Armin Maiwald: Research until the doctor comes


Mit Medaille und Urkunde in der Bielefelder Stadthalle © David Ausserhofer

© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

With medal and certificate in the Bielefeld Stadthalle (from left to right): GDNÄ President Professor Heribert Hofer, award winner Armin Maiwald, laudator Ralph Caspers and GDNÄ Secretary General Professor Michael Dröscher.

“Research until the doctor comes”

Armin Maiwald has been the face of Die Sendung mit der Maus for decades. For his exciting stories about science and technology, the GDNÄ awarded the presenter, author and director the Lorenz Oken Medal 2023. The award was presented on 15 November 2023 at the Science in Dialogue Forum in Bielefeld. 

How do the pearls get into the shells? Why are there seasons? And why is milk white even though cows only eat green grass? Mr. Maiwald, you have been answering children’s questions in the “Sendung mit der Maus” for a good fifty years. Which question is asked most often?
Why is the sky blue – that’s the clear favourite. We have always made new programmes to answer the question in a contemporary way. The latest version is from 2018. 

You and your team have already been awarded many prizes for the Sendung mit der Maus. Do you still have an overview?
There are now more than a hundred national and international prizes, which of course makes us very happy. A nice surprise last year was the honorary doctorate from RWTH Aachen University for special achievements in the education of children and young people. 

Now you are receiving the Lorenz Oken Medal of the GDNÄ. What does the award mean to you?
I feel honoured and happy about the good company. Harald Lesch, Gert Scobel and Mai-Thi received the award before me. I am in good hands in this environment. 

The Sendung mit der Maus has been running every Sunday morning for 52 years and has a large, loyal fan base. What makes it so successful?
We tell exciting stories about science. At the beginning we are as silly as everyone else and at least as curious. And then we take the viewers along on the journey. We go to Wesseling, for example, where we look for answers to a child’s question in the refinery: Why is oil so important? 

How do you proceed in detail?
We work our way logically, step by step, and always comprehensibly. First the forest, then the individual tree, then the bark and finally the bark beetle. Instead of computer simulations, we rely on experiments with homemade models. If it’s about thermal deformation, for example, we explain it by cooking spaghetti, and what filtration is, we illustrate with a coffee filter. Foreign words are taboo for us, and we don’t do interviews. When it comes to a new topic, we research until the doctor comes. Maybe that’s even our greatest strength.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© FLASH Filmproduktion GmbH

Armin Maiwald with cameraman Kai von Westerman filming on the motorway bridge in Leverkusen.

How long do you work on a contribution? 
That varies greatly. Some productions only take a few weeks, others take years. Our longest research was on the question of why vitamin C is so important for our bodies. It took us three years to get the hang of presenting that in a comprehensible way. Another long-term project is the construction of the new motorway bridge in Leverkusen. We have been accompanying the work since 2015 and have answered all kinds of questions about it in several broadcasts: How do the cables get to the bridge? How are the piers built? And how long does a bridge like this actually last? The seventh episode will be broadcast at the end of the year. 

Are there also topics that you cut your teeth on?
Yes, there are. Quantum, for example. For years we have been trying everything possible to explain them in a way that is suitable for mice. But we keep coming up against the limits of representability and haven’t yet found the right trick. Another example is the conversion of plastic waste into petroleum. Children were already asking about this in the 1970s. We have visited an experimental plant in Switzerland and are still waiting for an announced plant in the Ruhr area. So we don’t have to grit our teeth completely, but we need a lot of patience. 

There are now more than 2700 programmes with the mouse. How did it all begin?
In a pub in Cologne. At the end of the 1960s, I was sitting with a couple of WDR editors. We were discussing God and the world, and suddenly there was the idea for a new kind of children’s programme. One of us, Gert Kaspar Müntefering, then fought for it at Westdeutscher Rundfunk and won. In the beginning, the programme was made by a few people, but today a large team of reporters, presenters, illustrators and animators work for the Mouse. The whole thing is largely produced by the Cologne film company Flash, which I co-founded. 

