Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winners 2014

Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild


Sebastian Kraußer
Nina Hafeneger
Press, Communications and Marketing
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Georg Scholl
Head of
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Kamal Asadi

Electrical Engineering

Researching data storage material of the future
Ever-larger, ever-faster capacity - the need for memory is growing by the minute in the electrical engineering field. Kamal Asadi is striving to create new possibilities for storing data - his work ranges from basic research to the development of functional components and the filing of actual patents. As part of this, the physicist from Iran is conducting research on an entirely new class of materials which could open up new avenues in a number of fields, from memory to sensor to circuit technology: multiferroics ‒ materials in which at least two ferroic ordering phenomena, such as ferromagnetic or ferroelectric, exist simultaneously. Asadi will study multiferroics of magnetoelectric coupling and apply them to the area of organic materials at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz. The aim of Asadi’s research in Mainz: a prototype of a device.

Host institute: Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Mainz
Host: Professor Dr Paul W. M. Blom

Dossier Sofja Kovalevskaja Award 

Dr Kamal Asadi
was born in Iran in 1977 and studied at Yazd University and the Sharif University of Technology in Iran from 1996 to 2002. In 2003 Asadi moved to the University of Groningen in the Netherlands where he completed a second Master’s degree in physics and earned a doctorate in 2009. He then worked as a postdoc in Groningen until 2011 when he took up industrial research at Philips Research Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Asadi joined the research team at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in the summer of 2013.

Gregory Brennecka


Searching for the origin of terrestrial life
Gregory Brennecka searches for answers to questions that have puzzled us all — not just scientists — for ages. How did our solar system form? What conditions had to exist for life to develop? To date, science has not provided any conclusive answers. Although it is generally assumed that a supernova was directly involved in the origin of our solar system, we still have no clear evidence for this. To find out, the American Chemits Brennecka is working on precisely these questions. He conducts research on the first minerals that formed in the solar system, known as calcium-aluminium-rich inclusions (CAIs), which are found in meteorites. Brennecka has already distinguished himself by changing the way the first solids are dated. Through this and similar work, he was able to prove that the isotopic composition of the first solids is different from that of the rest of the solar system. This suggests that shortly after our solar system started, it was altered by a supernova. Brennecka now wants to study CAIs to search for what triggered the formation of the solar system in the first place.

Host institute: University of Münster, Institute for Planetology
Host: Professor Dr Thorsten Kleine

Dr Gregory Brennecka
Born in the USA in 1980, studied chemistry, geoscience, and geochemistry at the University of Missouri and Oregon State University, USA, from 2000 to 2006. Following his studies, Brennecka worked as a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, USA, before doing his doctorate at Arizona State University in Tempe from 2007 to 2011. After his doctoral thesis, he began his postdoctorate in Tempe and subsequently returned to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2013 to complete a second postdoctorate. Brennecka has already published in leading journals including Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Elizabeta Briski


On the trail of introduced alien species
They find their way into new habitats, sometimes spread quickly there and seriously disrupt biodiversity and ecosystems: non-indigenous species, often called species that are introduced by chance or alien, invasive, and exotic species. In an age of climate change and globalised trade flows, they are a growing problem. Elizabeta Briski has focussed her attention on biological invasions in aquatic ecosystems. With resounding success: Briski’s research findings regarding the Great Lakes in North America have already influenced Canadian and US shipping regulations governing the handling of ship discharges. The Croatian-Canadian Ecologist will now expand her research to include non-indigenous species in other regions. She wants to examine the question if species from some regions (e.g., Ponto-Caspian) have inherent advantages over other species in colonizing new areas. To find out, she will study species from the Baltic and North Seas, North American Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River and Ponto-Caspian regions ‒ since Ponto-Caspian species are speculatively considered to be better invaders than the Northern European or Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River species.

Host institute: GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel
Host: Professor Dr Ulrich Sommer

Dr Elizabeta Briski
Born in Croatia in 1973. Completed a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture in Zagreb, Croatia, and subsequently studied Education and worked several years as an English teacher. She switched to science after a stay in Belgium in 2004 where she obtained a Master’s degree in Aquaculture at the University of Ghent and then went to the University of Windsor, Canada, as a doctoral student. Since obtaining her doctorate in 2011, Briski has worked as a postdoc at Great Lakes Laboratory for Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in Burlington, Canada.

Pierangelo Buongiorno

History of Law

Tracking down sources in Antiquity
Even today, legal historians continue to study how ancient Roman law has influenced developments in European legal systems over the years. They have not however had systematic sources to draw on for their work. A compilation of the decrees handed down by the Roman Senate, the body that defined the policies of the Roman Empire into Late Antiquity, has not existed to date. The Italian Pierangelo Buongiorno wants to remedy this situation: The legal scholar wrote his thesis on the Roman Senate’s decrees during the Claudian period from 41 to 54 AD. He now plans to put together a comprehensive, precisely documented and commentated collection of all decrees passed by the Roman Senate from ancient Rome ‒ from the founding of the Republic in 509 BC until the dawn of Late Antiquity in 284 AD. This endeavour poses enormous challenges: The ancient decrees have scattered over the centuries and are now to be found in not only legal and literary sources but also in epigraphical and papyrological sources. Pierangelo Buongiorno is considered to be superbly equipped for conducting this search: Being a legal scholar, classical philologist and specialist in ancient history, he has experience with a wide array of sources.

