for Attosecond and High-Field Physics, Garching, near Munich 
Host: Prof. Dr. Ferenc Krausz

Dr. Reinhard Kienberger,
studied at Vienna Technical University, Austria, and completed his doctorate there with a dissertation on quantum mechanics in 2002. He subsequently became a fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, researching at Stanford University's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Menlo Park in California. He is currently working at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching.

Marga Cornelia Lensen

Macromolecular Chemistry

Turning to nature: made-to-measure hydrogels for medical systems
If the first thing you associate with a happy baby is a dry nappy, it probably does not occur to you that both the parents and the baby actually have the blessings of biomaterial research to thank for this satisfactory state of affairs. The reason for this is that nappies and other hygiene products for absorbing moisture contain the magic anti-moisture ingredients known as hydrogels. These are three-dimensional polymer networks which can store many times their own weight in water and release it again. Humans have copied this principle from nature where hydrogels proliferate, in plants for instance. But hydrogels have much greater potential than this, for example in bioresearch or medicine. They might release doses of drugs in the body or act as sensors. They might also be used as artificial muscles or to bond natural tissue with artificial implants. This would require gels with properties made-to-measure through utilising nanotechnology. To lay the foundations for this, Marga Cornelia Lensen is investigating ways of changing the structure of the gels and how they interact with cells. Consequently, one of the things she is going to do is to use novel nanoimprint technology, which, so far, has largely been tested on hard material, to structure hydrogels and insert them as carriers for experiments on living cells. 

Host Institute: RWTH Aachen, German Wool Research Institute
Host: Prof. Dr. Martin Möller

Dr. Marga Cornelia Lensen,
born in the Netherlands in 1977, studied chemistry at Wageningen University and at Radboud University Nijmegen, where she took her doctorate in 2005. As a Humboldt Research Fellow she has been working at her host institute at RWTH Aachen, where she will continue her research as a Kovalevskaja Award Winner, since October 2005.

Martin Lövden

Developmental Psychology

Tracking down the secret of life-long learning
In our aging societies in Europe, the idea of life-long learning has gained a special relevance. But although the learning ability of young brains is considerable and has been well researched, there are not many studies on the reasons for the deterioration of learning ability in old age and how to deal with it. Martin Lövden is investigating the neurochemical, neuroanatomical and neurofunctional conditions for successful learning in old age and the consequences for everyday life. To this end, he uses neuroimaging methods, such as functional resonance imaging and resonance spectroscopy, by which he can observe the brains of old and young test subjects during memory training in order to track down the neurological secret of successful learning and its limitations in old age. 

Host Institute: Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Research Area Lifespan Psychology, Berlin 
Host: Prof. Dr. Ulman Lindenberger

Dr. Martin Lövden,
born in Sweden in 1972, studied psychology at Salzburg University in Austria and at the universities of Lund and Stockholm in Sweden as well as neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He was awarded his doctorate at Stockholm University in 2002. He continued his research at the Saarland University in Saarbrücken and is currently working at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Thomas Misgeld


Nerve fibres: the brain's fast wire
In the nervous system information is transported in the form of electrical impulses. To this end, every nerve cell has an appendage, the function of which is similar to that of a telephone cable - the nerve fibres, also called axons. Axons run through the brain and the spinal cord to the switch points at the nerve roots and have a certain capacity for learning. They are able to adapt to new requirements. Not a lot is known about how this adaptation functions and how axons protect themselves against damage. So, Thomas Misgeld is investigating the axons of living mice using high resolution microscopy. He wants to discover how nerve fibres are nourished, adapted and maintain their efficiency in a healthy organism. This basic information could lead to the development of new therapies for diseases like multiple sclerosis or for spinal cord injuries. 

Host Institute: Munich Technical University, Institute of Neurosciences
Host: Prof. Dr. Arthur Konnerth

Dr. Thomas Misgeld,
born in Germany in 1971, studied medicine at Munich Technical University where he completed his doctorate in 1999. He continued his research in the department of clinical neuroimmunology at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried and at Washington University in St. Louis. His most recent position was at Harvard University in Cambridge. In 2005, he was granted the first ever Wyeth Multiple Sclerosis Junior Research Award and the Robert Feulgen Prize by the Society for Histochemistry.

Benjamin Schlein

Mathematical Physics

Seeking evidence in the quantum world
In the first half of the 20th century, when physicists observed that new properties were revealed by light interacting with material, classical physics reached its limits. It was the birth of quantum mechanics, the principles of which are part of common knowledge in physics nowadays, such as the fact that material particles exhibit waves, just like light. This is a principle used in modern electron microscopes. One of the main pillars of quantum mechanics is the Schrödinger equation which, to this day, has been very successful in predicting experiments. But when it comes to examining macroscopic systems - i.e. systems composed of multitudes of the tiniest particles - the amount of data is so enormous that even the most modern computers are not powerful enough to solve the Schrödinger equation. Benjamin Schlein is trying to develop mathematical methods which will make it possible to derive simpler equations to describe the dynamics of macroscopic systems. He wants to create a solid mathematical basis on which to assess and develop further applications in quantum mechanics. 

Host Institute: Munich University, Institute of Mathematics  
Host: Prof. Dr. Laszlo Erdös

Dr. Benjamin Schlein,
born in Switzerland in 1975, studied theoretical physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich and completed his doctorate there with a dissertation on mathematical physics in 2002. He subsequently continued his research in the United States, at the universities of New York, Stanford, Harvard and California in Davis.

Taolei Sun

Medical Biochemistry

Novel biocompatible materials for medical systems
"Surfaces are a creation of the devil", the famous physicist and Nobel Prize Winner, Wolfgang Pauli, once remarked when he realised how much more complex the surfaces of materials were than their massive substance. Many technical, indeed everyday applications depend on the properties of material surfaces and their interactions, which is especially important in the biomedical fields. Just consider the surfaces of artificial joints and other implants, or artificial access to the human bloodstream in intensive medicine or cancer treatment. All of them have to get along really well with the surfaces of human tissue or human cells. Taolei Sun is working on biocompatible, artificial implants and medical devices, combining modern nanotechnology with chemical surface modification. His aim is to use nanostructured polymeric surfaces with special wettability as a platform for the emergence of a new generation of biocompatible materials. 

Host Institute: Universität Münster, Physikalisches Institut
Host: Prof. Dr. Harald Fuchs

Dr. Taolei Sun,
born in China in 1974, studied at Wuhan University and at the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry in the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, where he took his doctorate in 2002, and then continued his research. He subsequently worked at the National Center for Nanosciences and Technology of China in Beijing before becoming a Humboldt Research Fellow in the Institute of Physics at Münster University where he will now carry out research as a Kovalevskaja Award Winner.