Günther Hasinger “You only get a chance like this once in a lifetime”

“You only get a chance like this once in a lifetime”

Günther Hasinger, founding director of the German Centre for Astrophysics, on his Herculean task in Lusatia in Saxony, dealing with sceptical citizens and the musical side of the GDNÄ.

Professor Hasinger, a year ago you were appointed founding director of the German Centre for Astrophysics (DZA) in Lusatia, Saxony. How can we imagine your day-to-day work?
We can’t talk about everyday life in the usual sense yet, we haven’t been around long enough for that. The political decision for our centre was only made in autumn 2022. That was our big bang, so to speak: there was nothing before that, now everything is being created step by step. 

What are the next stages?
We will be organising three major international conferences here as early as 2025. The official founding of the DZA is planned for early 2026 – we are currently still in the set-up phase. In the winter semester of 2026/2027, the new Master’s degree programme in Astrophysics will start with five professorships at the Technische Universität Dresden. We hope to be able to move into our new central buildings on the outskirts of Görlitz around 2030. In around ten years’ time, around a thousand people will be working at the DZA. 

That’s an ambitious schedule. Where are you currently?
We are pretty well on schedule. In the first year, we took on a good 20 people, mainly in the administrative area, and this year we plan to take on just as many more. We are currently setting up temporary accommodation for five years in the historic post office in Görlitz. Planning for the future centre is in full swing. Now it’s all about creating sustainable structures for a globally unique large-scale research centre. 

Who is supporting you in this Herculean task?
A large team of great colleagues from ten renowned research institutions throughout Germany, including the German Electron Synchrotron DESY in Zeuthen and the TU Dresden. We submitted the application to establish the DZA together and are now sharing the work. A lot of support also comes from business and politics, directly on site in Görlitz, and of course at federal and state level.

Eröffnung der Büros Postplatz 1 © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

Handing over the keys with prominent visitors (from left): Saxony’s Science Minister Sebastian Gemkow, TU Dresden Rector Ursula Staudinger, Minister President Michael Kretschmer, Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger, DZA Director Günther Hasinger and Görlitz Mayor Octavian Ursu met in February 2024 to inaugurate the DZA’s transitional offices in the centre of Görlitz.

The DZA is made possible by funding from the structural change fund for lignite mining regions. How high is the budget?
A total of 1.2 billion euros is available from the state until 2038. The money comes 90 per cent from the federal government and ten per cent from the state of Saxony and will flow in annual instalments. We also want to attract third-party funding from national and international sources. Our budget is generous, but that alone is not enough. 

What more do you need?
We also need to think about housing, schools and daycare centres for our employees, the quality of life on site, roads and railway lines. We are currently holding many discussions on such topics. A new ICE railway line from Berlin to Wroclaw via Dresden and Görlitz would be fantastic. The region is currently left behind in terms of transport, but fast train connections would open up completely new opportunities also for scientific contacts, such as those we are currently establishing in Poland and the Czech Republic, specifically with universities in Wroclaw and Prague.

Veranstaltung im Rahmen der SPIN2023 Kampagne in Crostwitz © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

At a discussion event on the prospects for Saxony as a centre of science in January 2024 in Crostwitz

 

Keyword science: What is the focus of the DZA?
There are three main areas. Firstly, basic astrophysical research to help us understand the development of the universe. This involves receiving and analysing signals from the early days of the cosmos. This is possible with modern telescopes that are spread all over the world, in the Chilean highlands as well as in the Antarctic ice. New, huge radio observatories are currently being built in Australia and Africa. Europe is planning another gigantic research instrument in the form of the Einstein Telescope. In future, the measurement results from all of these facilities will converge in Saxony, where the world’s largest civilian data set will be created, much larger than today’s internet. This treasure is to be analysed in a cost-effective and energy-saving manner, and this is where our second focus comes into play: the DZA will develop new technologies and algorithms for resource-saving digitalisation that will benefit society as a whole. Focus number three is a technology centre in which we develop innovative solutions for observatories – I am thinking, for example, of new semiconductor sensors, silicon optics or control technologies. Modern companies with around two thousand high-quality jobs are to be created through spin-offs and other effects. 

That sounds fascinating. But how does all this fit in with Görlitz, the easternmost city in Germany with only 57,000 inhabitants, right on the Polish border?
If you look at Europe as a whole, beautiful Görlitz lies at the centre. There is a great deal of scientific and technical expertise in the area: with the Zittau-Görlitz University of Applied Sciences, the renowned Dresden University of Technology and a long company tradition in precision mechanics and microelectronics. The particularly good granite in Lusatia is of great importance to us. Near Görlitz, in the district of Bautzen, we are planning a globally unique laboratory for the development of astrophysical and commercial technology. It will be located two hundred metres underground and will be about the size of an underground station. It owes its name Low Seismic Lab to the Lusatian granite rock. This dampens the seismic waves that constantly pass through the ground, meaning that a special geological calm prevails here, with almost no seismic disturbance factors. This is an invaluable advantage for sensitive measurements, such as gravitational waves. The laboratory is also suitable for the development of quantum computers and other high-tech applications. If we are lucky, we will soon be able to participate in the billion-dollar Einstein Telescope, the most sensitive gravitational wave observatory of all time. 

What do local people say about the DZA and its big plans?
We are now getting a lot of encouragement. But there was also headwind at the very beginning. A citizens’ initiative in Lusatia feared that the construction work would lower the groundwater level and create a repository for radioactive waste. We then organised a barbecue for everyone in the summer of 2022, i.e. before our project was awarded the contract, to get people talking. As it turned out, the opposition came from a small but loud minority; everyone else was rather curious and open-minded. When I later picked up the guitar and joined them on a musical journey through life from Oberammergau to Munich, Potsdam, Hawaii, Madrid and Görlitz, the ice was broken. We now organise the barbecue every year. I have promised to sing a song in Sorbian this summer. I still have a lot of practising to do.

