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.

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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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Uwe Hartmann: I never wanted to be a professional idiot

“I never wanted to be a professional idiot”

Uwe Hartmann, physics professor at Saarland University, on the compass in the head, his concept for a new type of heart diagnostics and good reasons for cooperation with China.

Professor Hartmann, when somebody googles your name and your field of research, he or she quickly lands on a study on the inner compass of living beings. What exactly did you find out?
The study is about the old question of how salmon always find their spawning grounds accurately or how migratory birds manage to orient themselves over long distances. Many animals have similar abilities, which have long been associated with special receptors for the Earth’s magnetic field. This is where we, an international team of researchers consisting of physicists, geneticists and sensory physiologists, came in with our study. After years of work, we succeeded in making small magnetic particles in individual sensory cells of salmon fish and other creatures visible under the microscope. The clusters of iron oxide particles, which are only a few nanometres in size, could not be visualised with such precision until now. Our study also provides clues to the evolutionary history of the magnetic sense, which primordial bacteria already possessed three billion years ago and which propagated into more highly developed organisms via a set of eleven genes.

The publication had a great media response…
…yes, it was reported worldwide. As our team’s correspondent writer, I was initially caught off guard by the many interview requests, but then adjusted and spoke with a great many journalists. The hype, incredible as it may sound, has continued for almost two years – and the public reacts lively to corresponding media contributions. Readers regularly report on their special orientation ability, their sixth sense, as many call it. This can quickly turn into esotericism, so you have to be careful. But when we think of Eskimos, who often find their way effortlessly in vast snowy deserts, the thought suggests itself that humans also have a sense of magnetic field orientation, perhaps even constructed in a similar way.

Do you want to pursue this hypothesis in your research?
No, I will not pursue it further. The physiologists and representatives of other disciplines will have to get on with it now. I have enough to do with my core topics.

What is your main focus?
My lab is all about developing innovative materials, with a view to interesting new applications. One example is nanowires with a diameter of a thousandth of a hair and extremely low electrical resistance. This is still basic research, but in the foreseeable future such wires could help double the performance of IT devices. We are also working on ultra-sensitive magnetic sensors that could benefit cardiac diagnostics enormously, for example. With the help of artificial intelligence, our sensors can detect magnetic signals from the heart and thus important indications of heart health. We have already presented our concept for a magnetocardiograph of the future at trade fairs and, if an investor can be found, we can bring it into use within three years.  The advantage of the new method is that no electrodes are needed on the skin; instead, our magnetic field sensors work without contact. Certain signals, triggered for example by conduction disorders, can be recorded much more precisely than before.

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

© Universität des Saarlandes

Magnetic particles in sensory cells of salmon (left: topography, right: magnetic contrast).

Not only do you have a broad range of topics, your laboratory is also home to a wide variety of disciplines. How come?
That’s how new ideas are born, and that’s what fascinates me. Unfortunately, our funding landscape in Germany is structured along disciplinary lines. You need a lot of patience to realise interdisciplinary projects. But I take that on myself. I never wanted to be a professional idiot, but a researcher with vision and an interest in society. 

One example of this is your essay on the future of Saarland. What was the response like?
Very lively and it has continued since its publication in 2020. In the essay, my team and I had correctly predicted the closure of the Ford plant in Saarlouis two years before it was announced, which brought us a lot of public attention. Politicians also took the bait. In a discussion with the president of the Saarland state parliament, Stephan Toscani, I was able to explain our methods and forecasts in detail. 

Did you also make science-based recommendations?
That is not what we are about. We analyse the present and model plausible future scenarios on this basis. For Saarland, we have drawn up a particularly positive and a particularly gloomy picture of the future with a view to the year 2050. In the positive scenario, for example, we predict a doubling of the population and a flourishing hydrogen economy. Whether this will happen depends on long-term decisions. Basically, the scenarios are meant to inspire everyone who looks at them to develop their own images of the future. 

You have also written a children’s book. How did that come about?
The impetus came from a lecture at the Saarbrücken Children’s University. I had explained to my audience how various toys, some of them long forgotten, function physically and was delighted by the many questions parents, grandparents and children approached me with. In my book, which was written in a few summer weeks, I delve into these topics. At the centre is the robot Apus, who, with the help of his friends and a lot of artificial intelligence, goes on exciting adventures and solves a lot of mysteries in the process. With the book, I try to introduce children to science and technology in a playful way. The response was very positive and the first edition sold out quickly.  