How has your programme changed over the years?
A lot has changed. It starts with the name. In 1968, when we started, the programme was still called Lach- und Sachgeschichten für Fernsehanfänger. In 1971 it was renamed Sendung mit der Maus. In the beginning, children came to the studio in Sunday clothes to be lectured. Soon we found it too stiff, too dry, too theoretical – a bit like school. But we definitely didn’t want to do school television. So we went out into life to look for answers to children’s questions. That’s how we still do it today.

AleutBio-Team © 2022, Thomas Walter, Expedition SO293 AleutBio

© FLASH Filmproduktion GmbH

Sound engineer Christian Hennecke records the buzzing of bees in an apple orchard.

Are they really always children’s questions? And have the questions changed over time?
Yes, the starting point for our programmes are actually always children’s questions. It is not unusual for adults to be behind them, you can see that in the language and style. For some years now, the questions have become more technical. For example, they say: How does my mobile phone know that I’m standing on Cologne’s Cathedral Square? Or: What happens on the internet when I ask a question? 

Children and young people are becoming less and less interested in the natural sciences, according to an often-heard complaint. Do you also see this trend?
Yes and no. I’m thinking of our satellite competition in which pupils from Bad Homburg took part. The team had spent six months building an observation satellite the size of a drinks can, but suddenly nothing worked when it was launched. But the students didn’t get discouraged and in no time at all they had a new CanSat, as the mini satellites are called. The replica actually took off. This is a great example of scientific enthusiasm. In school lessons, things often look different. Everyone is supposed to be involved, even the uninterested, and that can lower the level of the class quite a bit. The teachers are left alone with the problem, they can’t be blamed for that. I don’t see a perfect solution at the moment. 

Today, research institutions of all kinds are trying to make their results as comprehensible as possible to the general public. Are they succeeding?
Only in part. I hear and read too many technical terms and far too much English. One talks about the CEO, the other about convenience products and both think that everyone knows what is meant. They are wrong, because to many people the terms mean absolutely nothing. Yet the public has a right to know – they should be able to understand what scientists are doing with taxpayers’ money.  

What is the best way for researchers to reach the public?
Pictorial comparisons for technical terms are very effective. In our programme on vitamin C, for example, we talk about body police when we talk about macrophages. You can think about such comparisons in advance and test them in conversation with people who are not experts in the subject. If you have children at home, you can tell them what your work is about. If they then say, oh, that’s how it is, now I know what you do, you’re on the right track. The “aha” effect is important – for children, but also for adults. 

Were you actually aware of the GDNÄ when you heard about the award?
No, I heard about the GDNÄ for the first time. Of course, I immediately did some research. My first impression was that the GDNÄ must be a pretty solid company. Two hundred years, you need good substance for that. 

At 83, others have long since retired. You continue to work. What drives you?
Firstly, I haven’t learned anything else, and secondly, I still enjoy it. With every new story, the question arises: how can I tell it in an exciting and understandable way? Sometimes I have to really boil the grey cells in my brain to find good answers. It’s not always easy, but it keeps you fit. 

The award winner

Armin Maiwald was born in Cologne in 1940. He talks about his childhood in the multi-award-winning “Postwar Mouse”, a programme that was last broadcast in an updated version in 2020. Maiwald’s family was bombed out three times. After stations in Lower Silesia, Uffing am Staffelsee and Neuss, Maiwald returned to Cologne in 1953. There he studied theatre studies, German language and literature and philosophy and began working as an assistant director at WDR in Cologne in 1963. Armin Maiwald is one of the inventors of the programme mir der Maus -–together with Gert Kaspar Müntefering, Monika Paetow and the artist Isolde Schmitt-Menzel, who designed the Mouse logo. Maiwald has received the German Federal Cross of Merit and the Grimme Prize, among others, for his moderation and design of the programme. In 2023, the GDNÄ awarded him the Lorenz Oken Medal. Two schools in Monheim-Baumberg and in Radevormwald bear his name. Armin Maiwald has been married since 1965 and has two grown-up children.

Armin Maiwald © Flash

© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

His television colleague Ralph Caspers, who has been part of the Maus team since 1999, gave the laudatory speech for the award winner to much applause.