Grill und Infoabend in Cunnewitz © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

The guitar solo by the head of the DZA, here in Cunnewitz in August 2023, is a fixed item on the programme of the barbecue and information evenings for the public.

 

An astrophysicist who gets up on stage with a guitar and sings–- you don’t see that every day. How come?
In my youth, I was a member of the Munich rock band “Saffran”, which released a record and even made it onto the cover of Bravo magazine. Later, I wanted to become a sound engineer, but then decided to study physics. I owe the fact that I caught fire for astrophysics to two gifted academic teachers, Joachim Trümper and Rudolf Kippenhahn. Both were Max Planck directors, which is what I wanted to become. That worked out and everything else developed from there. 

You took on the founding mission for the DZA at an age when others had long since retired. What appealed to you?
The huge opportunity – you only get something like this once in a lifetime. I’ve managed large institutes with up to a thousand employees before, but taking a centre from zero to one hundred is new and really appeals to me. What we as a specialist community have been calling for in our memoranda for decades is finally coming true: a national centre for astrophysics. 

You recently turned 70 – is retirement even an option for you?
First of all, I want to get the DZA up and running and help organise my successor. That will certainly take a few more years. After that, I want to retire, but I don’t want to be idle. My non-fiction book “The Fate of the Universe”, published in 2005, urgently needs a sequel. I want to write it and develop my musical skills – I might like to learn the double bass. 

You gave a lecture on black holes and the fate of the universe at the GDNÄ’s 200th anniversary celebrations in Leipzig. How do you remember the anniversary?
As a science festival in an elegant setting and with a rich programme. It was a showcase for research in front of an impressive audience. 

If we imagine the scientific system as an orchestra: What part does the GDNÄ play?
I imagine the GDNÄ perhaps as the viola. Its warm, dark sound forms a kind of bridge from the first and second violins to the low string instruments cello and double bass. Some of the greatest composers were violists, for example Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Günther Hasinger © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

Prof. Dr Günther Hasinger, founding director of the German Centre for Astrophysics.

About the person

Günther Hasinger was born on 28 April 1954 in Oberammergau. He studied physics at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he also conducted research for his doctorate (1984) and his habilitation (1995). From 1994 to 2001, he was director at the Astrophysical Institute in Potsdam and professor at the university there. In 2001, he was appointed Director at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching; in 2008, he became Scientific Director of the MPI for Plasma Physics.  In 2011, he became Director of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and moved to Madrid in 2018 to work there as Science Director of the European Space Agency (ESA) until the beginning of 2023. He then returned to Germany. Since April 2023, he has been the designated founding director of the German Centre for Astrophysics, a professor of excellence at TU Dresden and a senior scientist at DESY.

Hasinger’s research focuses on the evolution of distant active galaxies and the role of black holes in their formation. He is recognised as one of the leading scientists in the field of X-ray astronomy.

Günther Hasinger has received several prizes, including the DFG Leibniz Prize in 2005. He is a member of the Leopoldina and other scientific academies. His non-fiction book “The Fate of the Universe” was voted Science Book of the Year in 2008.

DZA Außenraumperspektive © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

Architectural vision: This is what the Görlitz campus should look like in a few years’ time.

Further information

Thomas Mettenleiter: “Nothing could scare me after that”

“Nothing could scare me after that”

BSE, bird flu, coronavirus: how the renowned virologist Thomas Mettenleiter has contributed to overcoming major epidemics, what has kept him on the Baltic Sea island of Riems for 27 years and what his audience can expect at the GDNÄ Assembly 2024.

Professor Mettenleiter, as President of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, Federal Research Institute for Animal Health, for many years, you had to deal with world-shattering epidemics, just think of the BSE crisis, bird flu and the coronavirus pandemic. Which was the biggest challenge?
For me personally, it was definitely the BSE crisis. After that, nothing could scare me. I was still relatively new in office when the first cattle born and raised in Germany tested positive at the end of November 2000. The excitement was huge. At the time, we knew very little about the prions that caused the disease, but we were expected to provide competent information as soon as possible. Some time earlier, an informal expert commission had been set up under my chairmanship. In April 2000, we recommended that the Federal Government should prepare for the first case of indigenous BSE. Unfortunately, this did not happen. 

Nevertheless, the BSE crisis was ended quickly. How did this succeed?
The decisive factors were the ban imposed at EU level on the feeding of animal meal, for example, the removal of risk material from the food chain and the extensive testing of slaughtered cattle depending on their age. The number of cases then fell rapidly. As far as we know, only two animals born in March and May 2001 were still infected in Germany. It was an extremely turbulent time, during which two federal ministers, Andrea Fischer and Karl-Heinz Funke, resigned. During these years, I learnt how important communication between science, politics and the media is. Fortunately, the measures proposed by the scientific community were quickly implemented and proved successful. In this respect, the BSE crisis is a successful example of science-based disease control

Instituts für Fertigungstechnologie an der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. © FAU

© Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut

A scientist works in a full protective suit in the laboratory of the highest biosafety level 4 zoonoses. This is where research is conducted into pathogens such as Ebola and Nipah viruses. The suit is connected to the air supply via a valve, which constantly supplies air. This also inflates the suit so that even if there was a small hole, nothing would get inside via the escaping air flow. The scientist checks cell cultures on a screen.

