"Inspiring young people for science"

18 Jul 2019

Chemistry Professor Lena Daumann is one of six female academics to win the Therese of Bavaria Prize this year. She studies rare earth elements, which are essential components of many things we handle daily – and vital nutrients for certain bacteria.

When Lena Daumann (35) learned that she had been awarded the Therese of Bavaria Prize, she was immensely pleased. “I am excited to have won an award that is named for a person with whom I can readily identify myself. Princess Therese of Bavaria travelled a great deal, was open-minded and was active in a variety of scientific societies – I find that very impressive,” she says.

As a young professor in Bioinorganic Chemistry, her own research is devoted to the class of elements known as rare earth elements (REEs). These are found in things as diverse as banknotes and LEDs, smartphones and MRI contrast agents. More recently it has emerged that REEs play an essential metabolic role in certain bacterial species. “My research is concerned with the isolation of REE-containing proteins from these bacteria, with the aim of understanding why nature selected these elements for use in specific biochemical transformations. I want to understand the role of these remarkable metals in biology from a chemist’s perspective,” she explains.

“Sometimes, a nudge is enough“ Daumann also has a passion for teaching. “We need young people that know how to collect and analyze data correctly, and how to communicate facts. It is so important to excite young people for science,” she says. It is also nice to see that attendance at my Bachelor and Master lectures actually riseduring the semester instead of falling off, she adds. “That gives me a lot of the energy back that I put into preparing a course.” In addition, she gives lectures for student teachers. Indeed, this is very important to her, as this audience will be responsible for educating future generations. She is also involved in a number of projects which enable her to pass on her knowledge directly to schools. In a project funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation as part of its program “Our Common Future”, she works with school students on finding new and greener methods for the recycling of REEs.

“I am really happy when young people I mentor go on to make something of themselves and are successful in their endeavors. Sometimes, a nudge is enough – for example, simply drawing the attention of a promising student to a talk or a course that might be rewarding for them,” Daumann points out. She did her PhD at the University of Queensland in Australia, and her supervisor there, Lawrie Gahan, was an important mentor for her and remains her role model in this respect. “I always had the feeling that he was genuinely interested in helping his mentees to be successful. When I ran into problems, I could always go to him, and he always provided honest feedback.”

On the road, like Therese of Bavaria One question that students often ask Lena Daumann, especially toward the end of their studies, is why she decided to pursue a career in science “I find the question difficult to answer, because I already decided I wanted to be a scientist when I was still in kindergarten. I saw myself as the typical absent-minded professor, white-haired and totally absorbed in their work – and it made no difference to me that I would probably not look anything like this typical stereotype! But I always wanted to do research, to figure out how things in nature work, and to train and work with young people. It’s also such a wonderful feeling to isolate a molecule or a protein that nobody had ever purified before!”

She intends to use the money that comes with her new award on a (long) weekend with her research group. “The plan is to go on a science retreat, during which we, as a group, can tackle a number of topics. My group has worked hard and been very supportive, and I would like to give something back.” When work permits, she likes to spend her time outdoors. She enjoys gardening, and has a little garden one just around the corner from the department in Grosshadern. And when she has a grant to write, she travels – just like Therese of Bavaria – and often than not, her destination is Australia. “This country has become a second home for me,” she says, before adding – with a view to the effects of air travel on the climate: “When I travel, I do my best to combine work with vacation time, and to find a way to compensate the CO2 emissions.”