Lorenz Oken Medaille © GDNÄE
Lorenz Oken Medaille © GDNÄE


Since 1984, the GDNÄ has been awarding its Lorenz Oken Medal to individuals who have rendered outstanding services to science communication. The award honours the founder of the GDNÄ, the natural scientist Lorenz Oken, who first convened a meeting of natural scientists and physicians in Leipzig in 1822. The photos show the front and back of the gold-plated medal for Armin Maiwald.

Science in dialogue

The Science Communication Forum is the largest conference for science communication in the German-speaking world. The conference is organised annually by Wissenschaft im Dialog (WiD), the joint organisation of German science for science communication. The Science Communication Forum 2023 will take place from 15 to 17 November in Bielefeld. The thematic focus is “Controversial, but fair – impulses for a new culture of debate”. The GDNÄ is a long-standing member of WiD and awards its Lorenz Oken Medal every two years at the forum conferences.

Further information:
Armin Maiwald © Flash

© FLASH Filmproduktion GmbH

Armin Maiwald during the filming of the story “Tyre production”. A cake with a tyre tread was baked as an explanation.


© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

Armin Maiwald with fans after the award ceremony. 


© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

Armin Maiwald in an interview with Luise Laakmann and Thuy Anh Nguyen from “Wissenschaft im Dialog”. 


© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

Crowd-puller: A packed hall at the awards ceremony in the Bielefeld Stadthalle.


© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

Armin Maiwald at the award ceremony.

The GDNÄ congratulates AI pioneer Professor Wahlster on his induction into the Hall of Fame of German Research

The GDNÄ congratulates AI pioneer Professor Wahlster on his induction into the Hall of Fame of German Research

Computer scientist Professor Wolfgang Wahlster, was inducted into the Hall of Fame of German Research on 12 October at the New Institute in Hamburg. The Society of German Natural Scientists and Physicians (GDNÄ) congratulates its former President and long-time Board member on this high honour. Since its foundation in 2009, only 30 personalities, including nine Nobel Prize winners, have been appointed to the Hall of Fame. With their lifetime achievements, they have made an outstanding contribution to the further development of research and strengthened Germany as a business location in international competition.

The President of the Society of German Natural Scientists and Physicians, Professor Heribert Hofer, warmly congratulates Professor Wolfgang Wahlster on his induction into the Hall of Fame of German Research. “We are very pleased about this high honour for Wolfgang Wahlster, who was President of the GDNÄ in 2017 and 2018.” Hofer echoes the words of Professor Margret Wintermantel, who described Wolfgang Wahlster in her laudation as a scientist who saw and strengthened the connection between computer science and human sciences, especially to psychology and linguistics, at a very early stage. “His understanding of human-computer interaction has opened up new perspectives and shaped our thinking about the many benefits of AI,” said the laudator at the ceremony in Hamburg.

“The appointment to the Hall of Fame is a great honour and I thank the initiators, the jury and the laudator very much for this great recognition of my scientific work over the last 45 years,” said Wolfgang Wahlster, founding director and long-time CEO of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). He added: “Especially in today’s world, it is important that in the topic that has fascinated me as a researcher for decades, machine language processing, such an honour underlines the importance of deep understanding capabilities for speech dialogue systems. Human-technology interaction should reach a level where humans and machines not only work hand in hand, but can also conduct dialogues at eye level. AI will increasingly flow into decision-making processes. These decisions must be able to be questioned and explained reliably and comprehensibly by computers in dialogue.”

A GDNÄ president has already received this honour once: biochemist and science manager Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker – who headed the GDNÄ in 1999 and 2000 – has been a member of the German Research Hall of Fame since 2017.

Wahlster © GDNÄE


Professor Wolfgang Wahlster

Zur Person

Wolfgang Wahlster is the only German to have been honoured on the Wall of Fame in the Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum as a pioneer of the digital world in the field of artificial intelligence since 2004. The decisive factor was his work on the “Verbmobil” interpreting system. Wahlster is a member of the Royal Swedish Nobel Academy in Stockholm, the German National Academy Leopoldina, the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, the German Academy of Science and Engineering and the Czech Academy of Science and Engineering. For his research achievements, he has been awarded the German Future Prize, the Cross of Merit First Class and the Grand Cross of Merit by the Federal President. Among the other awards are five honorary doctorates from universities in Darmstadt, Linköping, Maastricht, Prague and Oldenburg. He is a Fellow of the AAAI, EurAI and GI and served as president-elect of the three largest global and European AI associations (IJCAII, EurAI and ACL) as well as the German Society of Natural Scientists and Physicians (GDNÄ). Wolfgang Wahlster has been an honorary citizen of his native city of Saarbrücken since 2019, a recipient of the Saarland Order of Merit and a Saarland Ambassador.