How much was your expertise in demand during the coronavirus pandemic?
During the three COVID-19 years, other institutes were at the centre of political and media attention. However, we at the FLI were asked essential questions right at the beginning of the pandemic: Are farm animals in Germany susceptible to SARS-CoV-2? Does this jeopardise our food supply and do they represent a potential reservoir? Thanks to our modern research infrastructure on the island of Riems with high-security isolation stables, we were able to immediately test whether cattle, pigs and chickens, for example, are susceptible to the pathogen. We also investigated the interaction of the pathogen with other animals such as mice, golden hamsters, fruit bats, ferrets and raccoon dogs in order to find and characterise possible reservoirs or models for human infection.

What did you find out?
Cattle, pigs and chickens were not or only very slightly infectious and did not pass on the pathogen. In this respect, there was neither a risk in terms of food supply nor with regard to the creation of a new reservoir. Fruit bats, ferrets and raccoon dogs, on the other hand, proved to be susceptible to the pathogen, but did not fall ill and were still able to pass on the pathogen efficiently. This fits in with what we know about reservoir animals and bridge hosts. Hamsters and special genetically modified mice became severely ill. Ferrets, in particular, reproduced the largely mild human infection affecting only the upper respiratory tract, while golden hamsters and these mice showed the clinical picture of severe COVID-19.

There is currently much discussion about the need to come to terms with the coronavirus crisis. What do you think?
We should definitely analyse what happened objectively in order to learn from it for the future. Many decisions had to be made quickly and under uncertain conditions, especially during the hot phase – this should always be taken into account. A uniform policy for the whole country is important for the future; we should avoid a federal patchwork quilt in situations like this. However, the coronavirus years have also shown how immensely important basic research and modern research infrastructures are. We have them to thank for the highly effective mRNA vaccines, which had been researched for a long time, as well as numerous findings that helped us to survive the crisis. In order for this to continue in the future, sufficient funding is needed – not only for the establishment, but also for the maintenance of research facilities, personnel and training.

It is often said that the next pandemic is sure to come. What are the new threats?
We are currently in an inter-pandemic phase, that much is clear. But no one can say exactly where the dangers are coming from. What we do know is that three quarters of new human infections come from the animal kingdom and that pathogens such as the coronavirus continue to jump back and forth between animals and humans. We must never lose sight of influenza viruses: they are highly variable and adapt quickly to new circumstances. Fortunately, there is a global monitoring system for influenza viruses under the aegis of the World Health Organisation (WHO). We also need something similar to monitor animal populations in order to detect pandemic risks quickly. An international agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response could help here. This is currently being negotiated under the leadership of the WHO and I am still cautiously optimistic that the member states will be able to agree on this. This would also be very much in line with the One Health concept, which is becoming increasingly popular and which sees humans as part of the animal kingdom in a shared environment.

The type of animal husbandry, which is also the focus of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, plays an important role here. What trends do you see in this area?
The view is changing and animal welfare is becoming more important. In livestock farming, quality is becoming more important than quantity. To what extent and over what period of time this happens is also a question of funding and ultimately a political decision. This also applies to another issue: the silent pandemic of antibiotic resistance. It is favoured by the excessive use of antibiotics in all areas. In Germany, their use to promote growth in animal husbandry is banned, but this practice is still common in many countries. However, it is not just about animals; the use of antibiotics in humans must also be more targeted and more restrained.

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

© Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut

The Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI) has two animal barn units with biosafety level 4 zoonoses, where full protective suits are also mandatory. In Europe, only the FLI currently has such animal houses; there are a handful worldwide, for example in Canada and Australia.

 

You went to East Germany as a West German professor during the reunification period – and stayed there. What experiences did you have?
Initially, I was met with an interested distance, but also with curiosity and high expectations. The distance had to do with the fact that, unlike the institute directors before me, I am not a veterinarian, but a biologist. In addition, I was still quite young when I came to the island of Riems with my Tübingen working group in 1994. In the wake of reunification, the institutes had shrunk from 850 to 162 employees. The infrastructure was dilapidated. In my perhaps somewhat youthful recklessness, this did not deter me, but rather challenged me. What helped me a lot were the many motivated colleagues at all levels of the institute, who had a lot of expertise and experience. It has been a long journey, but today the Institute plays in the Champions League of the field, both academically and in terms of infrastructure. Its development is certainly one of the East German success stories, as described by my Greifswald colleagues Michael Hecker and Bärbel Friedrich in their book and in the interview on this website. For me, the Institute is a life’s work and I am happy to have been given the privilege of continuing the tradition of the co-discoverer of the virus, Friedrich Loeffler.

Your major research topic, animal viruses, has occupied you for a long time. How did you come across the topic?
The trigger was Hoimar v. Ditfurth’s history of evolution “In the beginning was hydrogen”. My parents gave me the book as a present in 1972 and I read it with great enthusiasm. I was particularly fascinated by an illustration depicting bacteriophages, i.e. viruses that infect bacteria. That was the seed for my career – and I am still an enthusiastic virologist.

That doesn’t sound like retirement, which you have officially been in for almost a year.
That’s right, I’m still very busy, even if I no longer spend up to 14 hours a week at the institute. But all in all, I have almost a full-time job again and sometimes I wonder how I used to do it on the side, so to speak. A new experience for me is giving talks to students about virology and One Health, for example last year in Göttingen and in the next few weeks in Greifswald and in Sigmaringen in Upper Swabia, my old home. I chair a working group on One Health at the Hamburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and I chair the veterinary medicine section of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. As a scientific advisor, I support several UN organisations and the World Organisation for Animal Health in the One Health High-Level Expert Panel. I also continue to teach at universities and give lectures on my core topics.

