Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winners 2010

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Kristina Güroff
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Georg Scholl
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Isabel Bäurle

Plant Genetics

The memories of plants
Negative environmental influence causes stress for plants, resulting in crop failures – a problem that is probably being aggravated by climate change. The immediate response of plants to such influence has been well researched, unlike their adaptation to lasting or recurrent stress, although it is of considerable importance in nature. Plants are quite capable of remembering stressful situations and will respond to the reoccurrence of such situations. The basic molecular mechanisms involved here are largely unknown. With the “memory” of Arabidopsis (Thale Cress), Isabel Bäurle wants to demonstrate how plants store environmental influences at molecular level and generally develop a cellular memory although they lack a nervous system. She is investigating how this memory changes in the course of evolution to make plants adaptable to different habitats. The insights she hopes to obtain will also be of economic importance and could provide new approaches to optimising crop yields.

Host Institute: University of Potsdam, Institute of Biochemistry and Biology
Host: Prof. Dr. Bernd Müller-Röber

Dossier Sofja Kovalevskaja Award 

Dr. Isabel Bäurle,
born in Germany in 1974, first studied German and French, and then Biology and Chemistry at the University of Freiburg, where she obtained her doctorate in 2004. A research stay brought her to Bologna, Italy, from 1997 to 1998. In 2004, Bäurle transferred to the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Great Britain. Since 2009, she has been Project Head there at the Department of Disease and Stress Biology.

Lapo Bogani

Solid-state Physics and Chemistry

Magnets the size of a molecule
Nanomaterials of very small size, in which merely a few thousand atoms are linked to one another, are increasingly being employed in medicine, sensor engineering and electronics. Lapo Bogani is dealing with the synthesis and characterisation of nanomagnets and the use of carbon nanostructures as measuring instruments and electronic components. He has managed to produce the first hybrid nanostructures made out of tiny carbon nanotubes and single-molecule magnets. Bogani now aims to develop highly sensitive apparatus enabling the observation of the magnetisation processes of an individual molecule or atom. His project is to answer fundamental questions regarding the behaviour of individual magnetic atoms and measurement engineering. In future, it could be possible to use nanomagnets to build computer hard discs with a particularly high storage density, and they could also become important building bricks for quantum computers.

Host Institute: Universität Stuttgart, 1. Physikalisches Institut
Host: Prof. Dr. Martin Dressel

Dr. Lapo Bogani,
born in Italy in 1978, studied Chemistry at the Università degli Studi di Firenze, where he obtained his doctorate in 2006. From 2006 to 2008, a Marie Curie individual project led him to a research stay at the Institut Néel of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Grenoble, France. Since 2009, he has been conducting research at the University of Stuttgart, where he will also be working as a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner.

Camin Dean


Synapses in perfect balance
The brain is the body’s most complex organ. Thousands of millions of nerve cells and trillions of links, the synapses, allow the control of vital functions ranging from breathing to the performance of multilayered mental tasks. The brain has to respond constantly to changes in the environment. One key to this is synaptic plasticity, the ability of the synapses to adapt and adjust the strength of the signals they are transmitting. However, if signal strength grows too much, this may result in damage or epileptic fits. Camin Dean is examining the mechanisms keeping the synapses in perfect balance so that the brain can work. She has found out which protein adjusts the strength of the synapses to a sensible range by controlling the release of a neurotrophine, a signal substance that not only responds to synaptic plasticity but also influences the formation of new synapses. Dean aims to study the basic mechanisms involved here and thus contribute to developing improved methods of treating diseases such as Alzheimer, Morbus Parkinson and epilepsy.