Children’s initial enthusiasm for scientific topics often wanes over the years. What is the reason for this?
It must have something to do with school lessons. What it is exactly, I don’t know – that’s a matter for the education experts to find out. But from my own experience I can say that the good two thousand young people who visit the Saarland MINT Campus every year are on fire. We have to bring this spark into the schools, because Germany has a huge problem with young people in the STEM subjects of mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology. 

How does this affect your department?
As at most German universities, the number of students and doctoral students in physics is also decreasing here. Many come from abroad, for example from China.

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

© Universität des Saarlandes

A miniaturised magnetic field sensor that can be used for medical diagnostics, among other things.

Academic cooperation with China is increasingly viewed with scepticism. You have two Chinese honorary professorships. How do you deal with the new situation?
Of course, I am increasingly concerned about the political developments in China. However, in my experience, there is a clear difference between the behaviour of the political elite and the view of many young people at Chinese universities. Through their stay here with us as doctoral students or young academics, these young people virtually get to experience a contrasting program: free expression of opinion, critical views and lively political discussions. I believe this experience of freedom in the Western world, which has a strong formative effect, justifies potential dangers from the outflow of knowledge or technologies. 

You are retired and continue to do research and teach. Has the shortage of young talent reached the professorial floor?
No, no, that’s not the reason. I simply enjoy doing it very much and take advantage of a model project at my university that allows me to continue working for a few years. My workload includes six hours of lecturing per week, for example on nanotechnology, supervising several research projects and doctoral theses. From my point of view, this could go on for a few more years. 

In the GDNÄ, you are involved as an elected representative and group chair for the 2024 conference in Potsdam. What motivates you?
The GDNÄ stands for an interdisciplinarity that is missing in many places in our scientific landscape. I am also impressed by the student program. The very successful 200th anniversary celebration in Leipzig gave the society a great boost and I like to contribute to maintaining this momentum.


Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Universität des Saarlandes

In the lab: Uwe Hartmann at the ultra-high vacuum scanning tunnelling microscope.

About the person

After studying physics at the University of Münster, Uwe Hartmann completed his scientific training at the Universities of Giessen and Basel as well as at the Jülich Research Centre and the IBM Research Centre in San José, California. Since 1993 he has been Professor of Experimental Physics at Saarland University, where he heads the Chair of Nanostructure Research and Nanotechnology. One of his focal points is experimental nanostructure research, where he is primarily involved with scanning probe technology and magnetic field detectors. Professor Hartmann received a number of calls to universities and non-university institutions, but remained loyal to his Saar University. His scientific oeuvre comprises more than 400 lectures and more than 300 publications, including several books. He is the holder of several patents and co-founder of several companies, co-editor of various specialist journals and is involved in the board of nanotechnology associations. In 2013/14 he was Vice President for Europe and International Affairs and in 2015/16 Vice President for Planning and Strategy at Saarland University. For his scientific achievements, Uwe Hartmann was awarded the Philip Morris Research Prize (1998), an honorary professorship at Fudan University in Shanghai (2006), an honorary professorship at East China Normal University in Shanghai (2009) and the Federal Cross of Merit (2015).

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Edition Ulrich Burger 2019

Hartmann’s children’s book “Apus und die Geheimnisse hinter den Geheimnissen” (with drawings by Anne Holtsch, Edition Ulrich Burger 2019) struck a chord with the audience.

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Angelika Brandt: Thousands of new species brought to light

“Thousands of new species brought to light”

The deep-sea expedition “AleutBio” almost failed shortly before it started. But the near-drama turned into a success. Marine biologist and expedition leader Angelika Brandt describes how this was achieved. 

Professor Brandt, one year ago, on 17 July 2022, you set off with the research vessel “Sonne” to explore the biodiversity of the East Pacific deep sea. As cruise director, you were responsible for the scientific program. How did you experience the six weeks at sea?
It was the most difficult expedition of my life – and I have led many before. The problems began with Russia’s attack on Ukraine, five months before the planned start. As a result, scientific relations with Russia were frozen by the German side. Our German-Russian expedition, which we had been preparing for six years, was also affected. We wanted to study biodiversity in the eastern Kuril-Kamchatka Trench, the Aleutian Trench and the Bering Sea. The research trip was to begin and end in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Since the end of 2021, we had the necessary permits in our pockets, the financing was secured, and the ship was basically ready to go. The emergency braking three months before the start of the expedition threw everything into disarray. 

