Thomas Mettenleiter: “Nothing could scare me after that”

“Nothing could scare me after that”

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

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

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

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

© Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut

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

 

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

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

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

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

Marion Merklein © FAU

© Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut

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

About the person

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

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

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

Marion Merklein © FAU

© Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut

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

About the FLI

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

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

Further information

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

How algae are fuelling climate change

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

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

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

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

© Katie Sipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Katie Sipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marion Merklein © FAU

© Phil Dera

Prof. Dr. Liane G. Benning.

About the person

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

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

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

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

© Rey Mourot

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

Further information

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

Marion Merklein: “There are bumpy years ahead”

“There are bumpy years ahead”

Marion Merklein, engineering scientist, company director and member of the GDNÄ Board, on turning points in mechanical engineering, taster courses and early successes with the hammer drill. 

Professor Merklein, at your institute at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, you develop entire production lines and realise them together with industrial companies. Are the prospects for German mechanical engineering really as bleak as is often said at the moment?
I’m not one of the pessimists. But there will be a lot of rumbling in the country over the next few years. Mechanical engineering is in the midst of a major transformation that will probably keep us busy until the end of the decade. Only then will things start to pick up again. 

What transformation are we dealing with in mechanical engineering?
The pivotal point is the energy transition, which will lead us away from fossil fuels and towards green electricity and hydrogen. At the same time, energy consumption and waste volumes are to be reduced. These alone are colossal challenges for the automotive industry and many other sectors of mechanical engineering. The situation is further exacerbated by the declining order situation against the backdrop of a global economic downturn and a dramatic shortage of skilled labour. We must not underestimate the problem from a social perspective, as one in five jobs in Germany depends on mechanical engineering. 

How does your research contribute to solving these problems?
At our university institute, a lot of research centres on the question of how to streamline process chains. For example, in the construction of hydrogen engines. Today, such engines are practically manufactory products with small series such as the °Mirai°: Toyota only produces 30,000 of these saloon cars with fuel cells per year. This is of course uneconomical in the long term. We are therefore currently designing production lines for large-scale production. The aim is to be able to produce millions of hydrogen drives for motor vehicles of all kinds in the future. We are also developing techniques to reduce heat consumption when joining components and chipless cutting techniques, which leads to less waste when cutting workpieces, for example. 

In addition to your work at the university, you are also the head of a company. What drives you?
We want to put research results from the university into practice faster than usual. That’s why I took over the management of the company “Neue Materialien Fürth” in 2019. This is a state research institution, 51 per cent of which is owned by the Free State of Bavaria and 49 per cent by several co-owners. I also own a share. The company can be compared to a Fraunhofer Institute, but with a much leaner administration. We have large industrial-scale facilities at our disposal. This enables us to carry out realistic experiments that are not possible at the university.

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

© FAU/Giulia Iannicelli

Marion Merklein with a sheet metal blank from which tensile specimens were cut out for material testing. Input data and material cards are created from the tensile samples in order to simulate production processes.

Are there already tangible results?
Yes, there are, and something will soon be added that will advance electrical engineering. It’s about an internal component that I can’t reveal any more about now because the patent process is still ongoing. The development is based on the results of a Transregio funding programme on sheet metal forming and is a good example of successful research transfer. Neue Materialien Fürth also carries out contract research and provides services – the bottom line is that we are in the black. 

Women are still a minority in mechanical engineering. What is the situation like in your environment?
When I took up my professorship, I was the only woman in the field far and wide. But a lot has happened over the years. Today, almost a third of professorships in mechanical engineering at FAU are held by women. I definitely see myself as a role model. And in my working groups, I realise time and again that mixed teams achieve the best results. 

Where does your fascination for the profession come from?
My father played a big role. I was eight years old when he put a Hilti in my hand to make a wall breakthrough. I really wanted to do it, he trusted me to do it and I managed it. I was very good at physics at school and when it came to studying, I decided in favour of materials science. As time went on, I liked mechanical engineering even better, I switched and did my doctorate in this subject.

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

© FAU

Exterior view of the Institute of Production Technology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

You quickly made a career for yourself and were already a professor at the age of 34. What gave you wings?
Above all, the reliable support of my doctoral supervisor and mentor, Professor Manfred Geiger. He encouraged me right from the start and took me along to all kinds of events and conferences. This allowed me to grow into management positions. 

Today, it is up to you to promote the next generation.
Unfortunately, young talent is rare. Compared to pre-pandemic times, we have up to 40 per cent fewer students and correspondingly fewer young academics. Technical science degree programmes have lost their appeal for young people. If they go in a technical direction at all, many of them tend to do vocational training. Foreign students can only partially compensate for this deficit. We therefore have to come up with something to get young people interested in our subject. 

What are you doing to achieve this?
My team and I give talks in schools, offer technology internships and, during the Whitsun holidays, we organise a taster university where students can look over our shoulders for a week. We are currently working on experiments suitable for small children, which we can also take to daycare centres. 

You are a representative for engineering sciences in the GDNÄ. What motivated you to take on this role?
I was asked very kindly by the Executive Board and considered the offer an honour. I like the interdisciplinary nature of the GDNÄ, that’s what makes it so special for me and I’m happy to get involved.

Marion Merklein © FAU

© FAU

Prof Dr Marion Merklein heads the Chair of Production Technology at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nuremberg.

About the person

Prof Dr Marion Merklein’s research career is closely linked to the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU). There she studied materials science and obtained her doctorate, where she worked as a senior engineer and research group leader and completed her habilitation. At the age of just 34, Merklein received three offers for professorships from Germany and abroad, but once again decided in favour of FAU. Her Chair of Production Engineering is regarded as one of the leading international centres in its field with excellent contacts in science and industry.

Marion Merklein’s more than 600 research papers cover a wide range of topics, with her main interests being the design and optimisation of lightweight sheet metal constructions, hot sheet metal forming (press hardening) and sheet metal forming. In many cases, Merklein succeeds in bridging the gap between materials science and production technology, often addressing issues relevant to industrial applications.

The 50-year-old scientist has received numerous awards, including the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (2013) and the Bavarian Order of Merit (2018). She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences Leopodina, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the German Academy of Science and Engineering acatech. Marion Merklein also heads a company, Neue Materialien Fürth GmbH, a state research organisation that aims to transfer the findings of basic scientific work to industry.

Further information:

Armin Maiwald: Research until the doctor comes

AWARDED

Mit Medaille und Urkunde in der Bielefelder Stadthalle © David Ausserhofer

© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

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

“Research until the doctor comes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© FLASH Filmproduktion GmbH

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

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

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

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

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

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

© FLASH Filmproduktion GmbH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The award winner

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

Armin Maiwald © Flash

© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

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

Lorenz Oken Medaille © GDNÄE
Lorenz Oken Medaille © GDNÄE

© GDNÄ

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

Science in dialogue

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

Further information:
Armin Maiwald © Flash

© FLASH Filmproduktion GmbH

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

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© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

Armin Maiwald with fans after the award ceremony. 

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© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

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

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© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

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

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© David Ausserhofer / Wissenschaft im Dialog

Armin Maiwald at the award ceremony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wahlster © GDNÄE

© GDNÄ

Professor Wolfgang Wahlster

Zur Person

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

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.