Alexander Böker: The student programme is unique and convincing

“The student programme is unique and convincing”

Alexander Böker, polymer researcher and director of the Potsdam Fraunhofer IAP, on the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, sustainable innovations from his institute and good prospects for the GDNÄ. 

Professor Böker, a few days ago the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for fundamental contributions to nanotechnology. Did the Nobel Committee make the right decision?
Yes, absolutely. Research on nanometre-sized quantum dots is of enormous importance for our modern world. The tiny particles have become indispensable in many everyday applications, for example in computer and television screens, in light-emitting diodes, solar cells or in medicine. And with the three prize winners Louis Brus, Alexei Ekimov and Moungi Bawendi, the right people have been honoured. But as is often the case with the Nobel Prize: this time, too, there are a few colleagues who might have deserved it equally. Unfortunately, the statutes allow a maximum of three laureates per discipline and that is not likely to change any time soon. 

You yourself have done research in this field for many years, and at your Potsdam institute several working groups deal with nanoparticles. What topics are they working on?
At the Fraunhofer IAP, for example, a rapid test for breast cancer is being developed. Brightly glowing quantum dots attach themselves to cancer cells in a blood sample and mark them. We already know that this method can detect tumours in their early stages and track them on their way through the body. Now the aim is to make the method even more precise in order to avoid false alarms and to bring it into clinical trials in the longer term. To this end, we are working together with the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf. We have a world-renowned pioneer of German nanoparticle research, Professor Horst Weller from the University of Hamburg, to thank for this research direction. He is the founder of the Centre for Applied Nanotechnology, Fraunhofer CAN for short, which has been a Fraunhofer Centre since 2018 and is part of the Fraunhofer IAP.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© Fraunhofer IAP | Till Budde

Synthesis pilot plant of the Fraunhofer Pilot Plant Centre PAZ for polymer production and processing in Schkopau.

Are there other innovations from your house that have to do with this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry?
For example, there is a process for encoding high-quality goods with quantum dots. They are applied to the packaging and are used for unique identification and quality control. The process does not require an internet connection and is therefore also suitable for use in poorer parts of the world. We are currently negotiating with a company that would like to further develop our prototype and test it in small series in order to bring the mature product to market. We often follow this pattern, which is a classic path at Fraunhofer. 

Please describe this path in more detail.
The starting point is a good idea, which often comes from the Fraunhofer team. This is followed by intensive basic research in our laboratories. It can lead to prototypes for innovative materials and products or to new manufacturing processes and methods.  As soon as our results prove the feasibility of the idea, we approach selected companies and try to win them over for cooperation. If desired, we accompany the company until the product or process is ready for practical application. A current example is the search for a tear-resistant, transparent, elastic film made from renewable raw materials that can also degrade in the environment if necessary. It is to replace the rigid films known as the crackling outer packaging of blister trays for fruit and vegetables. Together with an industrial partner, we have developed a flexible version made of polylactic acid, which is produced from maize. It could soon be on the market. 

So no fossil raw materials are needed for the new film. But does that make it an ecologically sound product? After all, maize is used elsewhere as food and animal feed.
I have to elaborate a little on that. Our big goal at the Fraunhofer IAP is the reusability of plastics within the framework of a circular economy. Valuable packaging should be turned into valuable packaging again and not into park benches. But this is only possible if a product consists of one material and not a mixture of materials. In the case of polylactic acid materials, we have succeeded with a trick that a team of chemists, physicists and product designers at the IAP has worked out. If petrochemically produced materials are gradually replaced by bioplastics in the future, the consumption of renewable raw materials will be kept within limits. Our polylactic acid film, to stay with the example, will in no way jeopardise the supply of maize to other areas of life.