Host institute: University of Münster, Institute for the History of Law
Host: Professor Dr Sebastian Lohsse

Dr Pierangelo Buongiorno
was born in Italy in 1981. He studied at the University of Salento in Lecce from 1999 to 2004. For his postgraduate studies, Buongiorno transferred to the Aldo Moro University in Bari, Italy, where he received his doctorate in 2008. He was awarded the Gérard Boulvert International Prize in Roman Law in 2010 for his doctoral thesis. Buongiorno has completed several research stays in other countries, including Greece, at the DAI Commission for Ancient History and Epigraphy in Munich, the University of Mainz and the University of Heidelberg in Germany and Princeton University in the USA. He has worked as a research assistant at the University of Salento in Lecce, Italy, since 2011.

Jason Dexter


Taking a new look at the Milky Way
Astrophysicist Jason Dexter conducts research at the interface between observation and theory. His work focuses on finding explanations for the phenomena related to the supermassive black hole at the centre of our star system that can be observed with the help of telescopes. This is one of the most exciting fields in astrophysics ‒ and one in which Dexter has already made a name for himself. The American Scientist now plans to use models of gas falling into black holes to interpret data from innovative instruments, including GRAVITY, which is being developed in Garching. With his work, he wants to help test the General Theory of Relativity on supermassive black holes ‒ an area that is still largely unexplored.

Host institute: Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching
Host: Professor Dr Reinhard Genzel

Dr Jason Dexter
was born in the USA in 1983. He completed a Bachelor’s programme in physics at Occidental College, Los Angeles, USA, from 2002 to 2005. He subsequently earned a Master’s degree at the University of Washington, USA, where he also did his doctorate in 2011. Dexter has since been a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. Since 2013 he has been a member of the Event Horizon Telescope project: In this project an international research team is working on linking radio telescopes on different continents in order to obtain increasingly precise images of and insights into the centre of the Milky Way and other galaxies.

Katja Dörschner-Boyaci


Protected against slips and slides
Is the banana yellow and perfect for eating or brown and past its prime? Does the asphalt underfoot shine slick and wet, or it is dry and have a good grip? We continually make decisions like these ‒ day in, day out, in passing and within seconds. The human visual system discerns the physical characteristics of surfaces and objects very quickly and very precisely ‒ and protects us against unpleasant surprises such as biting into spoilt fruit or slipping and falling on a slick surface. The question of just what processes are involved in this form of visual perception has hardly been researched to date. The German psychologist Katja Dörschner-Boyaci works in this quite new field of science ‒ and has already made important contributions to it. Dörschner-Boyaci, who previously conducted research in the USA and now works in Turkey, combines behavioural studies with computer graphics techniques. She is also an expert in magnetic resonance tomography. She plans to join these methods and techniques in order to investigate how the human brain processes visual information to obtain vivid impressions of a material’s properties and condition.

Host institute: University of Gießen, Department of General Psychology
Host: Professor Dr Karl Gegenfurtner

Dr Katja Dörschner-Boyaci
was born in Germany 1975. She moved to the USA to study and received a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Rhode Island in 2002. She then switched to the University of New York, USA, where she completed a Master’s degree and did her doctorate in 2006. Later that year she transferred to the University of Minnesota, USA, to pursue postdoctoral studies. She has conducted research at Bilkent University Ankara as an assistant professor since 2008.

Roland Donninger


The search for the right model
Physical processes can be described and systematically investigated with the help of mathematical models. However, mathematics is still far from providing suitable models for every phenomenon. This is the starting point for Roland Donninger’s work. Mathematical theory is still full of gaps when the subject is singular phenomena such as black holes and more complex and irregular events such as turbulent flows and eddies of gases or liquids, like whirlpools in rivers. These phenomena can be described with non-linear partial differential equations. However the solution theory for these equations has yet to be conclusively investigated. In his work to date, Austrian mathematician Donninger has already contributed to the development of a class of large solutions for non-linear wave equations of this kind. At the University of Bonn, he plans to deepen our understanding of this type of solution. His work to achieve this will include studying blow-up behaviour in greater depth. His findings might not only provide additional foundations for mathematics but also make a contribution to theoretical physics and to the natural and engineering sciences as a whole.

Host institute: University of Bonn, Mathematical Institute
Host: Professor Dr Herbert Koch

Dr Roland Donninger
was born in Austria in 1977. He completed a Master’s degree in Mathematics and Physics at the University of Vienna between 1997 and 2004 and went on to receive his doctorate in 2007. Donninger then held his first postdoctoral position at his alma mater until 2009 when he switched to the University of Chicago, USA, as a postdoc with an Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship. Donninger has conducted research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, since 2011.