At the GDNÄ Assembly 2024 in Potsdam, you will be giving a lecture on climate change and infectious diseases. Can you give us a few details?
I will be presenting the One Health concept in more detail, including its history, because it is by no means brand new. It will also be about pathogens, especially viruses, which are spreading as a result of climate change. We will be talking about so-called vectors, i.e. carriers of infections such as mosquitoes and ticks, which are influenced by climatic changes. The whole development has an uncanny dynamic and I try to visualise this.

Marion Merklein © FAU

© Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut

Prof. Dr Dr h.c. mult. Thomas Mettenleiter was President of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute for Animal Health until 2023.

About the person

Thomas Christoph Mettenleiter is a virologist and molecular biologist. He studied biology in Tübingen from 1977 to 1982 and wrote his doctoral thesis on herpes viruses in pigs. After a research stay in Nashville, USA, he habilitated in virology at the University of Tübingen. After reunification, he went to the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, Federal Research Institute for Animal Health (FLI) on the island of Riems. There he headed the Institute of Molecular Virology and Cell Biology from 1994 to 2019. In 1996, he took over the management of the entire FLI. In 1997, he was appointed adjunct professor at the University of Greifswald and in 2019 honorary professor at the University of Rostock. After 27 years as President, he retired in June 2023.

Mettenleiter’s field of research is viral infections in livestock. His work contributed significantly to the first development of genetically modified live vaccines and to the effective control and eradication of a highly contagious viral disease, Aujeszky’s disease, in pigs.

Thomas C. Mettenleiter has been honoured many times for his achievements. He is a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the Academy of Sciences in Hamburg, the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Royal Belgian Academy of Medicine. For his work in the field of animal disease research, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the World Organisation for Animal Health WOAH in May 2023 and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in January 2024.

Marion Merklein © FAU

© Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut

The site of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute on the Baltic Sea island of Riems. In addition to the institute, there is also a small residential area on the island.

About the FLI

The Friedrich Loeffler Institute, Federal Research Institute for Animal Health (FLI), is an independent higher federal authority within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. In addition to the headquarters on the island of Riems in the Greifswald Bodden, there are four other locations in Braunschweig, Celle, Jena and Mariensee/Mecklenhorst. A total of twelve specialised institutes with around 800 employees are dedicated to both basic and practice-oriented topics.

Their work centres on the health and welfare of farm animals and the protection of humans from zoonoses, i.e. infections that can be transmitted between animals and humans. To this end, the FLI develops methods for better and faster diagnosis as well as the basis for modern prevention and control strategies. To improve the welfare of farm animals and in the interest of high-quality food of animal origin, animal welfare-orientated husbandry systems are designed and tested at the FLI. Important goals are the preservation of genetic diversity in farm animals and the efficient utilisation of feedstuffs.

Further information

Michael Hecker and Bärbel Friedrich: “It’s a German-German success story”

“It’s a German-German success story”

He researched for a long time in the GDR, she in the FRG: In their recently published book, microbiologists Michael Hecker and Bärbel Friedrich refute the theory of the colonisation of science in East Germany by the West.

It was 35 years ago, but many people still remember 9 November 1989. How did you, Professor Friedrich and Professor Hecker, experience the event?
Friedrich: I was in Berlin and watched the news on television. The next day, I took part in a rally with my working group in front of Schöneberg Town Hall. It was said that what belongs together is now growing together – the atmosphere was moving. We had the feeling that we were right at the centre of history.
Hecker: I came from Bayreuth, sat on the train to Greifswald and knew nothing about it. It wasn’t until I got home that my wife told me what had happened in Berlin. 

You were in West Germany on the day the Wall came down. How did that happen?
Hecker: It really was a strange coincidence. In almost twenty years as a researcher in the GDR, I was only allowed to travel to the West twice to give lectures and meet colleagues. I wasn’t in the party and I wasn’t a travelling cadre. The first time was in Hamburg in the summer of 1989. The second time, colleagues invited me to the University of Bayreuth at the beginning of November. I would never have expected that the Wall would fall just then. 

How do you remember the days after 9 November?
Hecker: There was a great deal of excitement and a spirit of optimism in my institute, the situation was heated. Nobody knew what was coming.
Friedrich: I’ll never forget the Trabi parade on the Kudamm and a cycle tour across the Glienicke Bridge to Potsdam. We thought the Cold War was over and the mood was euphoric.

Instituts für Fertigungstechnologie an der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. © FAU

@ Peter Binder

Visiting Greifswald: In the early 1990s, Bärbel Friedrich and her husband Cornelius Friedrich visited the laboratory of Michael Hecker (right). In conversation, the Greifswald microbiologist explained, among other things, an early method for separating proteins.

What happened in science?
Friedrich: We immediately invited our East German colleagues to visit institutes and to the annual conference of the Association for General and Applied Microbiology, VAAM. It happened to take place in Berlin in March 1990.
Hecker: As the last president of the GDR Society for Microbiology, I was allowed to give a welcoming address at the VAAM conference in question, during which – I was extremely emotionally tense – I lost my voice several times. Just one year later, the two societies merged at the follow-up conference in Freiburg. 

Much has already been said and written about the turnaround in science. What is special about your new book?
Hecker: We are focussing on research at universities, especially developments in the life sciences.  Our book describes how the life sciences in East Germany, which had been completely left behind, were brought up to international standards surprisingly quickly. A lot of negative things have been written about the general development since reunification. We present a positive example, a German-German success story. This also deserves to be heard.
Friedrich: For us, science is a prime example of successful integration between East and West. That is one of the most important statements in our book. The discussion about science at East German universities is currently out of kilter. Our aim is to bring it into balance. 

