Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winners 2008

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Kristina Güroff
Press, Communications
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Georg Scholl
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Cinzia Casiraghi

Experimental solid state physics

Carbon in one and two-dimensions for speedy and compact PC processors
Carbon nanotubes are one of the most promising discoveries of modern materials research. They are made of graphene, a new form of carbon only discovered in 2004 which has astounding properties: electrons move mass less through the hexagonal lattice. This makes them predestined for use in higher-performance semiconductors. But how these particular physical properties develop is something research has not yet been able to find out. The only thing we do know is that it has something to do with the form, size and structure of various nanosystems - from three-dimensional graphite via two-dimensional graphene to one-dimensional carbon tubes. This is where Cinzia Casiraghi's research kicks in, investigating how graphite develops by stacking individual layers of graphene or how carbon nanotubes can be obtained by rolling up graphene. One of the possible results of this could be applications of new nanomaterials in faster and more energy-efficient electronic transistors.

Host institute: Free University Berlin, Department of Physics
Host: Prof. Dr. Stephanie Reich

Dossier Sofja Kovalevskaja Award 

Dr. Cinzia Casiraghi,
born in Italy in 1975, studied Nuclear Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano. She completed her doctorate in Electrical Engineering at Cambridge University, UK, in 2005 and there worked for two years as an Oppenheimer Research Fellow. She has been a Humboldt Fellow at Berlin Free University since 2007 and will continue her research work there as a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner.

Karl Sebastian Lang


When the immune system goes wild
Our body is under constant threat from pathogens. In order to ward them off, the human immune system works flat out – and sometimes overshoots the mark in the process. This can cause collateral damage to our own cells which might be even more serious than the damage done by the pathogen itself. In the case of autoimmune disease, our own immune cells even attack our own body structures which they wrongly interpret as foreign. Karl Sebastian Lang is investigating the causes of these errors and thus building the foundations for methods designed to minimise autoaggressive immune reactions. He has already been able to demonstrate, for instance, that viral disease can trigger type 1 diabetes or that the course of viral hepatitis is not only dependent on the immune system but on the genetic make-up of liver cells, too. 

Host institute: Düsseldorf University, Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Infectiology Clinic
Host: Prof. Dr. Dieter Häussinger

astroenterologie, Hepatologie und Infektiologie
Gastgeber: Prof. Dr. Dieter Häussinger

PD Dr. Karl Sebastian Lang,
born in Austria in 1977, studied medicine in Innsbruck and Tübingen where he completed his doctorate in 2003. He subsequently moved to Zürich, Switzerland, where he was granted the right to teach immunology in 2007. Lang is currently working at the Ontario Cancer Institute at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Canada.

Esther Lutgens


Hope for an effective therapy for that common disease atherosclerosis
In the western world ever larger numbers of people are falling victim to cardiovascular disease. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2006, about 7 million people in North America and Europe died as a result. The cause of death is usually the consequences of atherosclerosis, whereby the inner walls of the arteries become covered with layers of tissue, so-called plaques, which can eventually obstruct them completely. A particular risk is posed by pieces of plaque which suddenly rupture and block the artery directly due to thrombus formation on the existing plaque. Esther Lutgens has identified a molecule in the human immune system which might be the key to an effective therapy: If the molecule CD40L is inhibited, the growth of plaque is suppressed as are the inflammations that can lead to plaque rupture. The problem is that if you inhibit the molecule, immune defence suffers. Thus Esther Lutgens is searching for a way of targeting the plaque tissue to make it resistant to CD40L, while allowing the molecule to continue doing its important work in other cells uninhibited.

Host institute: Aachen University of Technology (RWTH), Institute for Molecular Cardiovascular Research IMCAR
Host:  Prof. Dr. Christian Weber

Prof. Dr. Esther Lutgens,
born in the Netherlands in 1975, studied medicine at Maastricht University where she completed her doctorate in 2001. Following research stays at Harvard Medical School in Boston, USA and Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, USA Lutgens returned to Maastricht University where she is an Associate Professor.

Nathan MacDonald

Biblical theology

Seeking the one God
With its belief in one single God Judaism provides the foundations for the other two major monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam. But the path to Jewish monotheism was protracted. Nathan MacDonald's research has been able to reveal that the search for the one God did not, as is often assumed, cease at the end of the exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. It took centuries for the final conception of Jewish monotheism to emerge triumphant from the diverse forms in existence. Nathan MacDonald is analysing this process and, in doing so, contributing to a greater understanding not only of the emergence of Christianity and Islam but also of the differences and similarities which determine the dialogue and the conflicts between the three major religions to this day.

Host institute: Göttingen University, Faculty of Theology
Host: Prof. Dr. Hermann Spieckermann

Dr. Nathan Mac Donald,
born in the United Kingdom in 1975, studied mathematics, theology and Classical Hebrew at Cambridge University and Durham, where he completed his doctorate in Old Testament theology in 2002. Since 2001, MacDonald has been teaching and continuing his research at St. Andrew's University. A Humboldt Foundation research fellowship took him to Munich's LMU in 2007.

