Sofja Kovalevskaja Award 2004 - Award Winners

Lucas Brunsveld

Chemical biology

Jumping over the Molecular Gap
Even in the world of the tiniest particles distances can seem insuperable. The gap between synthetic and biological molecules is a case in point and Lucas Brunsveld's project wants to help bridge it. This as yet unsolved problem of bioscience is concerned with controlling the interaction between proteins with the aid of small molecules. So far, a lot of biochemical processes in body cells have only been examined and understood at a rudimentary level - although supra-molecular interactions determine nearly all the activity in living cells. Being able to steer them is not only an objective of basic research but also a key to the diagnosis and therapy of diseases such as cancer or virus infections.

Host institute: Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology, Dortmund

  • Lucas BrunsveldLucas Brunsveld,
    born 1975 in the Netherlands, studied at Eindhoven Technical University (The Netherlands) and received his doctorate there in 2001. On the basis of an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship, he then worked at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund. Subsequently, he was employed in research at Organon, a large pharmaceutical company in the Netherlands.

Yanbei Chen


The Race in Einstein's Tracks
Gravitational waves are one of the universe's best-kept secrets. They occur when huge masses are accelerated, such as when two black holes coalesce. Or during the Big Bang, the echo of which might still be measured in the form of gravitational waves. Albert Einstein inferred their existence more than eighty years ago from his Theory of Relativity but it has never been possible to observe them because they cause only extremely tiny displacements when they arrive at the earth. Indirect proof of gravitational waves by the observation of orbital movement in a binary neutron star system did merit a Nobel Prize in 1993. But the search for means of direct observation continues and has developed into an international race but also a close cooperation. All over the world, mile-long gravitational-wave detectors have been built. These are laser interferometers, capable of measuring changes in distance thousands of times smaller than the size of an atomic nucleus. One installation has resulted from German-British cooperation and is located in Hanover. It is run by the experimental division of the Albert Einstein Institute in Hanover. Yanbei Chen's project, based at the theoretical part of the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, aims at optimising observation technology and thus laying the groundwork for building next-generation detectors which promise to provide objective evidence of gravitational waves. The hitherto dark side of the universe could be perhaps observed and the origins of the entire universe better understood.

Host institute: Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, Golm/Potsdam

  • Yanbei ChenYanbei Chen,
    born 1977 in China, studied at Peking University (PR China) und at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California (USA) where he continued working after having received his doctorate in 2004.

Ferdinando Cicalese


The Model in the Mass
Without computers, biologists, chemists and pharmacists are at something of a loss; genetic research is completely up the creek. Genome sequencing and protein structure analysis do not only require sufficient computing capacity but, above all, tools such as algorithms and theoretical principles from informatics. Ferdinando Cicalese's project starts at this interface and aims at combining theoretical research with the objective of applying it to genetic research. Using this combination of different theories (especially combinatorial search theory and information theory) he wants to develop methods for recognizing patterns in large amounts of raw data from genetic research which could serve as the basis for analyses and models.

Host institute: Faculty of Technology, Genome Informatics Research Group, Bielefeld University

  • Ferdinando CicaleseFerdinando Cicalese,
    born 1972 in Italy, studied at Salerno University (Italy), where he received his doctorate in 2001. He subsequently continued his research work at Salerno University.

Michal Czakon

Theoretical elementary particle physics

The mass in the Universe: What really is the matter?
Elementary particle physics investigates the fundamental structure of matter. The most important questions that await answers are: Where does the mass of the building blocks of nature come from? What makes the invisible part of the matter in the universe? What is the microscopic structure of space and time? These and many other related problems should be solved by the future international colliders, like the Large Hadron Collider at the Centre Europeen de Physique Nucleaire (CERN) near Geneva. However, the search for answers still reminds of the proverbial needle in a haystack. Michal Czakon and his group will make predictions and develop software for the necessary high energy experiments. This will make it easier to examine the existence and characteristics of new elementary particles - such as the Higgs boson, the discovery of which should explain many of the questions, most importantly, the origin of mass of all the other particles.

Host institute: Faculty of Physics and Astronomy, Würzburg University

  • Michal CzakonMichal Czakon,
    born 1974 in Poland, studied at Silesia University in Kattowitz (Poland) where he received his doctorate in 1999. Czakon subsequently continued working at Silesia University and as a Humboldt Research Fellow at Karlsruhe University. Most recently, he was employed in research at German Electron Sychronotron (DESY) in Zeuthen.