AleutBio-Team © 2022, Thomas Walter, Expedition SO293 AleutBio

© Fraunhofer IAP | Till Budde

In the clean room: Pilot plant for printed electronics at the Fraunhofer IAP.

As a Fraunhofer Institute, the IAP is required to generate one third of its income from economic cooperation. Does that work?
Yes, we manage well. In Berlin and Brandenburg there are many small and medium-sized companies that deal with plastics and we maintain intensive contacts with many of them. With a total of seven locations in the region, we are close to our customers. If you want to test something quickly, you are never far from the next IAP technical centre. There, new developments can be tested on a scaled basis. This is very important, because not everything that works on a milligram scale also works on a kilogram scale. In our polymer production plant in Schkopau, we can even produce on a tonne scale. What our customers also appreciate is the fact that Fraunhofer thinks economically. This is how long-standing cooperations come about, some of which go back to the founding days of the institute. 

For the next meeting of the GDNÄ in Potsdam in 2024, you have taken over the office of managing director in the field of economics. How are you approaching the task?
A few days ago, we activated our Institute network and asked companies in the region for support for the Assembly. This can be done through personal participation and contributions to the discussion, but also by subsidising the costs of this event with several hundred participants. I am very confident that many companies will participate.

What makes you so optimistic?
For example, I am convinced by the unique student programme of the GDNÄ and I think it will also inspire our cooperation partners. The programme brings together young people with a keen interest in the STEM subjects – and they are in high demand everywhere today. The interdisciplinary, easy-to-understand lectures and discussions at the GDNÄ conferences are also attractive. Something like this is missing in the German science landscape. The support for the Potsdam meeting will therefore be great, of that I am convinced.

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Fraunhofer IAP | Kristin Stein

Professor Alexander Böker, Director of the Fraunhofer IAP and Chief Executive Business for the GDNÄ Conference 2024 in Potsdam.

About the person

Alexander Böker has been Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP and Chair of Polymer Materials and Plastics Engineering at the University of Potsdam since 2015. From 2008 to 2015, he was Deputy Scientific Director of the DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials in Aachen. In 2015, he received a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). He is currently the spokesperson for the Fraunhofer flagship project “Sustainable, simulation-based biobased and biohybrid materials” and the head of the Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence “Programmable Materials”. He also acts as co-spokesperson for the strategic Fraunhofer research field “Bioeconomy”. Alexander Böker has published 175 peer-reviewed publications and 16 patent applications. With a focus on sustainable innovations at the interface between biology and polymer science, he gave the IAP a new direction. Accordingly, Böker’s own research group focuses on the integration of biological functions in polymer materials and the controlled self-organisation of colloidal and polymer systems.

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Fraunhofer IAP

Headquarters of the Fraunhofer IAP in the Potsdam Science Park.

The Institute

Almost 300 experts work at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP, compared to a good hundred when it was founded in 1992. The IAP emerged from the renowned Institute for Polymer Chemistry (IPOC) of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR in Teltow-Seehof.  At the IAP’s headquarters in Potsdam-Golm and at six other locations, the focus today is on the development of sustainable materials, processes and technologies with the aim of advancing the energy transition and climate protection, mobility and health care.

Weitere Informationen:

Commemorative plaque 200 years GDNÄ unveiled at the founding site in Leipzig

Commemorative plaque 200 years GDNÄ unveiled at the founding site in Leipzig

In 1822, the physician Lorenz Oken founded the Society of German Naturalists and Physicians (GDNÄ) in Grimmaische Straße in Leipzig. The plaque commemorating the founding and celebrating the 200th anniversary in the Congress Hall at Leipzig Zoo was unveiled today at the site of the founding by GDNÄ President Heribert Hofer together with the Managing Director of the Anniversary Assembly, Zoo Director Jörg Junhold, and GDNÄ Secretary General Michael Dröscher.
Die Plakette zeigt Lorenz Oken, den Gründer der GDNÄ, und einen Auszug aus der Gründungsurkunde.

The plaque shows Lorenz Oken, the founder of the GDNÄ, and an excerpt from the founding document.