Host Institute: University of Göttingen, European Neuroscience Institute
Host: Prof. Dr. Walter Stühmer

Dr. Camin Dean,
born in the USA in1971, studied Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the University of California, Berkeley, where she obtained her doctorate in 2003. Research stays brought her to Livermore in California and to New York. Since 2004, she has been conducting research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.ach New York. Seit 2004 forscht sie an der University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Brandon Dotson

Tibetan Studies

Kingship and Religion in Tibet
From the seventh to the ninth century, Tibet was ruled by a dynasty of kings whose divine right to rule was based both on their sacred nature and on their just form of governance. With the royal conversion to Buddhism in the middle of the 8th century, the king’s divine nature underwent significant changes. Like other Buddhist kings, he came to be seen as a universal Buddhist monarch. Brandon Dotson is examining the Buddhist transformation of Tibetan kingship, both in its sacred and political aspects, from the early contacts with Buddhism in the 7th century through to its dominance from the 11th century onward. Employing comparative anthropological models and considering similar examples of sacred kingship in China, Southeast Asia, and Central Eurasia, the project will contribute to relevant debates concerning the age old and universal question of the relationship between spiritual and temporal power.

Host Institute: LMU Munich, Institut für Indologie und Tibetologie
Host: Prof. Dr. Franz-Karl Ehrhard

Dr. Brandon Dotson,
born in the USA in 1978, he studied Religion at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford, Great Britain, where he obtained a doctorate in 2006. Research stays brought him to Chengdu, China, and Lhasa, Tibet. From 2006 to 2008, he lectured at the University of London, Great Britain, and then returned to Oxford. In 2010, he held a visiting professorship at the University of California in Santa Barbara, USA.

Gustavo Fernández Huertas

Organic Chemistry

The secret plan of the molecules
Molecules react to one another, for example by bonding or repelling each other. Sometimes, this may happen in such a meaningful way that one might suspect a secret plan guiding their actions. Whether a systematic concept is at the root of their "behaviour", what sort of concept this could be, and how it might possibly be controlled, is being examined by Gustavo Fernández Huertas in oligomers. These are molecules composed of several structurally identical or similar units. Fernández Huertas, who in the past drew attention by inventing molecular tweezers, is examining how certain oligomers behave in water and how they respond to external stimuli such as metal ions or light. Intelligent materials whose properties – as planned in Fernández Huertas’ experiments – can be specially influenced are to enable new applications in areas ranging from sensor technology to biomedicine.

Host Institute: University of Würzburg, Institute of Organic Chemistry
Host: Prof. Dr. Frank Würthner

Dr. Gustavo Fernández Huertas,
born in Ávila, Spain, in 1979, studied Chemistry at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where he obtained a doctorate in 2009. In 2006, a research stay lasting several months brought him to Los Angeles, USA. Since May 2009, Fernández Huertas has been involved in research as a Humboldt Research Fellow at the University of Würzburg.

Jörn Fischer


Sustainable development of traditional cultural landscapes
Rapid global change poses a serious threat to ecosystems and traditionally managed cultural landscapes, especially in poor countries. This is the focus of the transdisciplinary research programme led by Joern Fischer, which aims to examine and promote sustainable development in Eastern Europe. Particular emphasis will be placed on agricultural landscapes in Central Romania. This region may be poor in economic terms but has an unusual wealth of diversity in both natural and cultural heritage. Traditional farming methods without modern machinery or artificial fertilisers have conserved an unusually high level of biodiversity, ranging from rare plant species such as orchids to large mammals such as wolves and bears. Since Romania joined the European Union, the region now faces the difficult task of achieving a balance between material affluence and the conservation of its unique natural and cultural heritage. Joern Fischer’s research programme brings together natural scientists, social scientists, regional decision-makers and local people, to develop scenarios for the region’s sustainable development.

Host Institute: Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Institute of Ecology and Environmental Chemistry
Host: Prof. Dr. Stefan Schaltegger

Dr. Joern Fischer,
born in Germany in 1976, studied Geography at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, where he obtained a doctorate in 2004 and is currently involved in research as an Australian Research Council Fellow. Stays abroad brought him to Stockholm, Sweden, and to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, USA.