How did you still manage to get underway on time?
We got together immediately and discussed a lot with the Federal Ministry of Research and the German Research Vessel Control Center. Finally, we agreed on a new route that would take us from the starting point of Dutch Harbor on the U.S. island of Unalaska to largely unknown deep-sea areas in the eastern Pacific and end in Vancouver. The expedition application went through the German Foreign Office, which lobbied the American authorities on our behalf. Exciting weeks followed, during which we continued to prepare the trip without knowing if and when it could take place. Through an international call for applications, we were able to fill the eight research positions that had become available at short notice. This was not an easy task, as 70 highly qualified scientists responded to the call for applications. When we received the approval two weeks before the planned start of the journey, on July 3, 2022, we were very happy. Aleutian Biodiversity Studies, AleutBio for short, was able to set sail.

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

© Anne-Cathrin Wölfl & Kevin Kess, Geomar

Stations of the international AleutBio expedition in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Trench.

How was life on board?
Pleasant and exhausting at the same time. As a team, we functioned wonderfully. As usual, we worked in shifts throughout. The work under corona conditions was arduous: We had to wear masks all the time, even on deck, and test ourselves daily for the virus. Despite great caution, we had eleven cases of corona in the six weeks, which of course made daily interaction more difficult. And the fact that the sports room remained closed for hygiene reasons did not please the young people in the team at all. We reported daily on everyday life on board and our research in our AleutBio blog, which was frequently accessed. 

And how did you fare as cruise director?
I only got four to five hours of sleep a day, but I was used to that from previous expeditions. What bothered me more was the mask requirement. I am hard of hearing and read a lot from the lips of my conversation partners. I often asked them to take off their masks and talk to me from two meters away. 

Research work in the deep sea: How can we imagine it?
Very important is the modern marine technology on board the Sonne. The ship has a twelve-kilometer deep-sea cable on which heavy equipment is lowered to take samples. There are autonomous and remote-controlled underwater devices and vehicles on board, plus several grab systems and towed devices such as the epibenthos sled. This opens only at the seafloor and collects, together with the deep-sea mud, those organisms that live at the bottom surface or just below it. On deck, the scientific team waits to sift out, pick out, sort, and photograph the critters brought up with the deep-sea mud. The rest of the sediment is fixed with ethanol to be examined days later under the binoculars for microorganisms. At the end of the expedition, the samples are packed into refrigerated containers and shipped to the home laboratories for further analysis. At my institute in Frankfurt, we took delivery of two containers last October and December.

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

© 2022, Thomas Walter, Expedition SO293 AleutBio

The AleutBio team in a quiet minute and for once without a mask.

That sounds like a storybook expedition. Did everything go so smoothly at AleutBio?
The starting conditions were difficult, but after that things actually went well. The loss of two landers, which were to measure and record biogeochemical parameters automatically after setting down on the seafloor in the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Trench, respectively, was problematic. We tried for two days and nights, but were unable to get the landers back on deck. Finally, we had to move on and send a loss report to the U.S. authorities. This was a setback, of course. However, our sediment grab, a so-called multicorer, did help us get samples from this ocean region. We now have to study them outside their original habitat in the laboratory – with the landers, an analysis in the natural context would have been possible. 

What exactly did you want to find out during your expedition?
We are always interested in what the deep sea looks like and which organisms are predominant there. In addition, this time the focus was on two major topics. Topographically, we know that the Pacific deep-sea trenches from the Aleutian Islands to the Japan Trench to the Mariana Trench are interconnected. But is this also true for the fauna? Or do the species living there have little to nothing to do with each other? Then there is the question of the connections between the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans: what species are found there in each case, how fast do they spread, and what are the special features? The answers to such questions are important, among other things, when it comes to laying deep-sea cables or deep-sea mining, which is now being pushed more and more. And in times of climate change, we need to at least begin to understand what is happening in the oceans, which organisms are migrating where, which populations are shrinking or threatened with extinction.