On 18 September 1822, the Society of German Naturalists and Physicians was founded by free-thinking personalities at the invitation of the naturalist and physician Lorenz Oken (1779 to 1851). The first meeting was held in Grimmaische Straße in Leipzig. Today, at this very spot, the President of the GDNÄ, Professor Heribert Hofer, together with the Executive Director of the Jubilee Conference, Zoo Director Professor Jörg Junhold and GDNÄ Secretary General Professor Michael Dröscher, presented a commemorative plaque to the public.

 “With this plaque, we commemorate the founding of our society and the outstanding personality Lorenz Oken, who, in the time of restoration and repression at the beginning of the 19th century, had the courage and the creative will to invite a free assembly for exchange among scientists to get to know and appreciate each other and united to bring the sciences forward,” said Professor Heribert Hofer. “The plaque is at the same time a reminder of the big anniversary celebration with 800 participants in the Congress Hall at the Zoo in September 2022,” said the host of the anniversary assembly, Professor Jörg Junhold. General Secretary Professor Michael Dröscher thanked the owner of the building for permission to place the plaque at the founding site, corner of Reichstraße Grimmaische Straße.

Im Zentrum Leipzigs wird jetzt der GDNÄ-Gründung im Jahr 1822 gedacht © Ulmer/Zoo Leipzig

© Ulmer/Zoo Leipzig

The foundation of the GDNÄ is now commemorated in the centre of Leipzig: GDNÄ President Professor Heribert Hofer, Secretary General Professor Michael Dröscher and the Managing Director of the Jubilee Conference, Zoo Director Professor Jörg Junhold (from left to right) at the inauguration of the commemorative plaque in Grimmaische Straße, corner of Reichsstraße.

Barbara Höhle: The University of Potsdam is looking forward to the GDNÄ

“The University of Potsdam is looking forward to the GDNÄ”

Barbara Höhle, psycholinguist and Scientific Executive Director of the 2024 Assembly, on her university in the excellence competition, research with babies and overcoming language barriers.   

Professor Höhle, as Vice President you are responsible for research, academic qualification phase and equal opportunities at the University of Potsdam. What is particularly important to you in this broad field?
All three areas are important and we are active in all of them. In recent years, for example, we have expanded our tenure-track offer to become more attractive for researchers in early career phases. We now appoint younger colleagues to W1 and W2 professorships early on, where they can then prove themselves. The topic of equal opportunities has always been close to my heart and it is also becoming increasingly important with the increasing diversity and internationality of our students and employees. Most of my time in the last few months has been spent on research. Together with researchers from our faculties, we have developed three applications for research clusters with which we are participating in the university excellence competition. 

What are the topics?
One proposal focuses on biodiversity change and the role of the individual in an ecosystem. The next is about the dynamics of cognition and behaviour, the connections between language and cognition, development, learning and motivation. The third proposal focuses on water extremes with serious consequences: Here, for example, the focus is on predictability and risk minimisation in floods. In all three concepts, cooperation with non-university research institutions in the region also plays a role.  

Why were the topics described selected?
They correspond to the research priorities of our university. In 2019, the university has established four focus areas: Earth and Environmental Sciences, Evolutionary Systems Biology, Cognitive Sciences and Data-Centric Sciences. After four years of operation, the focus areas will be evaluated by external reviewers this autumn. I am very confident about the outcome. Because the performance of our university is enormous, as we have just seen again in the preparation of the cluster proposals.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© Ernst Kaczynski

Campus Neues Palais, near the Sanssouci Palace Park: the offices of the university administration are located here.

What will happen with the submitted cluster proposals?
In February of next year, we’ll find out whether we can move on to the next round and prepare full proposals. Whether we receive funding for excellence will be decided in May 2025. 

And if it doesn’t work out?
That can happen, and you simply have to expect it in science. If it does, we will pick ourselves up again and continue. We’ll stick to the research projects we’ve designed now in one form or another and look for new funding pots if we have to. 

How much time do you have as Vice-President for your own research?
The work in the Presidium is considered a sideline, but at the moment I actually spend more time on it than on my scientific tasks. 60 per cent committee work and other tasks in the Presidium, 40 per cent teaching and research – that’s how I estimate the ratio. 

