Number of the Month: Six

"This article was published in our October 2017 newsletter". Sign up here.

These days Alexander von Humboldt would be called a successful networker. During the first half of the nineteenth century, this German polymath travelled through Northern, Central and Southern America and from Europe all the way to the Chinese border with a view to broadening his knowledge. During his expeditions he became acquainted with other scientists from around the world. In his spirit, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundationawards its Alexander von Humboldt Professorship to as many as ten leading researchers each year. Providing 3.5 million euros in funding for researchers in theoretical disciplines and 5 million euros in funding for those conducting experimental research, it is Germany’s most highly-endowed research award.

The six researchers who were selected for the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship in 2017 are originally from the Netherlands, Israel, China, the USA and Germany. To take up the professorship, they left their previous research institutions and moved to the German universities that had nominated them. The most important criterion for nomination is that the candidates – regardless of their field – must be among the world’s leading researchers and must not already work in Germany.

From farm to big city

Biologist Peter Baumann on his farm in Missouri

All human beings age, but what exactly happens in our cells and how do they age? These are just two of the many questions that Professor Peter Baumann is keen to answer. A cytologist, he is one of the six Humboldt Professors in 2017. One important area of his research involves exploring how cancer comes about and how therapies to combat pathological cell growth could be developed. He describes himself and his colleagues as "the discoverers among biologists".

After winning the award, Peter Baumann moved from his own farm in Missouri to the city of Mainz, where he took up a post at Johannes Gutenberg University. After an absence of many years, the Humboldt Professorship thus brought him back to Germany.

"On a personal level, the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, in conjunction with Gutenberg University and the Institute of Molecular Biology, enabled me to return to Germany after 25 years abroad and to see my original homeland with completely new eyes. I think this will prove to be a very exciting and indeed productive period for me", says Baumann.

His career began in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth and then took him as a postgraduate to Great Britain, before he moved to the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City in the USA. In October he will begin conducting research at Mainz University’s Institute of Molecular Biology. Peter Baumann wants to help the institute become an international centre for basic biomedical research.

From Chicago to Leipzig

The philosopher James Conant in Chicago

Just like Alexander von Humboldt, Professor James Conant is interested in many different disciplines. At first he wanted to become a scientist, but then decided to study interdisciplinary philosophy. Today he is one of the best-known American philosophers. He likes to ask the world’s big questions: "If justice, decency and truth are not philosophical issues, I have no idea what the basic questions of philosophy are", explains Conant, who enjoys global renown for his research into philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Kant. In Leipzig he wants to combine the approaches of the German and American schools of philosophy.

To take up the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, Conant moved from the University of Chicago to Leipzig University. He already knows Germany, because he held the Leibniz Professorship in Leipzig in 2015. An expert in German and American philosophy, Conant’s goal is to establish a thriving exchange between Leipzig and Chicago. In Leipzig he will be the co-director of the Analytic German Idealism research centre (only in German).

Top-level researchers for German universities

Besides Conant and Baumann, the biologists Largus T. Angenent, Wolf Frommer and Jijie Chai have been appointed Humboldt Professors. The constitutional law scholar and political scientist Ran Hirschl is also among the award-winners. They come from universities in the USA, China and Canada and are now pursuing research in TübingenDüsseldorfCologne and Göttingen.

59 scientists have been called to German universities as Humboldt Professors since 2009.

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation promotes exchange between international and German scientists. Thanks in particular to the funding provided by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Federal Foreign Office (AA), the Humboldt Foundation gives top-class international researchers the chance to spend a period of time conducting research in Germany. This has given rise to a worldwide network of “Humboldtians”.