Mark Depauw


The Quest for the Whole Picture
About three hundred years before Christ, a number of indigenous languages existed alongside each other in Egypt, such as Demotic and the language of the Greek conquerors. Thousands of texts on pottery shards or papyrus, which have been preserved by the dry climate to this day, bear witness to a wealth of multilingual and multicultural diversity. Modern papyrology is thus faced with a language problem. Most researchers in this field are Graecists. For them, Demotic sources are literally a closed book. The far smaller group of Egyptologists, on the other hand, can in the best case understand the Demotic texts but often not the Greek. Thus, depending on the discipline, the picture only reveals one half of multicultural Egypt at the time - usually the Greek half. The two research disciplines are drifting further apart; the contribution of Egyptian culture is in danger of being overlooked. This is the reason why Mark Depauw wants to document the sources in Egyptian languages in a data-base and thus create a partner project for the data-bases currently emerging for Greek sources, making cooperation between the two disciplines feasible. In this way, it will be easier to understand both how the language developed and what influence cultural and ethnic factors had on it.

Host institute: Department of Egyptology, Cologne University

  • Mark DepauwMark Depauw,
    born 1968 in Belgium, studied at Leuven Catholic University and received his doctorate there in 1998. He continued researching at University College Oxford (Great Britain) and, on the basis of a Humboldt Research Fellowship, at Cologne University. Most recently, Depauw worked at Leuven Catholic University.

Brian Hare

Demographic biology

Darwin as Seen by Chimpanzees
Why is human intelligence so unique amongst all the types on earth? Charles Darwin knew that this question would put his theory of evolutionary descent to the test. In order to answer it, as Darwin was aware, it would be necessary to find out the precise nature of the uniqueness of human cognition. A comparison with our nearest relations, the chimpanzees, could prove helpful. The most recent research suggests that the human ability to read other people's thoughts is not so unique. Chimpanzees are able to imitate and deceive others and form alliances. Using the example of chimpanzees, Brian Hare wants to examine some of the most frequently discussed hypotheses on evolution. Is the development of language really the precondition for the intellectual abilities of adult humans? Is irrational, altruistic behaviour singular to humans? How closely comparable are apes and men, and can any insights be gained on the causes and possible treatment of, for instance, autism?

Host institute: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Department of Development and Comparative Psychology, Leipzig

  • Brian HareBrian Hare,
    born 1976 in the USA, studied at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (USA) und at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA) where he received his doctorate in 2004. He subsequently continued researching at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

Jian-Wei Pan

Atomic physics

Quantum Teleportation: Telecommunications were Yesterday
When researchers in Vienna first managed the teleportation of quantum particles in a laboratory in 1997, it was a sensation. Newspaper reports raved about the Spaceship Enterprise and the discovery of beaming. A daring comparison even though scientists are now able to transport quantum information by means of so-called entangled light particles across a gully from the Vienna Prater to the Danube Island - a distance of 600 metres as the crow flies. It may never be possible to transport people this way, apart from in science fiction, but information is another matter. Kovalevskaja Award winner, Jian-Wei Pan, who was a member of the Viennese research group which achieved the first ever teleportation anywhere in the world, has set himself an ambitious goal with his project. Telescopes on the earth are supposed to send quantum information over 10 kilometres into space to be received by satellites there. What could result from this is a global and - utilising quantum cryptology - tap-proof communications network by means of quantum teleportation.

Host institute: Institute of Physics, Heidelberg University

  • Jian-Wei PanJian-Wei Pan,
    born 1970 in China, studied at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui, (China), at Innsbruck University and at Vienna University (Austria) where he received his doctorate in 1999. He continued his research at Vienna University and then became a Humboldt Research Fellow at Heidelberg University. Most recently, he was granted a Marie Curie Fellowship to research at Heidelberg University and was concurrently professor of physics at the University of Science and Technology of China.

Tricia Striano


Look me in the Eye: The Secret of Recognition
Very early in the history of his evolution man developed the ability to read the faces of his fellow beings and, in a split second, draw conclusions about his counterpart's future behaviour. Knowing in advance if and when your neighbour's club was going to come down on your head was an evolutionary selection criterion of the first order. Just how this and similar abilities, so-called social cognition, come about has been researched in relation to animals. However, not a lot is known about the much more complex development in humans. This is particularly true of early development in infancy, from birth to twelve months. This is where Tricia Striano's project begins: she and her team are carrying out a test series with several hundred babies. Using a combination of behavioural research and neuroimaging it should help us to understand which rudimentary abilities humans bring into the world with them and how they manage, relatively quickly, to develop them into a complex system of social cognition. This should make it possible to draw conclusions on the general development of typical or atypical abilities, for example, in cases of autism.