Before we come back to this topic, let’s outline the three phases that you describe in detail in your book: the years from 1965 to reunification, the 1990s as a transformation phase and the period of consolidation from 2000 to the present. What was the state of microbiology in the GDR before 1989, Mr Hecker?
Hecker: We sat behind the Wall and looked enviously to the West, where the great discoveries in biology were being made. We lacked the equipment, the expertise, the whole environment. But we had excellent young people with whom we conducted passionate research despite the poor conditions. There were many interesting, atmospheric conferences that I remember fondly. For example, on the island of Hiddensee. There, in the summer of 1985, we buried the genetic engineering of the GDR in an urn on the beach in the name of the father, the clone and the holy splicer because of the lack of chemicals.
Friedrich: I am a child of the sixties and lived through the student riots. Back then, Göttingen was the Mecca of German microbiology and a springboard to America. At MIT I learnt the latest methods in molecular biology and experienced an open, yet competitive environment. When I returned to Germany at the end of 1976, I had to fight: there were hardly any positions for young scientists and only limited research funding. The competition was tough.
Hecker: We didn’t realise that at the time. They were sitting in paradise and we were on the outside – that’s what we thought.
Friedrich: In the end, I was lucky and decided to take up a professorship at the Free University of Berlin. I started there in 1985 with the establishment of a new science-orientated microbiology department. The students were very motivated, it was a good, exciting time. 

The transformation phase began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. How did it come about, Mr Hecker, that you became Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences in Greifswald?
Hecker: I was more or less forced into it. I actually wanted to go out into the world to catch up with modern research. Instead, I had to help reorganise our university according to the FRG model. It was an exhausting four years. The majority of professors were not taken on, some for reasons of age, others because of professional deficits or because the findings of the Honours Commission spoke against it. There were many layoffs, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. When it came to subsequent new appointments, the picture in Greifswald was similar to that at most East German universities: around two thirds of the new appointees were East Germans, including habilitated junior academics. There were significantly fewer in the humanities. If we had had more qualified applicants from East Germany, the proportion would probably have been even higher. Nevertheless, it was urgently necessary for colleagues from the West to come to us with their international experience. On balance, there can be no question of the West colonising the East.

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

@ Design: Sabine Schade

Growing reputation: After reunification, the research findings of the Hecker working group were increasingly cited in international publications.

In the bestseller by Leipzig literature professor Dirk Oschmann, “The East: a West German invention”, it sounds quite different.
Hecker: Mr Oschmann addresses disappointed East Germans with his book, he wants to provoke. But when it comes to the sciences, he doesn’t have an overview. He writes from the perspective of a humanities scholar. The generalised statements do not apply to the life sciences and medicine. He writes, for example, that East Germans can be found among secretaries or technicians, but hardly among professors.  According to the book, he had to deny his East German identity in order to be accepted as a scientist in the West – something like that never happened to me. The claim that the East has been overrun by the West in the field of science is nonsense. On the contrary, the figures from the DFG Funding Atlas show that the amount of funding provided in East Germany is completely in line with the amount spent at West German universities. 

Mrs Friedrich, you experienced the period of reunification in Berlin, first in the western part of the city, then in the east. How do you remember those years?
Friedrich: In view of the challenges posed by the unification of the two parts of the city, money was tight and the time pressure was great. There were dramatic cutbacks, and the West Berlin universities also had to cut back. By 2010, around 350 of the 500 professorships at Humboldt University had been filled after being advertised – as many as 220 of the new professors came from the East. 

It is often said that the academic system in the Federal Republic was transferred one-to-one to the East. Is that true?
Friedrich: In the beginning it was like that, everything had to happen very quickly. But there was a huge backlog of reforms in the West even before reunification. Reforms finally came in the 1990s, partly as a result of the Bologna Process. Towards the end of the decade, more money flowed into the science system and the DFG was able to develop the forerunners of the Excellence Initiative, the DFG Research Centres, and later the Clusters of Excellence. I was Vice President of the DFG at the time and experienced a great deal of openness towards the universities in Eastern Germany. There was also a great willingness to help East Germany in the Wissenschaftsrat and in federal research committees. Looking back, there were major changes in the German science system as a whole during this phase. 

Please briefly outline the developments in your fields since 2000, during the consolidation phase.
Hecker: The young scientists at my institute, who swarmed out into the world immediately after 1990 with funding from the DFG, finally brought the expertise we lacked to Greifswald. With the new knowledge and in good co-operation with microbiologists from all over Europe – including Bärbel Friedrich, Jörg Hacker and many others – we were able to establish a reference laboratory for microbial proteomics.  This enabled the universities in the East, which had been left behind for many years, to work very quickly according to international standards. 
Friedrich: This collaboration was also extremely fruitful for my research group. We were integrated into large networks for genome research on microorganisms. There were many joint publications. In Greifswald, the Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg actively supported the East-West collaboration. The establishment of the college was initiated by the Essen-based Krupp Foundation in 2000. A special event was the establishment of a doctoral programme together with Israel. 

The East German universities have caught up considerably in the current competition for excellence. Ten initial applications for clusters of excellence were assessed favourably –- more than ever before. Does it take a generation to keep up in the top league?
Hecker: That may be the case across the board. But in some places it happened much faster. Dresden has been a scientific beacon since reunification. Jena, with its outstanding non-university institutes, also caught up quickly. Both locations have been doing very well in the competition for excellence for some time now. It should be emphasised that the research projects were initially mostly shaped by newly appointed researchers from the old federal states. In the meantime, however, a new generation has grown up that is unfamiliar with the often overused East-West debate. Many of them have been able to make a name for themselves professionally in renowned laboratories around the world after completing their doctorates. They receive highly attractive job offers and their CVs are similar to those in the West. As a result, the issue of East-West is becoming increasingly blurred with the younger generation.  