Jörg Fröbisch


On the disappearance and survival of species
It was around 250 million years ago, during the transition from the Palaeozoic to the Mesozoic, that the greatest mass extinction took place ever to occur in the Earth’s history: An estimated 80 to 90 per cent of all species disappeared for ever. Fossil marine organisms have yielded most of the insights on this event. In contrast, only little is known about changes on land, and in particular among vertebrates. Jörg Fröbisch aims to bridge this gap with his research. He is examining the relationships, palaeobiology and diversification patterns of the synapsids, alongside the reptiles the second major group within the amniotes, which comprise all vertebrates completely adapted to terrestrial life. The mammals evolved from the synapsids, and today, the latter are solely represented by the mammals. In the course of the Earth’s history, however, there were a large number of successful synapsid groups that are only remotely related to mammals, such as the sail-backed lizard Dimetrodon. Fröbisch combines palaeontological fieldwork with modern methods such as 3D-image technologies in order to gain new insights into the initial diversification of the early relatives of the mammals. With a view to today’s disappearance of species and biodiversity, his work is also of contemporary significance.

Host Institute: Museum of Natural History, Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity at Humboldt University Berlin
Host: Dr. Johannes Müller

Dr. Jörg Fröbisch,
born in Germany in 1977, studied Geology and Palaeontology at the University of Bonn as well as Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, Canada, where he obtained a doctorate in 2008. Since 2009, he has been involved in research at the Field Museum’s Department of Geology in Chicago, USA.

Joseph Hennawi


Decoding Empty Space
The most barren regions of the Universe are the vast expanses between the galaxies, known as the intergalactic medium. Averaging just one lonely atom per cubic meter, this primordial gas left over from the Big Bang encodes fundamental information about our Universe’s history. Intergalactic atoms are observable only indirectly, via their selective absorption of light traveling to Earth from distant, hyper-luminous galaxies known as quasars. Joseph Hennawi pioneered a method for finding pairs of quasars, right next to each other on the sky. He showed how these extremely rare configurations can be used to make unprecedented measurements of the small-scale structure and physical properties of intergalactic medium. Hennawi observes quasar pairs using the largest telescopes in the world; by comparing his data to supercomputer simulations of cosmic evolution, he will resolve key questions about the evolution of the Universe and shed light on how galaxies, and ultimately stars and planets, formed.

Host Institute: Max Planck Institute of Astronomy, Heidelberg
Host: Prof. Dr. Hans-Walter Rix

Dr. Joseph Hennawi,
born in the USA in 1976, studied Physics at Stanford University in California and Astrophysics at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he obtained a doctorate in 2004. He subsequently conducted research at the University of California in Berkeley. In 2009, he transferred to the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy in Heidelberg, where he is also going to work as a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner.

Shigeyoshi Inoue

Inorganic Chemistry

Small molecules for quick reactions
Organometallic compounds containing metal-carbon multiple bonds are an indispensable component of many catalysts for the waste-free and energy-saving chemical transformation of crude oil in industrial processes. Whereas metal-carbon multiple bonds have been thoroughly researched, very little is known about alternatives such as metal-silicon multiple bonds. Shigeyoshi Inoue is examining these compounds, which have roused high expectations. For example, they should act as effective catalysts capable of activating small and relatively less reactive molecules for efficient syntheses of complex organic molecules, pharmaceutics and polymers. Inoues work is to pave the way to novel reagents and catalysts, especially for activating small molecules such as methane, the chief component of natural gas, and ammonia.

Host Institute: Technische Universität Berlin, Institute of Chemistry
Host: Prof. Dr. Matthias Drieß

Dr. Shigeyoshi Inoue,
born in Japan in 1980, studied Chemistry at Tsukuba University, where he obtained a doctorate in 2008. As a Humboldt Research Fellow and as a Research Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science he has been working at the Institute of Chemistry of Technische Universität Berlin, where he will also be conducting research as a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner.

Eike Kiltz

Theoretical Informatics

Next-generation cryptotechnology to make the Internet more secure
Without encryption technologies and safe digital signatures, many applications in the Internet, such as home banking or online shopping, would not be possible. But cryptographers, who make encryptions, and hackers, who attempt to circumvent them, are constantly in a neck-to-neck race. Novel algorithms such as those that could be realised on quantum computers and ever more offensive and clever strategies of the hackers are demanding the development of cryptotechnologies of the next generation such as those that Eike Kiltz’s work is focusing on. Kiltz uses familiar highly complex mathematical problems and assumptions in which he seeks keys to new and alternative security models.