Host institute: Centre for Advanced Studies, Leipzig University, and Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

  • Tricia StrianoTricia Striano,
    born 1973 in the USA, studied at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts (USA) and at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (USA) where she received her doctorate in 2000. Following her doctorate she headed a Junior Research Group on Cultural Ontogeny at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

Doris Y. Tsao


The Seat of Three-dimensional Vision
Three-dimensional vision is one of the most remarkable human abilities. Being the basis of our understanding of the world of objects, it has aroused the curiosity of biologists and philosophers for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, little is known about how precisely our visual system achieves it and which parts of the brain are involved. The goal of Doris Tsao's project is to understand the mechanism for 3D vision in terms of the electrical activity of individual nerve cells in the visual cortex. One powerful technique she will use to examine the regions of the brain actively involved in 3D vision is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). She plans to perform fMRI in both humans and macaque monkeys, to gain insight into the essential principles of cortical organization underlying 3D vision, common to all primates. The pioneering work done by Doris Tsao in developing fMRI techniques to understand the organization of the brain is relevant to other fields of neurology and is already attracting growing interest.

Host institute: Brain Research Institute, Bremen University

  • Doris Y. TsaoDoris Y. Tsao,
    born 1975 in China (American citizenship since 1985), studied at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, (USA) and at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (USA) where she received her doctorate in 2002. She subsequently worked as a postdoc at Harvard Medical School und the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, (USA).

Eckhard von Törne

Elementary Particle Physics

Searching the Higgs Boson: Thirty Years are Enough
How do particles come by their mass? Thirty years ago, the Scottish physicist, Peter Higgs, put forward a theory which has held to this day. It postulates that the so-called Higgs field and the Higgs bosons are the producers of mass. The Higgs field is rather like a grid in which waves of miniscule particles, the Higgs bosons, flow. All the particles in the universe pass through this grid and, if they have any mass, react with it. Due to this interaction the particles' characteristics are formed. Particles without mass, on the other hand, traverse the grid unaffected. This was as far as the theory went. "Should I still be alive when a Higgs boson is found, perhaps in the year 2004, maybe I should like to be invited to the press conference", Peter Higgs said at the time. Whether it will still happen in 2004 is dubious, but Eckhard von Törne wants his work to make a contribution towards ensuring that Higgs does at least get his press conference in the next few years. He wants to construct silicium pixel detectors which should make it possible to produce proof of Higgs bosons in large particle accelerators. The technology developed in this way should lead to applications in fields other than particle physics, such as radiology.

Host institute: Institute of Physics, Bonn University 

  • Eckhard von TörneEckhard von Törne,
    born 1969 in Germany, studied at Bonn University where he received his doctorate in 1998. He was subsequently a Feodor Lynen Fellow at Ohio State University and Cornell University (USA). Since 2002, he has been working at Kansas State University (USA). 

Martin Wilmking


Climate change: it's hidden in the moor
Climate research is en vogue. The consequences of global climate change even provide inspiration for catastrophe films. Based on scientific models, a recent box-office hit showed how the whole of the northern hemisphere could be covered by an ice crust when the Gulf Stream ceased to flow. However, if popular global models are going to be more than just film scripts they have to be augmented by regional factors. In his project, Martin Wilmking, who has already investigated the regional consequences of global processes in Arctic Russia, Mongolia and Alaska, is going to examine the carbon trade and balance of the northern peatlands from Northern Europe to Siberia. Peatlands have been investigated far less than forests although they play an important role in the global climate system. The major questions are what influence increased warming has on the large amounts of carbon bound in the peatlands and what interaction occurs with the atmosphere. An important side-effect of the project is that it will not only encourage existing collaboration but also create new, supra-regional cooperation and contacts.

Host institute: Institute of Botany, Greifswald University

  • Martin WilmkingMartin Wilmking,
    born 1972 in Germany, studied at Potsdam University and received his doctorate by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, (USA) in 2003. As a postdoc he continued researching at Columbia University in New York (USA).


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