This year sees state elections in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg. The AfD is likely to do well in all three states. What consequences would that have for science?
Friedrich: It could be catastrophic. A strong influence of the AfD would severely restrict the freedom and internationality of science – and these are the very foundations of successful research. The AfD denies climate change and the coronavirus facts. This is not compatible with a modern, evidence-based scientific world view.
Hecker: I take a similar view. Banning the party would not achieve much. We have to counter the AfD with arguments and convince people of the necessity and benefits of free science.

Marion Merklein © FAU

@ Peter Binder

Prof. Dr. Michael Hecker
Marion Merklein © FAU

@ Vincent Leifer

Prof. Dr. Bärbel Friedrich

ABOUT THE PERSONS

Bärbel Friedrich was born in Göttingen in 1945. After completing her doctorate in microbiology at the university there, she went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for two years as a postdoctoral researcher and then habilitated in Göttingen. In 1985, she became Professor of Microbiology at the Free University of Berlin; in 1994, she moved to the Humboldt University, where she became Professor Emeritus in 2013. Her research focused on physiological and molecular biological studies of bacteria that grow with hydrogen as an energy source and use carbon dioxide to synthesise cell substance, which is documented in more than 200 original papers. From 2008 to 2018, Bärbel Friedrich was Director of the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg, which supports the University of Greifwald and the science region as a whole. She was also Vice President of the Leopoldina (2005 to 2015), Vice President of the German Research Foundation (1997 to 2003) and a member of the Wissenschaftsrat (German Science Council, 1997 to 2003). She has received numerous honours, including the Arthur Burkhardt Prize (2013), the Federal Cross of Merit (2013), the Leopoldina Medal of Merit (2016), membership of the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art (2021) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Greifswald (2022). Bärbel Friedrich was a member of the GDNÄ board from 2001 to 2004. 

Michael Hecker was born in Annaberg in the Ore Mountains in 1946. He studied biology at the University of Greifswald, where he gained his doctorate in 1973 with a thesis on the biochemistry of plants. In the years that followed, he devoted himself primarily to researching the proteome, the totality of all proteins in a living organism, tissue or cell. Michael Hecker was Professor of Microbiology from 1986 to 2014 and Director of the Institute of Microbiology there from 1990 to 2013. As Dean, he made a significant contribution to the reorganisation of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences from 1990 to 1994. From 1997 to 2001, he was President and Past President of the Association for General and Applied Microbiology, the largest association of microbiologically orientated scientists in the German-speaking world. Michael Hecker has received several science awards and an honorary doctorate from the University of Göttingen in 2023. He is an elected member of several national and international academies, including the American Academy of Microbiology, the European Academy of Microbiology, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Marion Merklein © FAU

@ mdv

Title page of the new book “Die ostdeutschen Universitäten im vereinten Deutschland”. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, President of the DFG from 1998 to 2006, wrote the foreword and afterword.

Further information

Book

Michael Hecker, Bärbel Friedrich: The East German universities in a united Germany. A success story from an East-West perspective (with foreword and epilogue by Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker), 345 pages, Mitteldeutscher Verlag, Halle (Saale) 2023

Robert Dunkelmann: “Dare to use YouTube, Instagram and co. more”

“Dare to use YouTube, Instagram and co. more”

Robert Dunkelmann, chemical technician and enthusiastic member of the GDNÄ, on social media and its great potential to get young people interested in science.

Mr Dunkelmann, you joined the GDNÄ at the age of 22 and have been an active member for twelve years. What can the GDNÄ offer young people like you?
It has a lot to offer me. At the conferences, I learn about the latest findings from the natural sciences in three days – in a concentrated, understandable way and presented by the best scientists. I always benefit from this. One example: at the meeting in Mainz in 2014, I heard about non-coding RNA for the first time, which was long misjudged as genetic waste. Only in recent years has its importance as a mastermind of gene regulation been discovered. Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, it was frequently mentioned. For most people around me, this was completely new, but I already had an idea of what was going on.  

The 2014 meeting in Mainz was your second GDNÄ conference. The first time you attended was in Göttingen.
Yes, that was in 2012, I had just won a special prize in the national Jugend forscht competition and was allowed to present my invention at the meeting. 

What invention?
As a student, I had developed a seal that indicates whether frozen products have been kept sufficiently cold on their way to the supermarket. This is important information for consumers. FrozenSignal, as I called the seal, is neither harmful to health nor the environment. It contains two substances separated by a thin layer. If the temperature rises significantly, the upper substance melts and reacts with the lower one. The initially white seal then turns a rusty brown colour. It is immediately obvious that the product has already been defrosted. 

What happened to the idea?
I applied for a patent and held initial marketing talks. Initially there was interest from the industry, but this waned when it became clear that trading companies didn’t want something like this. I didn’t pursue the matter any further.

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

@ Robert Kraemer GmbH & Co. KG

Product properties such as acidity, viscosity or solubility are determined in the laboratory by titration.

At the time, you were a student at a specialised secondary school near Bremen and had already completed your training as a chemical-technical assistant. How did your career progress?
After gaining my university entrance qualification, I worked as a laboratory technician for a few years and took care of incoming goods inspection and wastewater analysis at a company in Bremen. Since 2018, I have been working for another company in Rastede that produces binders based on the natural resin rosin. The intermediate product is needed in the industry for the production of paints, varnishes and adhesives. I work in process-related analytics as well as in production and am aiming for a job as an operator in my company’s new chemical plant. 

Have you considered going to university in the meantime?
Yes, I actually thought about studying chemistry from time to time. But over the years I realised that I am a practical person. I focussed on that and that was the right thing to do. In my current company, I have good development opportunities and am listened to when I suggest innovations. Together with my bosses and colleagues, I have already been able to optimise some production processes. 