Die Bühne in der Kongresshalle am Zoo Leipzig hielt dem Ansturm der Schülerinnen und Schüler stand. © MIKA-fotografie | Berlin

© 2022, Thomas Walter, Expedition SO293 AleutBio

Modern ship and marine technology on board the Sonne: Epibenthos sledge (left), Agassiz trawl (centre), big box grab (top right), multicorer (bottom right).

Are there any initial findings already?
Yes, some have already been published, others we are still reviewing. At great depths, we have found species that occur from the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench to the Aleutian Trench, so they are the same species over a distance of at least three thousand kilometers. This was not known before. In the Bering Sea, we were struck by the extraordinarily diverse habitats. All in all, we have unearthed a great many new species that will have to be studied in greater detail in the coming months and years. 

When and where can you read the results?
As mentioned, the first bachelor and master theses have already been published. By the way, we are still looking for students for further evaluations: So anyone who is interested in our work is welcome to contact me. We are currently preparing larger publications in international journals. The same applies to a research volume that will provide comprehensive information on AleutBio results. On our website we regularly report on new publications. There will be a lot more to come in the next few years. 

The research collaboration with Russia is still on hold. What will become of your connections with Russian colleagues?
There are currently no working relationships, and friendships that have developed over decades are in deep crisis. Some colleagues have more or less taken Putin’s side in the Ukraine war, which I cannot accept. A lot of trust has been lost there. We hear about repression and denunciations at Russian institutes and know that some scientists have left their country. Putin has done enormous damage to the cooperation of Russian researchers with foreign colleagues. 

Die Bühne in der Kongresshalle am Zoo Leipzig hielt dem Ansturm der Schülerinnen und Schüler stand. © MIKA-fotografie | Berlin

© Chong Chen, JAMSTEC

Newly discovered organisms of the deep sea, photographed from different perspectives: A, B: Starfish, C: Worm molluscs.

What do you have planned next?
For the time being, I am fully occupied with evaluating the samples from our expedition. I don’t expect to be in charge of the expedition again; AleutBio was my last major effort in this respect. This also has to do with the long lead time for such expeditions. After all, we wait up to four years for ship time to be approved and I would then be slowly approaching retirement age. That’s why I’m now passing on the baton to the younger generation. Currently, I am supporting the Atlantic expedition of a colleague. She has already been on several trips with the research ships Meteor and Sonne to investigate questions in the Atlantic Ocean similar to those we are working on in the Pacific. This fall, I’m going on an expedition to the Japan Trench with students. If we found the same species there as we did in the Aleutian Trench, that would be spectacular, of course. 

Will you report on your expedition and its results at one of the next GDNÄ meetings?
With pleasure.

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Privat

Prof. Dr. Angelika Brandt, marine biologist and expedition leader.

Interview with Angelika Brandt in the cultural programme of Saarländischer Rundfunk SR2

About the person

Marine biologist Prof. Dr. Angelika Brandt is a member of the board of directors at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt am Main. There, she heads the Department of Marine Zoology as well as the Sections for Crustaceans and Fish Science. At the same time, she is Professor of Special Zoology at Frankfurt Goethe University. Previously, Angelika Brandt was a professor at the University of Hamburg for 22 years and headed the university’s Zoological Museum from September 2004 to October 2009. The 62-year-old researches the biodiversity of the macrofauna in the deep sea and in the polar regions, specialising in the group of marine isopods. For her research, Angelika Brandt has so far taken part in 30 ship expeditions – several times in a leading role. In recognition of her extraordinary research achievements and her commitment to the protection of the deep sea, a new species of deep-sea isopod was recently named Austroniscus brandtae. Angelika Brandt is Chair of the Biology Group at the 2024 GDNÄ conference in Potsdam.

Further Information:

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© 2022, Thomas Walter, Expedition SO293 AleutBio

Das Forschungsschiff „Sonne“ vor dem Auslaufen im Hafen von Unalaska.

AleutBio figures

  • 38 researchers from 12 nations
  • 16 participating institutions
  • 3631 nautical miles traveled
  • 7230 meters of depth reached (Aleutian Trench)
  • 44 days, 2 hours, 34 minutes on board
  • 952 sampled sites
  • 643 kilometers of deep-sea cable laid

Contact for bachelor and master theses on AleutBio:

Prof. Dr. Angelika Brandt