Fernando Febres Cordero

Elementary Particle Physics

Researching the smallest particles
Fernando Febres Cordero studies the building blocks of matter, elementary particles and their interactions. The Higgs mechanism has been used since the 1960s to explain how these particles - from electrons to quarks - obtain mass: namely, through interaction with the Higgs field which one can envisage as a kind of mesh through which particles float and, in the process, interact with the field. A direct consequence of this mechanism is the existence of a new heavy particle, the Higgs particle. The first experiments to confirm the half-century-old prediction were carried on only recently at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator at CERN (Geneva, Switzerland). Two experiments there, ATLAS and CMS, discovered in 2012 a new particle that closely resembles the predicted Higgs particle. With the collected and future data sets from these experiments scientists will continue their studies in the search for new physics. The work of the Venezuelan physicist Febres Cordero will substantially contribute to the progress of these studies. His special focus is the area of scattering cross-sections, i.e. the measure of the likelihood that given initial-state particles interact to produce other final-state particles. Improvements in the theoretical prediction of such interactions are crucial for work done with the LHC, and, as a consequence, for the understanding of elementary particles at the high-energy frontier.

Host institute: University of Freiburg, Institute for Physics
Host: Professor Dr Stefan Dittmaier

Dr Fernando Febres Cordero
was born in Venezuela in 1978. He studied physics at the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela, and started his doctoral studies at the Florida State University in the USA in 2002. Starting in 2007 he conducted research for two years as a postdoc at the University of California in Los Angeles, USA. In 2009 he returned to the Universidad Simon Bolivar as an assistant professor and was appointed associate professor in 2011.

Helen May-Simera

Cell Biology

How cell antennae help us see
They can be found on the surface of nearly every cell in humans and many other living creatures, and they can do much more than researchers thought they could do until recently. We are talking about primary cilia, the eyelash-like protrusions on the cell membrane which have a variety of functions. Like ‘biological antennae’, they receive information from the cell’s environment ‒ information that is crucial to how the cell develops and differentiates. A defect in cilia function can lead to serious illnesses which are called ciliopathies. Trained in Great Britain and the USA, the biologist Helen May-Simera has studied ever since her doctoral work how cilia process and transmit signals. Her current research focus is cilia function in eye cells. May-Simera wants to find out what role they play in degenerative diseases of the retina and whether new therapies are possible.

Host institute: Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Institute of Zoology
Host: Professor Dr Uwe Wolfrum

Dr Helen May-Simera
was born in Great Britain in 1981 and studied biochemistry at the University of Bath. After completing her Master’s degree in 2003 she was a doctoral student at University College London, where she obtained her doctorate in 2008. She then moved to the USA to conduct research as a postdoc at the prestigious National Institute of Health in Bethesda, initially at the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders, and then later at the National Eye Institute. Since December 2014, she has continued her research at the University of Mainz.

Christian Straßer

Formal Logic

New logic for increasingly complex science
In a world filled with incomplete and uncertain information, we often draw conclusions that, when new information emerges, are defeasible and therefore revisable. Such conclusions are not only of pivotal importance in everyday life, they are also crucial in scientific evaluations and argumentation. In logic, these methods for reaching logical conclusions are formalised with the aim of developing a precise, mathematical model for defeasible reasoning. The German philosopher and logician Christian Straßer most recently worked in Belgium. He has focussed his attention on developing a comprehensive theory of logical reasoning that links models from formal logic with models from formal argumentation theory. Such a theory would offer a new instrument for understanding defeasible reasoning, such as for fields of application like normative and scientific reasoning.

Host institute: University of Bochum, Institute for Philosophy II
Host: Professor Dr Heinrich Wansing

Dr Christian Straßer
was born in Germany in 1978. As a student at the University of Passau he first studied computer science and then added philosophy. He graduated with distinction in 2006 with a degree in both disciplines. He switched to the Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Ghent as a doctoral candidate in 2007 and was awarded a doctorate in 2011. Since then he has worked as a postdoc on developing models for defeasible reasoning. Starting September he will conduct research in this area with his own team at the University of Bochum.

Alexander Tsirlin

Physical Chemistry

Where chemistry and physics meet
Alexander Tsirlin conducts research in the area where chemistry and physics intersect with one another: Using chemical synthesis, he creates completely new types of materials that have unusual electronic and magnetic ‒ in other words, physical ‒ properties. Materials with these kinds of properties are in demand because they make it possible to develop new technologies, be it new sensors or components for the energy sector or for superfast quantum computers. While at the University of Augsburg, Tsirlin will develop a research group at the Center for Electronic Correlations and Magnetism (EKM). More specifically, he wants to research new forms of so-called transition-metal-based, strongly correlated electron systems which exhibit these special properties.

Host institute: University of Augsburg, Center for Electronic Correlations and Magnetism (EKM)
Host: Professor Dr Philipp Gegenwart

Dr Alexander Tsirlin
was born in 1985 in Moscow where he began studying chemistry at the renowned Lomonosov Moscow State University in 2001, at the age of 15. He graduated in 2006. Three years later, he was awarded a doctorate. He conducted research at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids (MPI CPfS) in Dresden from August 2009 until June 2012, including two years with the assistance of a Humboldt Research Fellowship. Dr Tsirlin has been working as a top researcher at the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics (NICPB) in Tallinn, Estonia, since July 2012.