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


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


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.

Heribert Hofer: “In Potsdam, we present the Young GDNÄ”

“In Potsdam, we present the Young GDNÄ”

GDNÄ President Heribert Hofer on highlights of the 2024 Assembly, German as the conference language and his interim period after one year in office.

Professor Hofer, the 133rd GDNÄ Assembly will take place in Potsdam in September 2024. There are still nine months to go until then. Are you and your team on schedule?
Yes, the preparations are well advanced. We have a clear idea of the scientific programme, the event rooms have been booked and the supporting programme has largely been finalised. All GDNÄ members will receive more details in the annual letter at the beginning of January.

There are still three weeks to go until then. Can you give us a few insights in advance?
It will be a very interdisciplinary conference, even more so than is usual at GDNÄ meetings. For example, we will show how important artificial intelligence already is for different scientific fields and how it is used. Some of the presentations will make you wonder whether this is biology or physics – the methods are now so interlinked. Interdisciplinary thinking and working is becoming increasingly important in almost all subjects, and this trend naturally plays into our hands. The focus also corresponds to the interest of our members, as we know from conversations and letters.

The meeting is entitled “Science for our lives of tomorrow”. Many people are currently not very optimistic about the future. Can science brighten up the picture?
Yes, it can and it has often done so in the past. Just think of the coronavirus vaccines, which put an end to the pandemic relatively quickly. As in this case, research results have often been used for the benefit of mankind. But, as we all know, they can also cause harm. My concern is therefore a responsible science that has both potentials in mind. For example, in the field of green genetic engineering, where new genomic tools are used to develop plants. We will be discussing the opportunities and risks in detail in Potsdam. We will also be discussing new trends in ChatGPT and the like, i.e. generative language models and what they mean for the world of tomorrow.

This topic should be of particular interest to the students present in Potsdam. What role will they play at the 2024 Assembly?
Their contributions are very important for us. Similar to the 2022 anniversary conference in Leipzig, the young people will be discussing with scientists on the podium. We are organising two workshops in advance so that they can familiarise themselves with the content. In Potsdam, not only selected students from the region will take part, but also former participants of our student programme who are now studying. The aim is to attract talented young people to science – and ideally also to the GDNÄ.

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

© MIKA-fotografie | Berlin

The Science Slam at the GDNÄ Assembly 2022 in Leipzig was a crowd-puller. Heribert Hofer (left) supervised the participating students.

Can this be achieved in a three-day meeting?
As a rule, of course, it takes more time. For this reason, we want to create the Young GDNÄ. The new group should be open to current and former members of the student programme, engage more with the public at meetings and also be active between meetings. How this could look in detail has yet to be discussed. The next strategy meeting between the Executive Board and Board Council in February 2024 will provide an opportunity to discuss funding for the project. Foundations we have spoken to have shown themselves to be open-minded and willing to support the Young GDNÄ. That makes us very happy.

When will you present the new format to the members?
In a few months, at the meeting in Potsdam. 

What kind of response do you expect?
I am convinced that there will be a lot of approval. I am encouraged by the extremely positive feedback on the extended student programme at the anniversary meeting in Leipzig. The speakers enjoyed the dialogue with the young people and the audience was delighted with the lively discussion. Some of them approached me later and offered to help. It is a matter close to their hearts to introduce the next generations to science. There is a great willingness to get involved, which we want to utilise more in the future. 

We need more young members, more women, more ethnic diversity: these were the slogans with which you took office a year ago. The Young GDNÄ is making good progress – what about the proportion of women and ethnic diversity?
We are still focussing on both issues. Today, there are high-calibre female experts in all scientific fields, which makes it easier to find excellent specialist representatives for our meetings. It becomes more difficult with the additional requirements of the GDNÄ: the speakers should be able to present their research as comprehensibly as possible and in German. This reduces the choice – among women, but above all among scientists with foreign roots. Nevertheless, we were able to attract leading minds from both groups for Potsdam 2024.

German was once the language of science, today it is English. Does the GDNÄ want to stick to German?
Yes, German will remain the conference language. This also has to do with our interdisciplinary approach. It is intellectually challenging to familiarise with the complex interrelationships from other disciplines at the meetings. If the audience then has to translate the presentation themselves from another language, it can easily lead to fatigue and misunderstandings. The subsequent discussion also becomes more tedious. We want to avoid this and our members encourage us to do so.

The regional public, who are traditionally invited to GDNÄ meetings, should also benefit from this. What special features are planned for 2024?
On 13 September, a Friday evening, the Nobel Prize winner in physics Ben L. Feringa will present his research in a generally understandable way, and on the evening of 14 September, Liane G. Benning from the German Research Centre for Geosciences will give the renowned Leopoldina Lecture. Both events are open to all interested parties free of charge. We look forward to many visitors!

What would a GDNÄ meeting be without a nice accompanying programme: What is planned here?
Potsdam’s cultural and research landscape is rich and vibrant. We will explore it extensively: at great evening events, guided tours and science-based excursions. A few nice surprises are currently in preparation.

You have been President of the GDNÄ for almost exactly a year now. What is your interim conclusion?
I am impressed by the dynamism and efficiency with which the GDNÄ tackles and realises new projects. And I am convinced that we can reach the media and the public even better. This was noticeable at the recent award ceremony for the Lorenz Oken Medal to Armin Maiwald, which was attended by almost two hundred science communicators. What inspires me is the great interest shown by our members in their commitment to society and science. This is a treasure that we should all work together to realise.

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

© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

GDNÄ President Hofer (left) at the ceremony to award the Lorenz Oken Medal to Armin Maiwald (2nd from left), a pioneer of the “Sendung mit der Maus” program. Right half of the picture: Laudator Ralph Caspers and GDNÄ Secretary General Professor Michael Dröscher.

Mit Medaille und Urkunde in der Bielefelder Stadthalle © David Ausserhofer

© Heribert Hofer © MIKA-fotografie | Berlin

Professor Heribert Hofer, GDNÄ President (2023-2024) and Director of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.

Request from the President

Dear GDNÄ members, please let us know your e-mail address so that we can network with each other more easily. The best way to do this is to send an email to the office at info@gdnae.de.

Program leaflet

About the person

Professor Heribert Hofer, Director of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, was elected President by the General Assembly for the two years 2023 and 2024 and is therefore responsible for the scientific organisation of the 133rd Assembly in Potsdam in 2024.

The renowned zoologist (63) has headed the Leibniz-IZW in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde since 2000 and since then has also been Professor of Interdisciplinary Wildlife Research at the Free University of Berlin. Prior to his time in Berlin, he conducted research at the Max Planck Institute of Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen, Bavaria, from 1986 to 1999, initially as a postdoctoral researcher and later as an independent scientist. In 1997, he completed his habilitation at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich with a thesis on the behaviour of spotted hyenas in the Serengeti savannah. Heribert Hofer began his studies in zoology at Saarland University and graduated with a DPhil from Oxford University.

The internationally renowned scientist has been closely associated with the GDNÄ for many years. He has been involved in a variety of ways: as an elected subject representative and group chairman for the subject of biology, with speeches at meetings, as Vice President in the preparation of the 200th anniversary celebrations in Leipzig – and since the beginning of 2023 as President of the GDNÄ.

Further information:

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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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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