You said at the beginning that you would like to contribute more to the GDNÄ. Do you already have concrete ideas?
Yes, I do. One example: in order to reach young people better, it would be important to communicate more via social media such as YouTube, Instagram, Tiktok, Twitch and the like. I know the GDNÄ started doing this at the 2022 anniversary meeting in Leipzig, but there is still room for improvement. One option would be to get science influencers with a wide reach to cooperate. There are great young people at universities who regularly report on their research, their everyday life in the lab and their life as a scientist. With tens of thousands of followers, they reach a very large audience.    

An Instagram video lasts a maximum of 60 seconds. Isn’t that too short to convey sophisticated content?
That’s not much time, no question. But it’s always amazing how much essential information can be conveyed in 60 seconds. And if you want more, you can watch longer programmes on YouTube – they can last 15 minutes or more. The most popular science influencers are active on several platforms. And if you want to reach young people today, you have to use these media. Of course, they are also interesting for older people. 

What are the advantages?
You can see what is currently on the minds of many people, learn about the art of the short form and practise using social media. They are a treasure trove for the curious; this is where modern knowledge transfer takes place.

Instituts für Fertigungstechnologie an der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. © FAU

@ Robert Kraemer GmbH & Co. KG

Process control technology: the company’s systems are controlled in this room. From here, Robert Dunkelmann can, for example, fill reactors, change the temperature and pressure or regulate the thermal waste gas purification.

On the other hand, social media can easily become a time waster.
That’s true, it’s easy to get lost and that’s why I’ve greatly reduced my Instagram consumption. I now spend no more than an hour a month on the platform. However, I spend two to three hours a day on YouTube. It’s only partly about science, there’s also a lot of music. On the other hand, I hardly ever listen to the radio and I don’t even watch linear television any more. 

Doesn’t that quickly put you in a filter bubble? Narrowing your own horizons?
There is a danger of that. That’s another reason why it’s so important to keep in touch with institutions that provide foresight and an overview. The GDNÄ does exactly that and promotes personal contact. This has been a huge benefit for my career. 

In what way?
I’m thinking, for example, of the “Meet the Prof” format at the meetings. In these small discussion groups, young people can ask their questions without fear of embarrassment and discuss them with established academics in a friendly atmosphere. This has given me a lot of inspiration and I am convinced that others will feel the same way if they get the opportunity. If you pick up students or young professionals where they are, you can get many of them interested in science – even if they didn’t manage it at school.  

Will I see you at the 2024 Assembly in Potsdam?
I’m definitely planning to come. And I’m already looking forward to meeting people from the past and getting to know new ones.

Marion Merklein © FAU

@ Robert Kraemer GmbH & Co. KG

Robert Dunkelmann, production specialist, Youth Research Prize winner and long-standing GDNÄ member.

About the person

Robert Dunkelmann was born in Waren (Müritz) in 1990. He initially went to school in Penzlin in the Müritzer Seenplatte district and from 2000 to 2008 in Ganderkesee in the Bremen-Oldenburg metropolitan region. This was followed by training as a chemical-technical assistant at the Utbremen school centre. Robert Dunkelmann also obtained his technical college entrance qualification there in 2012.

From 2013 to 2018, he worked as a laboratory technician in the incoming inspection/wastewater analysis department at the waste disposal and recycling company Nehlsen Plump GmbH. Since 2018, he has been working in production at the chemical company Robert Krämer GmbH in Rastede. Together with a group of like-minded people, the 33-year-old reconstructs historical chemical production processes in his spare time. He has been a GDNÄ member since 2012.

Bohrkern aus dem grönländischen Eisschild mit schwarzen Partikeln, die Algen, Mineralien und Ruß enthalten. Sie verdunkeln die Gletscheroberfläche und beschleunigen im Sommer die Eisschmelze. © Rey Mourot

@ Robert Kraemer GmbH & Co. KG

This is where intermediate containers such as resins, alcohols or organic acids are prepared for subsequent dosing. The dosed raw materials are then fed directly into the reactor by means of a screw conveyor.

Liane G. Benning: “How algae are fuelling climate change”

How algae are fuelling climate change

Liane G. Benning, biogeochemist, on earthshaking interfaces, microbes in the Arctic ice and her El Dorado of research. 

Professor Benning, at the next meeting of the GDNÄ you will be giving a public evening lecture entitled “The big melt: small cells, big consequences”. Why should people make a note of this date?
I will be presenting new, previously little-known findings that are important for future climate forecasts. For example, it will be about snow and ice algae and their major influence on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which contributes significantly to global sea level rise. So anyone who is interested in current climate research and wants to know what we as scientists in Potsdam and Berlin are contributing to this is cordially invited to my lecture.

You head the Interface Geochemistry research group at the GFZ Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. What do interfaces have to do with the climate?
I need to expand a little on that. My research group is concerned with interfacial reactions. This refers to chemical, physical and biological reactions on and in the surfaces of a wide variety of materials that characterise their shape, structure and function. Our planet owes its appearance, both large and small, to such processes, which control the cycle of carbon, nutrients and trace elements. Climate change is also a consequence of interfacial reactions. One example is the reactions between carbon dioxide and the atmosphere. Another, more indirect example is the chain reactions in the Arctic ice.

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

© Katie Sipes

Field research that’s fun: GFZ doctoral student Rey Mourot collects snow and ice samples in southern Greenland. The helicopter in the background is standing by for safety reasons. The weather can change quickly, in which case the work has to be cancelled immediately. The photo was taken in May 2022.

How do you record the processes in interfaces?
We combine experimental approaches and measurements in nature, for example in Greenland, with satellite images, microbial sequencing and high-resolution electron microscopy and spectroscopy imaging techniques that we are constantly developing. In this way, we can observe interactions in interfaces down to the atomic level. The realisation that algae, viruses and bacteria play a key role in climate processes is thanks to this large repertoire of methods. 

