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The 2009 Leibniz Prize: Eleven new scientific discoverers

The recipients of this year's Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize have been officially announced. At its meeting in Bonn today, the Joint Committee of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) named eleven researchers, ten men and one woman, as this year's winners of Germany's most prestigious research prize. They were selected by the Nominations Committee from amongst 141 candidates.

The 2009 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize will go to:

  • Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius, microbial ecology, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Bremen
  • Prof. Dr. Holger Braunschweig, metal-organic chemistry, University of Wrzburg
  • Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard, autonomous intelligent systems/robotics, University of Freiburg
  • Prof. Dr. Heinrich Detering, modern German and Nordic literature, University of Gttingen
  • Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jrgen Eckert, metal physics, Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research Dresden (IFW Dresden) and Technical University of Dresden
  • Prof. Dr. Armin Falk, experimental economics, University of Bonn
  • Prof. Dr. Frank Kirchhoff, virology, University of Ulm
  • Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jrgen Rdel, materials science, Technical University of Darmstadt
  • Prof. Dr. Karl Lenhard Rudolph, gastroenterology, University of Ulm
  • Prof. Dr. Burkhard Wilking, differential geometry, University of Mnster
  • Prof. Dr. Martin R. Zirnbauer, mathematical physics, University of Cologne

Of the eleven Leibniz Prizes announced today, three were awarded in the natural sciences, three in the life sciences, and three in engineering, while two were in the humanities and social sciences. "This goes to show, once again, that the outstanding quality of top-level research in Germany covers the entire subject spectrum," said Professor Matthias Kleiner, President of the DFG, following the announcement by the Joint Committee. Ten of the eleven prizewinners work at universities, demonstrating once more the excellent research that is done there. It was especially pleasing, from the DFG's point of view, that Karl Lenhard Rudolph, another former leader of an Emmy Noether independent junior research group and holder of a DFG Heisenberg Professorship, also won the Leibniz Prize. "The DFG's highly successful funding programmes for young researchers are increasingly becoming a stepping stone to first-class research careers and accolades," Kleiner pointed out.

The Leibniz Prize has been awarded since 1986 and is the most prestigious honour for researchers and scientists in Germany. "The winners of the Leibniz Prize are scientific discoverers," Kleiner said. "They look ahead and think ahead, they want to discover what lies beyond the horizon of knowledge and they have the courage to tread new ground." Along with the great prestige of winning, the recipients of the Leibniz Prize are awarded a significant amount of prize money usually 2.5 million euros and the exceptional freedom to use this prize money for their own research as they see fit over a period of up to seven years. Six former Leibniz prizewinners have gone on to win a Nobel Prize, including the evolutionary biologist Christiane Nsslein-Volhard, the physicist Theodor Hnsch, and the chemist Gerhard Ertl.

Today's announcement brings the total number of prizes awarded under the Leibniz Programme to 270. Of this total, 96 were awarded in the natural sciences, 75 in the life sciences, 58 in the humanities and social sciences, and 41 in engineering. Because the prize can also be shared in exceptional cases, the actual number of prizewinners is higher, with at total of 293 individuals having received the prize, 29 of whom were women.

The 2009 Leibniz Prize award ceremony will take place on 30 March 2009 at 3 p.m. at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Berlin.

The winners of the 2009 Leibniz Prize in brief:

Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius (41), microbial ecology, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Bremen (2.5 million euros)

In her prize-winning research, Antje Boetius studies the minute organisms that live on parts of the sea bed and have a major impact on the global climate. She was the first marine microbiologist to prove the existence of microbial communities consisting of bacteria that reduce sulphate and methanotrophic archaea on the ocean floor. In the absence of oxygen, these microorganisms consume methane, which is present in abundance on the sea bed, thus reducing the amount of this highly potent greenhouse gas that enters the atmosphere to a fraction. Boetius was the first person ever to describe this process, called anaerobic oxidation of methane, or AOM, which was of equally great interest to ecologists, geologists and oceanographers as it was to microbiologists and biochemists. With her research work Boetius has made a decisive contribution to the understanding of one of the most important processes in the global climate cycle.