Host Institute: University of Bochum, Mathematics Faculty, Chair of Cryptology and IT Security
Host: Prof. Dr. Alexander May

Dr. Eike Kiltz,
born in Germany in 1975, studied Mathematics at the University of Bochum, where he obtained a doctorate in 2004. He spent research stays in Denmark, Spain, Switzerland and the USA. Since 2005, Kiltz has been Scientific Assistant at the Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Philipp Alexander Lang


Accurate antibodies to combat chronic hepatitis
Chronic hepatitis diseases triggered by viruses are a global health problem. It has been estimated that almost 10 per cent of the world population suffer from such an infection. In chronic hepatitis diseases in particular, hardly any antibodies are formed to fight the viruses. In many cases, however, the severity of the disease cannot be attributed solely to the virus and a poor immune response. Often, misdirected defence reactions add to the condition in which antibodies attack the patient’s own tissue. Philipp Alexander Lang is examining why this is the case. For this purpose, he is applying two different infection models: infections developing owing to a cell-damaging virus and those for which a virus is to blame that does not cause any cell damage. By comparing the two infection models, Lang hopes to find out how the formation of those antibodies is promoted that really effectively attack the virus instead of the patient’s own body.

Host Institute: University of Düsseldorf, Clinic for Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Infectiology
Host: Prof. Dr. Dieter Häussinger

Dr. Philipp Alexander Lang,
born in Austria in 1980, studied Medicine at the University of Tübingen, where he obtained a doctorate in 2007. Research stays brought him to Yale University, USA, and the University of Zürich, Switzerland. Since 2007, Lang has been conducting research at the Ontario Cancer Institute of Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Canada. Lang’s brother Karl Sebastian has been a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner since 2008.

Pierpaolo Mastrolia

Theoretical Physics

Mathematics for the particle accelerator
The Physics of Elementary Particles examine the fundamental building bricks of matter and the forces acting between them. The experiments required here are carried out with large-scale particle accelerators, such as the biggest of its kind, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN near Geneva. There, within the coming years, one is reckoning with answers to questions such as those regarding the origin of particle masses. According to the standard model, the currently recognised theory of fundamental interactions, it should be possible to discover the Higgs particle responsible for mass at the LHC. To this end, accurate theoretical forecasts have to be made for an experimental check that requires extensive computations with sophisticated mathematical methods, such as those contributed to by Pierpaolo Mastrolia. In his project, he seeks to elaborate the mathematical models and employ them to compute processes that are relevant to the discovery of the Higgs particles.

Host Institute: Max Planck Institute of Physics, Munich
Host: Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Hollik

Dr. Pierpaolo Mastrolia,
born in Italy in 1975, studied Astronomy and Theoretical Physics at the University of Bologna, where he obtained a doctorate in Physics in 2004. Research stays brought him to the University of Karlsruhe, the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, and to Switzerland, to the University of Zürich and the CERN in Geneva.

Andreas Möglich


Artificial light switches controlling cells
To enable plants to grow towards the light, so-called photo-receptor proteins become active at molecular level. Light guides functions and behaviour in other organisms, too. Optogenetics, a new research field in which scientists like Andreas Möglich seek to influence or control genetically modified cells with the aid of light, takes advantage of this. In this manner, various naturally occurring photoreceptors have already been introduced in foreign organisms. Andreas Möglich aims to examine the function of natural photo-receptors more closely in order to make artificial photo-receptors. These artificial light switches can be employed and made use of in target organisms, for example to control the behaviour of laboratory animals such as worms or fruit-flies without involving any physical contact or to stimulate cells for therapeutic purposes.