You have been a professor of psycholinguistics with a focus on language acquisition at the University of Potsdam since 2004. What exactly is your research about?
The focus is on the question of how children learn their mother tongue. What do children bring into the world? What part does the environment play? But also: Why do some children have difficulties acquiring their mother tongue? My team and I try to find answers to questions like these. 

What results do you come to?
One of our findings, for example, is that children as young as six months have a distinct sense of speech melody and rhythm. We were able to observe this in a comparative study with German and French babies, to whom we played first stressed words, which are characteristic of German, and final stressed words, which are common in French. Examples of such words are “merci” and “danke” or “tulipe” and “tulip”.  It was clear that the German babies paid more attention to first stressed words than to final stressed words, whereas this was not the case with the French babies.  From this we can see that children have already recognised certain characteristics of their mother tongue at a very young age. 

It seems reasonable to assume that your research can have practical significance. Is that true?
Yes, our findings can be used for paediatric diagnostics. For example, we have found in our research that babies who recognise certain patterns, such as melody and rhythm, of their mother tongue as early as five months of age have better language skills than less adept peers by the age of five. This shows that indications of a risk for language acquisition can be found at a very early age, so that early countermeasures can be taken.  The earlier this happens, the better, because the gap between more and less linguistically competent children widens over time.

AleutBio-Team © 2022, Thomas Walter, Expedition SO293 AleutBio

© Karla Fritze

Golm Campus: One of the largest science parks in the region has been created here in a rural setting. The BabyLAB, which Barbara Höhle helped to build, is located here.

Many children today grow up multilingual. Is that an advantage or rather a disadvantage?
We see that young children can cope very well with several languages and also master them well. Sometimes words from one language may be seamlessly integrated into the other, but that is not a sign of chaos in the mind. The 1970s thesis that children from multilingual families are semi-lingual, i.e. that no language is learned properly, is now considered to be disproved. 

Psycholinguistics and language acquisition are not among the classic topics of the GDNÄ. How do you situate your subject in this society focused on natural sciences?
I see myself as a natural scientist. Language and the ability to learn it are central human characteristics – perhaps even characteristics that make us human. In this respect, I research human nature, often using experimental methods from the natural sciences. An example: In infant research, it is always a question of getting babies to react to certain stimuli without being able to explain the task to them. A procedure similar to methods used in behavioural biology is helpful here. Here we record exactly how long the children look at an apple when they hear the word “apple” alternating with the word “banana”. From this, we can conclude what the babies already know or have learned in a certain situation. 

What is the significance of the GDNÄ for you?
The GDNÄ stands for an interdisciplinarity that is extremely important and that our science system lacks in many places. I’m thinking, for example, of an application for collaborative research in the field of physics and chemistry, which I helped to support as vice-president. It took a lot of time until the disciplines involved had found a common language and could work well together. Similar to other classical natural sciences, they had been researching independently of each other for decades. This is where the GDNÄ is of great importance. It can help to get the dialogue between the disciplines going again. 

The University of Potsdam will host the next GDNÄ Assembly in 2024. What can the guests expect?
Guests can expect a young, dynamic and aspiring university that is looking forward to hosting this important and traditional assembly. In addition, we can offer a place that is rich in culture and wonderful nature. I hope the guests will also find some time for this setting of the event.

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Ernst Kascynki

Prof. Dr. Barbara Höhle, Vice President for Research, Academic Qualification and Equal Opportunities at the University of Potsdam.

About the person

Prof. Dr. Barbara Höhle studied linguistics, psychology and social sciences at the Technical University of Berlin. She received her doctorate and habilitation at the Free University of Berlin. She has been Professor of Psycholinguistics at the University of Potsdam since 2004. Barbara Höhle was instrumental in establishing the BabyLAB, which studies the development of children from the fourth month of life and celebrates its 25th birthday this year. In January 2021, the experienced science manager took over as Vice President for Research, Young Scientists and Equal Opportunities, a post she will hold until the end of 2023. In the run-up to the 2024 GDNÄ Assembly, Barbara Höhle establishes many connections with the scientific community in Potsdam and the surrounding area as Scientific Executive Director.

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Kevin Ryl

In the BabyLAB: Here the development of children from the age of four months is studied.

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