Antje Boetius does much of her work out on the high seas. Since 1989 she has been on more than 30 expeditions aboard German and foreign research vessels, on which she has taken and analysed samples using numerous innovative methods. After studying biology in Hamburg and obtaining her doctorate in Bremen, she worked at the Baltic Sea Research Institute (IOW) in Warnemnde and at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, before being appointed as an Assistant Professor at the private International Jacobs University Bremen. Since 2003 she has been an Associate Professor and the leader of a research group at the MPI for Marine Microbiology.

Prof. Dr. Holger Braunschweig (47), metal-organic chemistry, Department of Inorganic Chemistry, University of Wrzburg (2.5 million euros)

With his work on the amalgamation of main group and transition metal chemistry, Holger Braunschweig has more or less single-handedly addressed an entire field of research. The skill and patience with which he succeeded in this almost unknown and very difficult field has won him worldwide recognition and now the Leibniz Prize, too. His work on how the element boron is effectively "tamed" by metal bonds was particularly groundbreaking. This allowed new molecules to be created, that in turn could be given new properties, which are expected to be a lasting boon to catalysis and material sciences. Braunschweig has published these and other results in an enormous number of articles, with more than 30 having been published in the two most prestigious journals in the field, Angewandte Chemie and the Journal of the American Chemical Society, just since 2005. The fact that Braunschweig has been invited to give over 50 lectures in recent years is further evidence of his excellent reputation.

Holger Braunschweig's research career is closely tied to the RWTH Aachen where he went on to obtain his doctorate after having studied chemistry as an undergraduate there, and where he also qualified as a university lecturer after a brief spell as a postdoctoral researcher in Brighton and finally worked as a senior research associate. He left Aachen to take up a post as a senior lecturer and reader at Imperial College London, before moving to Wrzburg to take up a chair in inorganic chemistry in 2002.

Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard (47), autonomous intelligent systems/robotics, Department of Computer Science, University of Freiburg (2.5 million euros)

Wolfram Burgard's highly successful research is on the interface between artificial intelligence and robotics. His main interest is in robotic systems that are capable of moving autonomously and are capable of learning. Burgard has made a fundamental contribution to this field in the past ten years, which ultimately led to a paradigm change in the entire field of robotics. His work on probabilistic robotics has been especially groundbreaking, having shown that it is possible to estimate the position and orientation of a mobile robot efficiently, even without knowing its starting position. Previously, it had been assumed that this would not be practically possible. On the one hand, Burgard's research is basic science, yielding fundamental insights into mobile robots' ability to navigate, while on the other hand, it also contributes greatly to the engineering development of robots.

After studying computer science in Dortmund, Wolfram Burgard first became a research associate in Dortmund, before moving to Bonn, where he obtained his doctorate in 1991. He then spent a period as a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, before being appointed as the chair of computer science at the University of Freiburg in 2006. In addition to his work, which has received numerous prizes, Burgard is also active in other areas of robotics for instance an international museum project, for which he developed the first ever robotic museum guide.

Prof. Dr. Heinrich Detering (49), modern German and Nordic literature, Seminar of German Philology, University of Gttingen (2.5 million euros)

In going to Heinrich Detering, the Leibniz Prize has been awarded to a humanities scholar who has enriched the cultural debate far beyond the boundaries of the discipline in recent years. As a literary scholar, Detering is primarily interested in German and Scandinavian literature since the 18th century, and his studies address original problems as well as fundamental and hitherto disregarded correlations. For instance, with his perceptive and precise analysis of the "literary productivity of a taboo from Winckelmann to Thomas Mann" he has been able to show that the suppression of homoerotic tendencies has led to a subtle narrative, thus having a positive effect on the art of storytelling. As the co-editor and commentator of the Frankfurt collection of works by Thomas Mann he made a major part of Mann's writings accessible. He has also demonstrated his broad interest in works on Nietzsche, Laotse and Bob Dylan. With his Grundzgen der Literaturwissenschaft (main features of literary science), Detering has published a standard series that is not only read by scholars of German; he is also well known as a literary critic. He is distinguished by his great eloquence, his ability to stick close to the text, and being very readable.