Host Institute: Humboldt University Berlin, Institute of Biology, Chair of Experimental Biophysics
Host: Prof. Dr. Peter Hegemann

Dr. Andreas Möglich,
born in Germany in 1975, studied Biochemistry at the University of Regensburg and Biophysics at the University of Basel, where he obtained a doctorate in 2005. In 1999, a research stay brought him to Washington University in St. Louis, USA. Since 2006, Möglich has been working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago, USA.

Simone Pika

Ethology and comparative psychology

Evolution of gestural communication
Human speech is unique in the animal kingdom and has often been used to define what it means to "be human". Already during the first year of life, children start to use nascent forms of communicative skills, mainly pre-linguistic gestures. But how do these gestures differ within various human cultures or between humans and animals? Simone Pika is investigating this question by comparing the development and use of gestural communication in different human cultures as well as between closely related species such as humans, chimpanzees and bonobos and between species which live in comparable social systems like chimpanzees and ravens. This innovative approach will allow new insights into the gestural origins of human speech, its cognitive underpinnings and the interplay between ontogenetic and phylogenetic factors.

Host Institute: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen
Host: Prof. Dr. Bart Kempenaers

Dr. Simone Pika,
born in Germany in 1972, studied Biology at the University of Münster and the University of Irchel, Switzerland. In 2003, she was awarded her doctorate at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig by Michael Tomasello, a 2010 Max Planck Research Award Winner. Following research stays in Canada and Scotland, Pika has been lecturing and conducting research at Manchester University’s School of Psychological Sciences in Great Britain since 2007.

Roberto Rinaldi

Organic-chemical Technology

Environmentally friendly energy and materials obtained from biomass
Forecasts predict that the oil reserves will by exhausted by the end of this century. One alternative to mineral oil is biomass, from which, for example, fuels can be gained. In order to avoid competition with food and fodder, vegetable structural components such as wood ought to be preferred to fruits. But it is much more difficult to transform them into the desired substances. This is why Roberto Rinaldi has developed catalytic processes with which cellulose, one of the chief components of wood, can be dissolved very quickly and then decomposed into smaller molecules that in turn can be used to produce basic chemicals. In his project, Rinaldi is extending this approach to a further chief component of wood, lignin. It offers access to compounds that are difficult to synthesise out of the cellulose share of biomass. Future sustainable fields of application include not only the environmentally friendly generation of energy but also the use of new biomaterials.

Host Institute: Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr
Host: Prof. Dr. Ferdi Schüth

Dr. Roberto Rinaldi,
born in Brazil in 1979, studied Chemistry at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Brazil, where he obtained a doctorate in 2006. There, he conducted research at the Institute of Chemistry and, in 2007, as a Postdoctoral Fellow, at the Laboratório Nacional de Luz Sincotron. In late 2007, he transferred to the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, where he is also going to conduct research as a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner.

Dmitry Volodkin


Breeding cells for new therapies
High hopes have been placed on the introduction of cell-based therapies in medicine. Stem cells are to serve the treatment of degenerative diseases in future, cells of the immune system are to be stimulated, and new drugs are to be tested more reliably, and without animal experiments, using tissue samples. For all these applications, it is necessary to be able to control the behaviour and development of cells. Adherent cells are important in such therapies. They can grow outside an organism on a surface and can also divide, and they will respond to the texture of the surface that they are growing on. Dmitry Volodkin is taking advantage of this by tailoring ultra-thin layers made out of a wide range of poly-electrolytes to suit the purpose of controlling the development of the cells. Additionally, he is modifying the poly-electrolyte layers so that their properties can be “switched on and off” by external stimuli, such as laser light, making it much easier to use them and extending the range of applications. He now wants to further examine the cellular biology, biochemical and physical aspects of this concept and attempt to enhance the potential for biomedical applications.

Host Institute: Fraunhofer Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Potsdam-Golm
Host: Dr. Claus Duschl

Dr. Dmitry Volodkin,
born in Russia in 1979, studied Chemistry at the State Lomonosov University of Moscow, where he obtained a doctorate in 2005. Research stays brought him to the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, and to the Université de Strasbourg, France. Since September 2009, he has been conducting research as a Humboldt Research Fellow at Technische Universität Berlin.