Eight researchers to receive 2015 Leibniz Prize

The new recipients of Germany's most prestigious research funding prize have been announced. In Bonn today, the Joint Committee of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) decided to award the 2015 Leibniz Prize to eight researchers. The recipients of the prize were selected by the Nominations Committee from 136 nominees. Of the eight new prizewinners, three are from the natural sciences, three from the humanities and social sciences, and two from the life sciences. Each will receive prize money of 2.5 million euros.

The following researchers will receive the 2015 funding prize in the DFG's Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Programme:

  • Prof. Dr. Henry N. Chapman, Biological Physics/X-Ray Physics, Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), Hamburg, and University of Hamburg
  • Prof. Dr. Hendrik Dietz, Biochemistry/Biophysics, Technical University of Munich

  • Prof. Dr. Stefan Grimme, Theoretical Chemistry, University of Bonn

  • Prof. Dr. Christian Hertweck, Biological Chemistry, Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology - Hans Knöll Institute (HKI), Jena, and University of Jena

  • Prof. Dr. Friedrich Lenger, Modern and Contemporary History, University of Giessen

  • Prof. Dr. Hartmut Leppin, Ancient History, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main

  • Prof. Dr. Steffen Martus, Modern German Literature, Humboldt University of Berlin

  • Prof. Dr. Tobias Moser, Auditory Sensing/Otolaryngology, University of Göttingen

Prior to the decision on the new prizewinners, DFG President Professor Dr. Peter Strohschneider spoke in detail in the Joint Committee about this year's selection round, in which only eight candidates were chosen for up to ten possible prizes and for which no female researchers were nominated. "The Leibniz Prize has always been awarded in response to nominations from the academic community and in line with the sole criterion of the very highest quality," he stressed. "There were some very good nominations again this year. But more so than in previous years, a small number of candidates stood out prominently from the rest, and only they fulfilled the very highest quality standards. After a great deal of discussion, it was decided that for the first time in the history of the Leibniz Prize, the full number of individual prizes would not be awarded."

He added that it was unsatisfactory that there were no women among those honoured, given the equal opportunity and diversity that exist within the research community. "The DFG in particular would have been very pleased if this year's honourees had again included women," Strohschneider said, pointing out that four female researchers received the Leibniz Prize last year.

The DFG President therefore added an urgent appeal to the institutions eligible to submit nominations to put forward more outstanding women researchers. "We rely on nominations from the research community, which we can only influence in a very indirect way. Nevertheless, we will do all we can to ensure that more outstanding women are nominated for future awards. As of next year, if a university or research organisation submits more than one nomination, we will only accept nominations for equal numbers of women and men," he said.

Profiles of the 2015 Leibniz Prize recipients:

Prof. Dr. Henry N. Chapman (47), Biological Physics/X-Ray Physics, Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), Hamburg, and University of Hamburg

Henry N. Chapman is an internationally renowned researcher who has carried out groundbreaking development work in X-ray physics and biological physics. Chapman's work is concerned with free electron lasers (FEL), which are used to investigate complex molecules by means of ultrashort and high-brilliance X-ray pulses. However, this requires a number of fundamental problems to be overcome, primarily the fact that the samples used are destroyed very quickly by the extremely high intensity of the X-rays - sometimes in as little as 10 femtoseconds, or 0.000 000 000 000 01 seconds. Henry Chapman developed a method that allowed him, with other researchers, to take diffraction images of biomolecules in a previously inconceivable space of time before the samples vaporised. In this process, known as serial femtosecond crystallography (SFX), a fine water jet with tiny molecular proteins is crossed with the free electron laser. This method, known to researchers as "diffraction before destruction", has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in high-resolution imaging techniques in the life sciences. It also provided a way to determine the structure of macromolecules such as the HI virus, which cannot be crystallised. For example, Chapman was able to identify the structure of a parasite protein that causes sleeping sickness - illustrating the physicist's ability to link pioneering new methods with fundamental scientific questions.

Born in the UK in 1967, Henry Chapman obtained his BSc and PhD at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He undertook postdoctoral research at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Melbourne and in the USA, where he led a working group at the renowned Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In 2007 he joined the staff of the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg and became a founding director of the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL), a joint establishment of the University of Hamburg, the Max Planck Society and DESY. Among other things, the 2015 Leibniz Prize will enable Chapman to exploit the even greater technical and scientific possibilities of the XFEL electron laser facility scheduled to go into operation at DESY in 2017.

Prof. Dr. Hendrik Dietz (36), Biochemistry/Biophysics, Technical University of Munich

Hendrik Dietz ranks among the world's leading researchers in DNA nanotechnology, at present one of the most dynamic fields of biomolecular basic research. He is particularly interested in DNA origami, which is used in the sequence-programmed synthesis of highly complex functional two-dimensional and three-dimensional nanocomponents. Although this technique was invented by other researchers, it was Dietz' work that transformed it into a widely applicable tool that is now used all over the world to develop nanoscale instruments and tools and to test biological and biophysical hypotheses. In addition to his fundamental work in this field, Dietz has pioneered its application, for example by constructing moving grippers and sliders from DNA. His work in the production of synthetic nanopores in lipid membranes is of great practical importance. Another of his key research interests is the development of DNA-based tools for the mechanical and spatial orientation of proteins and their analysis using single-molecule spectroscopic methods. Finally, by using an entirely new fabrication method Dietz was able to make the synthesis of complex DNA structures much faster and more efficient, paving the way for the industrial application of synthetic DNA objects.

At 36 years old, Hendrik Dietz is the youngest recipient of the 2015 Leibniz Prize. Born in Dresden, he trained as a physicist but has been interested in chemistry for many years. He studied in Paderborn, Saragossa (Spain) and at LMU Munich. He received his doctorate from the Technical University of Munich in 2007 before becoming a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School. Two years after obtaining his doctorate, Dietz returned to the Technical University of Munich to take up a post as assistant professor. Since 2014 he has held a W3 professorship in experimental biophysics. Dietz is involved in the Nanosystems Initiative Munich, a cluster of excellence funded through the Excellence Initiative. In 2010 he received a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) and his work has been recognised with numerous awards and fellowships.

Prof. Dr. Stefan Grimme (51), Theoretical Chemistry, University of Bonn

Stefan Grimme is being recognised for his groundbreaking work in theoretical chemistry, which links theory and application in an ideal, interdisciplinary way. A chemist at the University of Bonn, he is interested in the development and use of theoretical models and computer programs to calculate with precision the spatial structure of molecules, their bonding characteristics and the distribution of electrons. The methods and programs developed by Grimme have quickly become a standard used all over the world, and not only in chemistry: biologists, materials scientists and synthesis researchers also benefit from the significant growth thus achieved in possible applications of modern theoretical chemistry. Grimme's research reflects his wide interests, which range from the development of quantum chemistry methods to determine the absolute configuration of large molecules and so-called density functional theory with empirical corrections for dispersion interactions to theoretical electron spectroscopy and thermochemistry. Carried out at a very high scientific level and published in leading journals, Grimme's work is among the most cited in his field.

Born in Braunschweig in 1963, Stefan Grimme studied chemistry at the Technical University of Braunschweig, where he received his doctorate in 1991. After working for several years as a research assistant, he habilitated in 1997 in Bonn with theoretical chemist Sigrid Peyerimhoff, who won the Leibniz Prize in 1989 for her groundbreaking achievements. In 2000 he took up the chair of theoretical organic chemistry at the University of Münster. In 2011 he was appointed to head the renowned Mulliken Center for Theoretical Chemistry, which took him back to the University of Bonn.

Prof. Dr. Christian Hertweck (45), Biological Chemistry, Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology - Hans Knöll Institute (HKI), Jena, and University of Jena

Christian Hertweck is being recognised for his work on bioactive natural products, which has given scientists a better understanding of and ability to synthesise natural substances. His work focuses on small, highly complex organic molecules produced by means of microbial biosynthesis, which represent a largely untapped wealth of potential therapeutic active substances, for example for antibiotics and cancer drugs. In this area Hertweck has discovered numerous new genetic determinants for natural products and developed new methods to derive these substances from anaerobic bacteria, endosymbionts and other sources with which this was not previously possible. As well as greatly increasing the chances of obtaining new active substances, Hertweck's work has also given important impetus to basic research. For example, he has investigated the role of natural products as information carriers in microbial interactions and symbioses, which contributes significantly to our understanding of both the global ecosystem, and therefore ecology, and the ecosystem of the human gut, and therefore medical research and everyday clinical practice. Impressive examples in this area are Hertweck's work on the toxin rhizoxin, which attacks rice plants and could also provide a starting point for a potential anti-cancer drug, and on clostridium, an anaerobic pathogen.

Born in 1969, Christian Hertweck studied chemistry in Bonn and obtained his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology. He carried out postdoctoral research at the University of Washington/Seattle before returning to Jena between 2001 and 2005 to lead an independent junior research group at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology - Hans Knöll Institute (HKI). In 2008 he became a deputy director of HKI and since 2006 he has also been a W3 professor at the University of Jena.

Prof. Dr. Friedrich Lenger (57), Modern and Contemporary History, University of Giessen

Friedrich Lenger is one of the most versatile social historians of his generation, whose name is renowned both in Germany and internationally. He is receiving the Leibniz Prize in recognition of work that stands clearly apart from the traditional fields and approaches of modern German historiography and go deep into the history of the European-Western modern age. Lenger's wide oeuvre is characterised by great empirical density, an impressive knowledge of literature, concise conceptualisation and a capacity for original synopsis; he has consistently addressed enormous volumes of material and advanced to new questions. His early studies on the history of class formation in the 19th century and the social history of German artisans already attracted considerable recognition, not least the volume on "Industrial Revolution and Nation State Building" in the revised Gebhardt-Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte. If Lenger trod new paths with his analysis of early capitalist class formation, then with his habilitation thesis in 1993 he set standards in scholarly biography when he portrayed Werner Sombart as a key figure of a German "Mandarin" and a central representative of German social sciences between the Empire and National Socialism. After publishing this successful work, which also attracted attention outside specialist circles, and other biographical studies, Lenger turned his attention to urban history. In numerous studies within a short space of time he analysed the basis of German, European and in some cases North American urban history, culminating in 2013 with his opus magnum, a history of European cities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Born in 1957, Friedrich Lenger studied history and social sciences, cultural anthropology and political sciences in Bielefeld, Düsseldorf and at the University of Michigan. After obtaining his master's degree there and his doctorate in Düsseldorf in 1985, he worked as a research assistant in Tübingen. He habilitated in 1993 with a DFG fellowship and then gained a Heisenberg fellowship. Following a first professorial post in Erlangen-Nuremberg, since 1999 he has been professor of Medieval and Modern History at the University of Giessen. He is recognised far beyond his native country, as is demonstrated by many invitations to visit and lecture at such renowned institutions as St. Anthony's College, Oxford and Georgetown University, Washington/DC.

Prof. Dr. Hartmut Leppin (51), Ancient History, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main

Hartmut Leppin is one of Germany's most prominent ancient historians, particularly respected as a world expert in Late Antiquity and early Christianity. His studies reveal him to be an independent thinker who takes intellectual risks in order to explore new scholarly ground. His habilitation dissertation is an excellent example of this, in which he investigated the political ideas of three previously neglected church historians of Late Antiquity - Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret - with regard to a Christian empire. Here and in subsequent studies on other church fathers within the realm of the history of ideas, Leppin portrays an extremely complex picture of the relationships between Christianity and political power in Late Antiquity, in particular the role of Christianity in imperial self-representation. A key concept in this context is Leppin's concept of humility, which he traces back to interpretations of the Old Testament kingdom and transferred to the empire of Late Antiquity. Related studies on Theodosius the Great and Justinian reflected a wide-ranging relationship between monarchy and Christianity that would determine the course of European history for centuries from Late Antiquity onwards. Leppin offered new approaches to the interpretation of early Christianity in that he conceived Christianizations as a non-linear process and presented them for the first time in their entire temporal and spatial non-simultaneity.