Heinrich Detering studied German and Scandinavian philology, Evangelical theology and philosophy in Gttingen and Heidelberg. After obtaining his doctorate and qualifying as a university lecturer, he accepted his first appointment as a professor in Kiel in 1995. Since 2005 he has been a professor of German and comparative literature in Gttingen. He has also held a number of visiting professorships in Denmark, Norway and the USA and is a member of several scientific and literary academies and societies.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jrgen Eckert (46), metal physics, Institute for Complex Materials, Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research Dresden (IFW Dresden) and the Institute for Materials Science at the Technical University of Dresden (1.25 million euros)

Jrgen Eckert has made a significant contribution to the field of novel amorphous inorganic materials, which are of great importance to the development of new technological products and solutions. He is primarily interested in metallic glasses and, in particular, in iron-based metallic glasses that are characterised by extreme strength and yet are inexpensive to manufacture. His research has improved the understanding of the mechanical, thermal and magnetic properties and the corrosion of such strong metallic glasses significantly, although his work on quasicrystalline and nanocrystalline structures is equally significant. Eckert's interest is always focussed on the fact that it is necessary to create the right conditions for producing these metallic glasses in an industrial environment rather than under laboratory conditions an applied approach that is reflected in over 15 patents that he owns.

After studying and writing his doctorate on which he also worked at the Siemens research labs in Erlangen-Nrnberg, Jrgen Eckert first went to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena as well as spending a period working in industry, before moving to the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research (IFW) in Dresden in 1993. From there he was appointed to a professorship in Darmstadt in 2003, but returned to Dresden to become the Director of the IFW and accept a chair at the Technical University of Dresden in 2006.

Prof. Dr. Armin Falk (40), experimental economics, Bonn Laboratory for Experimental Economics, University of Bonn (2.5 million euros)

Armin Falk has been awarded the Leibniz Prize for his work on behavioural economics and economics in general, with which he has set new standards. He is especially interested in the question of how primarily non-economic, and in particular psychological and behavioural motivations affect the actions of individuals on the labour market. Falk is investigating the significance of procedural and process-related fairness on economic behaviour on a well-founded theoretical basis using a wide range of methods and data. His interest, in this respect, is not only what one employee's income is relative to others', for example. It is equally important to consider how that person and the others earned their pay and how this may be seen in terms of fairness. This work reaches far beyond the boundaries of economics, touching other subjects such as psychology, anthropology and sociology.

The main rungs on Armin Falk's career ladder have been Cologne, Zurich and Bonn. He studied economics in Cologne, obtained his doctorate and habilitation in Zurich, and in 2003 took up a professorship at the University of Bonn. He is also a Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn and a research professor at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW, Berlin).

Prof. Dr. Frank Kirchhoff (47), virology, Institute of Virology, University of Ulm (2.5 million euros)

The virologist Frank Kirchhoff is one of the world's leading AIDS researchers. Over the past two decades he has made a decisive contribution to improving the understanding of how AIDS developed and how the HI virus evolves. Kirchhoff's research has very successfully concentrated on one of the most important protein components of the HI virus, the Nef protein, which has a wide variety of very different effects: In primates it reduces the pathogenesis of the HI virus. In humans, however, its immunomodulating effect is lost, so that the virus can multiply very fast and is highly pathogenic. Other significant discoveries Kirchhoff has made include a peptide in human blood that is made up of 20 amino acid residues and which inhibits growth of the virus, and a protein in semen that forms tiny fibres that capture HI virus particles, guiding it into cells and increasing the risk of infection. These findings could help explain the high rate of HIV infection through sexual intercourse, while simultaneously pointing the way to new approaches to preventing transmission. Through his work, Kirchhoff has helped German AIDS research attain high international esteem.

Frank Kirchhoff studied biology in Gttingen and wrote his doctorate about a new HI virus-2 clone at the German Primate Centre. He worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the renowned Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, where he first studied the HIV Nef protein, which remained the key focus of his future work after he returned to Germany in 1994, first working as a research assistant, lecturer (Privatdozent) and finally as a professor at the University of Erlangen-Nrnberg, before accepting an appointment in Ulm in 2001.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jrgen Rdel (50), materials science, Institute of Non-metallic Inorganic Materials, Technical University of Darmstadt (1.25 million euros)

Jrgen Rdel's research focuses on high-performance ceramics, combining high scientific standards with exceptional experimental creativity. His contribution to the development of ferroelectric functional ceramics which are used in applications such as mobile phones and to control internal combustion engines and of new lead-free piezoelectric ceramics has been especially significant. Rdel's other area of activity that has won him worldwide acclaim is his research on novel gradient materials. Using new processing technology methods, he has made new ceramic-metal gradient materials that have great potential for applications in the fields of energy and medicine.