Please explain in more detail how all this is connected.
Let’s take Greenland as an example. I’m there time and again with my team to take measurements on site and take ice samples, which we analyse when we return to Potsdam. The Greenland ice is still kilometres thick, but on average one metre melts away every year and goes into the oceans. This trend has been accelerating for years. This has to do not only with increasing global warming, but also with dark areas on the ice. They reduce the so-called albedo, i.e. the reflectivity of the surface, and heat it up. For a long time, it was thought that soot or dust particles blown onto the ice were blackening it. However, we now know that naturally occurring snow and ice algae, in combination with other microorganisms, play a significant role in the darkening – and are multiplying rapidly in Greenland. In the south-western part of the island, up to 26 per cent of the albedo reduction is due to ice algae. And as part of the major EU project “Deep Purple”, we are also investigating whether special viruses may control the algal bloom and how the bloom is slowed down by tiny fungi. 

Can such findings be used to slow down climate change?
What we are doing is purely basic research. We are not involved in measures to mitigate the effects of climate change. I also believe that bioengineering or geoengineering on the basis of previous research findings is premature because we still know far too little about the overall system. Individual interventions can cause great damage, so we have to be very careful. 

Is the new knowledge about algae and co. already being incorporated into climate forecasts?
In the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from 2023, the contribution of algae was already mentioned, but bio-albedo is not yet included in the predictions. I am confident that the next assessment report will go into more detail about the effect.

Instituts für Fertigungstechnologie an der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. © FAU

© Katie Sipes

Liane G Benning and her doctoral student Rey Mourot in front of a snowfield in southern Greenland. You can clearly see how green, yellowish and red snow algae proliferate here.

You have been working in this specialised field for a long time. How did this come about?
I’ve actually always been fascinated by processes in the environment. I first studied mineralogy in Kiel and continued my studies at the ETH in Zurich, where I made geochemical reactions the subject of my doctorate. This was followed by academic posts in the USA and the UK, and over time I realised that I couldn’t make any scientific progress without biology. So I familiarised myself with the subject, especially genetics, and eventually I became a biogeochemist. 

You spent 17 years at the University of Leeds before moving to Potsdam and Berlin. How did you experience the change?
Coming back to Germany was a bit of a culture shock. In everyday life, I first had to get used to the rustic manners in Berlin and Brandenburg – things are a bit more polite in England. And then there’s the excessive bureaucracy with which the Germans torment themselves and others. The British – especially at universities – often work much more efficiently, so we can learn a lot from them. 

You’ve now been in the region for ten years and hopefully you’ve discovered some positive things.
A lot of positive things, in fact. Scientifically, I have fantastic opportunities here. If I need a modern, expensive measuring device for my research, I can almost always find it in the region –  be it at another Helmholtz Institute, at facilities of the Max Planck Society or at the Federal Institute for Materials Testing. And, just as importantly, my colleagues are highly competent, helpful and open to co-operation. For example, the collaboration with Thomas Leya from the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology in Potsdam is brilliant. His biobank contains a wonderful snow algae culture that is ideal for comparisons with our ice algae. We were able to benefit greatly from the expertise of our Fraunhofer colleagues when setting up our culture. All in all, I couldn’t wish for a better environment for my research. 

Berlin-Brandenburg, an El Dorado for geoscientists?
I can agree with that. 

Then you probably have few problems attracting good young people to your team?
When we advertise a position, we receive applications from all over the world. That was the case again just now for a junior scientist position. But we didn’t find what we were looking for, the applications simply weren’t good enough. For some it was the incomplete documents, for others it was the narrow qualifications that were not sufficient for our interdisciplinary tasks. Some applicants just want to test their chances and are not serious. So it’s not that easy for us. 

How do you solve the problem?
In this specific case, we are now re-advertising the position with more precise criteria. I’m also sending the advert to colleagues I know around the world. Personal recommendations are very valuable. I also try to attract good young people from my degree programme at the FU Berlin to the GFZ: for an internship or for their final thesis. If it goes well, it can turn into a job. I also say this to the student interns from Potsdam who have been with us in recent years. My team has been great at dealing with their questions and requests and we are always happy to take on new interns from the region.

Marion Merklein © FAU

© Phil Dera

Prof. Dr. Liane G. Benning.

About the person

Liane G. Benning has headed the Interface Geochemistry Department at the Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ, Helmholtz Centre Potsdam since 2014. She is also responsible for the Potsdam Imaging and Spectral Analysis Facility (PISA). She has been a professor at Freie Universität Berlin since 2016.

Liane G. Benning completed her undergraduate degree in mineralogy at the University of Kiel and her graduate degree in petrology and geochemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH). She received her doctorate from ETH in 1995. After a postdoctoral stay at Pennsylvania State University, Liane G. Benning moved to the University of Leeds, where she was appointed professor in 2007 and researched and taught until 2017.

The biogeochemist has received many national and international awards. She has been a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina since 2018 and a Geochemistry Fellow of the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry since 2020.  At the beginning of 2024, Liane G. Benning was appointed to the German Council of Science and Humanities by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Bohrkern aus dem grönländischen Eisschild mit schwarzen Partikeln, die Algen, Mineralien und Ruß enthalten. Sie verdunkeln die Gletscheroberfläche und beschleunigen im Sommer die Eisschmelze. © Rey Mourot

© Rey Mourot

Drill core from the Greenland ice sheet with black particles containing algae, minerals and soot. They darken the glacier surface and accelerate the melting of the ice in summer.

Further information

>> Internship enquiry for high school students: benning@gfz-potsdam.de