Born in 1963 in Helmstedt, Hartmut Leppin studied history, Latin, Greek and education sciences in Marburg, Heidelberg and Pavia. After gaining the initial qualification (first state examination) as a secondary teacher in history and Latin, in 1990 he obtained his doctorate with Karl Christ in Marburg, with a thesis on the social position of stage artists during the Roman Republic and the Principate. He habilitated in 1995 at FU Berlin. Since 2001, Leppin has been a professor at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main. He is also a principal investigator in the cluster of excellence "Normative Orders", funded through the Excellence Initiative, and as of January 2015 he will serve as spokesperson for a new Collaborative Research Centre (CRC), "Discourses of Weakness and Resource Regimes". Leppin is co-editor of the journal Historische Zeitschrift and the Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum.

Prof. Dr. Steffen Martus (46), Modern German Literature, Humboldt University of Berlin

In just 15 years Steffen Martus has gained high recognition as a pioneering representative of modern German literary studies. He has been selected to receive the Leibniz Prize in recognition of his prolific and wide-ranging scholarly output. In his prizewinning dissertation, Martus was the first to present Friedrich von Hagedorn as an exemplary representative of the Enlightenment as a literary movement, ushering in a reexamination of this epoch of change that pointed ahead in political and literary terms to the modern era. Martus repeated this approach later and uses it in his most recent book project to explore immaturity in the Enlightenment. His groundbreaking habilitation dissertation on Werkpolitik with studies of Klopstock, Tieck, Goethe and Stefan George demonstrated how central communicative relationships were in the formation of new work and author types from the Early Modern Period into the 20th century. Subsequent monographs on Ernst Jünger and the Brothers Grimm were based on the same view of authorship as a sociologically and historically determined construction requiring comprehension. In addition to this original research profile, Martus encourages the renewal of his field by encouraging critical reflection on current and future possibilities in text philology and through his commitment to academic teaching and the encouragement of early career researchers.

Steffen Martus was born in 1968 and studied philology, social studies, philosophy and sociology in Regensburg. He obtained his doctorate in 1998 from the Humboldt University of Berlin (HU). As a postdoctoral researcher he participated in the DFG Research Training Group "Coding Violence in Medial Change", which was followed by a junior professorship at HU and a first professorship in Erlangen-Nuremberg. In 2007 Martus was appointed professor at the University of Kiel, and since 2010 he has been a W3 professor at the Institute of German Philology at HU. In addition to his research and teaching responsibilities he is actively involved in academic self-governance, for example serving on the DFG review board for literary studies, and contributes to the public promotion of literature through the media and articles on the internet.

Prof. Dr. Tobias Moser (46), Auditory Sensing/Otolaryngology, University of Göttingen

Through his work, Tobias Moser has substantially contributed to a better understanding of synaptic processes in the inner ear and therefore the basis of hearing. His new conceptual, technical and experimental approaches have set standards that are now being recognised with the Leibniz Prize. Moser's main interest lies in the hair cells in the inner ear. After a certain age the number of these cells diminishes, which can cause significant limitations in communication with other people. To investigate these cells, which are electrophysiologically, molecularly and mechanically highly complex and also difficult to access, Moser combined sophisticated basic research with translational approaches and clinical practice. His work on the synapse of the inner hair cells, the ribbon synapse, is particularly important. Moser discovered that this synapse is responsible for the synchronous activity of the auditory nerves and therefore forms the basis for the perception of pitches and sound localisation. In this way he was also able to demonstrate how acoustic signals can be converted into bioelectrical signals in a matter of milliseconds or even microseconds. In translational and clinical work, Moser developed an alternative to electrical stimulation by a cochlear implant, using optical stimulations in the inner ear, which is predicted to have an important future.

Born in 1968, Tobias Moser studied medicine in Leipzig and obtained his doctorate with a dissertation written in the Göttingen laboratory of Leibniz and Nobel prizewinner Erwin Neher. He remained in Neher's department at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry as a postdoctoral researcher and independent junior research group leader. At the same time he continued his medical studies at the University of Göttingen, where since 2001 he has led his own working group, the Inner Ear Lab, at the university hospital. After habilitating in otolaryngology in 2003, he was appointed professor in 2005 and has held his own chair since 2007. Having declined a number of positions in Germany and the USA, Moser is currently establishing a new Institute for Auditory Neurosciences in Göttingen. He is also the spokesperson for the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) "Cellular Mechanisms of Sensory Processing" in Göttingen, funded since 2011.

30 years of the DFG's Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Programme

The awards ceremony for the 2015 Leibniz Prizes will be held on 3 March 2015 in Berlin. It will form part of a series of events next year with which the DFG - Germany's largest research funding organisation and the central self-governing organisation of the German research community - will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Programme, within the framework of which the Leibniz Prize is awarded.

The programme, named for the famous polymath, was established in October 1985 by Germany's federal and state governments and the DFG was tasked with carrying it out. The idea originated with the then DFG President, Professor Dr. Eugen Seibold. He first proposed an additional funding award for outstanding researchers in Germany in late 1983. His idea was to "guarantee a large amount of money to a small number of outstanding researchers, without a proposal process, perhaps in the form of a prize".

This first suggestion of Seibold's included all the later characteristics of the Leibniz Programme and Prize. Its purpose is to improve the working conditions of outstanding researchers and expand the research possibilities open to them, free them from administrative work and enable them to recruit highly qualified early career researchers. For this purpose they can be offered prize money of up to 2.5 million euros for a period of up to seven years. These funds are approved without any form of proposal being submitted and recipients are given as much freedom to use the funds as is possible with the use of public money.

The first Leibniz Prizes were awarded in April 1986. The DFG President at the time, Professor Dr. Hubert Markl, coined the expression "idyllic freedom", which is what the prize offers to recipients in addition to great renown and a large prize fund. These words have now become synonymous with the Leibniz Prize.

Up to ten prizes may be awarded each year. With the eight prizes for 2015, a total of 328 Leibniz Prizes have been awarded to date. Of these, 109 were bestowed upon researchers in the natural sciences, 96 in life sciences, 73 in humanities and social sciences, and 50 in engineering sciences. The number of award recipients is higher than the number of awarded prizes because, in rare cases, the prizes and money are shared. Accordingly, a total of 354 nominees have received the prize: 312 men and 42 women.

The Leibniz Prize is the most significant research prize in Germany. Seven past prizewinners have subsequently received the Nobel Prize: 1988 Professor Dr. Hartmut Michel (Chemistry), 1991 Professor Dr. Erwin Neher and Professor Dr. Bert Sakmann (Medicine), 1995 Professor Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (Medicine), 2005 Professor Dr. Theodor W. Hänsch (Physics), 2007 Professor Dr. Gerhard Ertl (Chemistry) and this year Professor Dr. Stefan W. Hell (Physics).

"The Leibniz Prize has long been the most noted funding award for outstanding researchers in Germany. But it is also the most visible recognition of early career researchers, whose wealth of ideas provides the foundation for all new knowledge and whom we must support as a first priority with optimum research structures. This prize, the power of the ideas that it rewards and the knowledge that grows out of them - that is what we want to celebrate in many different ways in the anniversary year of the Leibniz Programme," said DFG President Professor Strohschneider. In addition to the awards ceremony, at the end of March a colloquium will be held at the DFG's Head Office in Bonn to discuss the achievements and future framework of the Leibniz Programme and will be combined with a "Leibniz celebration" at the city's Bundeskunsthalle.

Award Ceremony

The 2015 Leibniz Prizes will be bestowed on 3 March 2015 at 3.00 pm at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Berlin. A separate invitation will be sent to members of the media.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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