After studying in Erlangen-Nrnberg and Leeds, Jrgen Rdel obtained his doctorate from the University of California in Berkeley, after which he worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, before returning to Germany to work at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg. He has held his present chair in Darmstadt since 1994. In 1992, Rdel was awarded the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize by the DFG and the BMBF. From 1995 until 2001 he was the coordinator of the DFG Priority Programme on "Gradient Materials", and since 2003 he has been the coordinator of the DFG-funded Collaborative Research Centre "Electric Fatigue in Functional Materials" in Darmstadt. As the spokesman of the DFG Review Board on Materials Science between 2004 and 2008 he was also dedicated to self-governance in science.

Prof. Dr. Karl Lenhard Rudolph (39), gastroenterology, Institute for Molecular Medicine and Max Planck Research Group on Stem Cell Aging, University of Ulm (2.5 million euros)

Karl Lenhard Rudolph's work focuses on telomeres. Telomeres are segments of DNA that are found at the ends of linear chromosomes and that become slightly shorter with each cell division. Rudolph has studied this process of telomere shortening and its effects in numerous groundbreaking studies, although his main interest is in the enzyme telomerase, which inhibits the telomere shortening, thus allowing cells to divide more often. Using mouse models and mutants, Rudolph was able to show that telomere shortening ultimately leads to a shorter lifespan and that the occurrence of liver cirrhosis depends on the level of telomerase activity, for example. Rudolph's finding that telomere shortening has two contradictory effects on the occurrence of cancer is especially important: On the one hand it causes tumour suppression, while on the other it is often accompanied by spontaneous tumour development. Rudolph also found that telomere shortening also influences the function and survival of stem cells. All of his research has immense potential for application in therapy as well as being of fundamental importance for basic research.

After studying medicine in Gttingen and completing his internship/residency in Hannover, Karl Lenhard Rudolph worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and at the Dana Farber Center in Boston, where he first worked on telomeres. In 2001 he established his own research group at the Hanover University of Medicine under the DFG's Emmy Noether Programme, and in 2006 he was awarded one of the first Heisenberg professorships by the DFG. The following year he accepted a chair at the University of Ulm and became the leader of a Max Planck Research Group.

Prof. Dr. Burkhard Wilking (38), differential geometry, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Mnster (2.5 million euros)

Burkhard Wilking, the youngest of the new Leibniz Prize recipients, is internationally renowned as one of the leaders in the field of differential geometry. His work has had a decisive influence, in particular on what is known as "Riemannian Geometry". He has achieved spectacular breakthroughs, both in the classification of Riemannian manifolds of positive sectional curvature as well as in the convergence of the Ricci flow. Wilking takes a very original approach to algebraic methods using geometric intuition, which enables him to achieve a deep understanding of the geometric properties of manifolds. He has also made a name for himself as an academic in teaching differential geometry to the next generation of students, in addition to already having won many accolades for his research work.

After studying and obtaining his doctorate at the University of Mnster, Burkhard Wilking worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, first as a lecturer, and later as a DFG research fellow and assistant professor, before becoming a full professor in 2002. He returned to Germany soon afterwards and accepted an appointment at the University of Mnster, where he has since held a chair at the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science. Among his many achievements is the invitation he received in 2006 to give a lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians, which takes place once every four years.

Prof. Dr. Martin R. Zirnbauer (50), mathematical physics, Institute of Theoretical Physics, University of Cologne (2.5 million euros)

Martin R. Zirnbauer is one of the world's leading mathematical physicists. His research interests focus primarily on condensed matter and, in particular on mesoscopic electronic systems, which exhibit chaos due to disorder or a lack of geometric symmetry. Outstanding examples of his work include his research on colour-flavour-transformation and the generalisation of the three Wigner-Dyson universality classes of random matrices for the "Tenfold Way". This and other work is characterised, in particular, by a great aptitude for translating the questions posed by physics into the language of modern mathematics and by consistent mathematical argumentation. Zirnbauer's work has thus been pioneering, both in terms of the subject matter and his methods, and has stimulated successful cooperation between mathematics and physics.

Martin R. Zirnbauer studied physics at the Technical University of Munich and in Oxford, where he went on to obtain his doctorate. Highlights in his scientific career include periods at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg and at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. In 1987 he was appointed as a professor at the University of Cologne, at the age of just 29, where he has held a chair since 1996.


Contact: Marco Finetti
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

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