Daniele Oriti

Theoretical physics

Quantising gravity: new insights into the fundamental nature of space and time and the early universe
The general theory of relativity and quantum theory are pillars of modern physics. One explains the movement of the planets in the solar system and the development of the universe, the other the properties of matter on the microscopic scale. What distresses physicists is the fact that the two theories just do not fit together. But in order to describe the inner life of black holes or the beginning of the universe you have to apply both Einstein's geometric model of gravity and quantum laws. Thus, for decades, researchers have been searching for a theory of quantum gravity to reconcile one framework with the other. Daniele Oriti is investigating several potential candidates for such theory, in particular so-called loop quantum gravity, spin foam models, and group field theories, all of which suggest that space is fundamentally discrete, made out of fundamental 'chunks', akin to LEGO blocks, interacting with one another, and collectively forming what we ordinarily perceive as continuum space. A striking consequence of this picture is, for example, that the Big Bang scenario could be substituted by a universe that first collapses and then expands again. The continuation of his work in this field could lead us much closer to a theory of quantum gravity and, in doing so, provide some of the answers to the fundamental questions about the nature of space and time and the origins of the universe.

Host institute: MPI for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute), Golm
Host: Prof. Dr. Thomas K. Thiemann

Dr. Daniele Oriti,
born in Italy in 1976, studied physics at Rome University and mathematics at Cambridge University, UK, where he completed his doctorate in 2003. He stayed in Cambridge, continuing his research in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics until 2006 when he moved to the Spinoza Institute for Theoretical Physics at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Jan-Erik Siemens


First steps into the unchartered world of molecular sensing
It does not matter whether a snow storm is raging or the sun is burning down from the skies, humans manage to maintain a constant body temperature of around 37 degrees centigrade. And the reason for this is a region of the brain called the hypothalamus. It is to some extent the body's central thermostat and registers the tiniest changes conveyed to it by temperature sensors in the entire organism. Very little is known about the molecular mechanisms neurons use to detect variance. Jan-Erik Siemens has already made key contributions to characterising a thermosensitive ion channel called TRPM8 that is specifically activated by cooling. He now wants to discover how this temperature sensor helps the hypothalamus to maintain normal core temperature on the molecular level. The discovery of the molecules that fulfil this task will be of fundamental importance to the as yet unchartered world of molecular sensing.

Host institute: Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine (MDC), Berlin
Host: Prof. Dr. Gary R. Lewin

Dr. Jan-Erik Siemens,
born in Germany in 1973, studied biochemistry at the universities of Bochum and Frankfurt/Main. He completed his doctorate in cell biology and neurobiology at Basle University, Switzerland, in 2004. Siemens has been conducting research at the University of California in San Francisco, USA, since 2005.

Mirka Uhlirova

Molecular genetics

Understanding cancer using Drosophila
There are many causes of cancer. Almost any cellular process and mechanism can be modified by molecular defects that it turns pathological and contributes to the development of cancer. However, a number of recent studies suggest that the genetic changes in the tumor cells themselves might not be sufficient for tumors to form. Instead, in order to develop malignant cancer, aberrant cells also have to interact and reprogram their environment, as well as inactivate or ignor control signals from neighbouring cells. Researchers still know only a little how this comunication between tumor and its surrounging environment works due to the difficulties that arise from studies using isolated cells in vitro. Thus Mirka Uhlirova is using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster as a model, to study the molecular mechanisms that become misregulated during tumor formation and contribute to cancer development in vivo. She has identified new genes involved in these processes and wants to find out what role they play in cell migration and interaction between tumours and their environment.

Host institut: University of Cologne, Institute for Genetics
Host: Prof. Dr. Maria Leptin

Dr. Mirka Uhlirova,
born in the Czech Republic in 1977, studied biology in Prague and Ceske Budejovice (Budweis) where she completed her doctorate in 2004. During her Ph.D. in 2003 she visited and worked at the Colorado State University, Fort Collins, USA, as a NATO Fellow. Since 2004, she has been conducting research at the University of Rochester, USA.

Aleksi Vuorinen

Heavy ion physics

Tracking down the Big Bang: regenerating hot matter
In the beginning it was hot. According to researchers, just after the Big Bang the universe was composed of an extremely hot and dense soup of different particles, the so-called quark-gluon plasma. From this emerged the building blocks of matter as we know them today. In order to reconstruct this state and discover more about the early universe, experiments are at the moment being conducted with the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, near Geneva. This involves collisions of heavy nuclei, in which energy densities just like those present in the early universe can be reached and investigated. Aleksi Vuorinen has set himself the goal of theoretically understanding and predicting properties of the extremely hot matter generated in the collisions. To this end, he carries out computations in which he applies novel mathematical tools relying among other things on Einstein's general theory of relativity, and which he hopes to be able to compare with experimental data from the LHC. This would be another step on the road to understanding the origins of the universe and its current form.

Host institut: Bielefeld University, Faculty of Physics, Department of Theoretical Physics
Host: Prof. Dr. Mikko Laine

Dr. Aleksi Vuorinen,
born in Finland in 1980, studied theoretical physics at the University of Helsinki, where he completed his doctorate in 2003. Following a three-year research stay at the University of Washington, USA, he became a Lise Meitner Fellow at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria. Vuorinen is currently carrying out research in Switzerland with the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN.