Prizes for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers

13 Jul 2021

This year, six PhD students, and two postdoctoral researchers who have completed their Habilitation, have received prizes for excellent research. The awards are sponsored by the Munich University Association.

Habilitation Prizes 2021

After the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 | © picture-alliance/dpa/epa afp Kanter

Debates on religion after 9/11

Dr. Ulrich Schmiedel (Faculty of Protestant Theology) won a Habilitation Prize sponsored by the Munich University Association for his postdoctoral thesis entitled “Terror and Theology: The Discourse on Religion in the Decade After 9/11”.

With the events that took place on 11 September 2001, the issue of religion dramatically returned to the forefront of political and academic debates – albeit with decidedly negative connotations: Religion came to be viewed as an antiquated, fanatical, and potentially violent factor in human culture. Ulrich Schmiedel’s thesis demonstrates how, in the resulting debates on the role of religion, Western liberalism allowed itself to be drawn into an antagonistic position, which declared religion to be a catalyst of the “clash of civilizations”. He goes on to identify a fatal contradiction in this view of religion. He argues that the very fact that all forms of religious expression essentially refer to some absolute truth should preclude every religious creed from defining its particular ideas and practices as absolute in themselves – and that this in turn should protect them from such ideological fixation. Schmiedel’s work emphasizes the importance of methodological reflection on this basic concept, which all religions share. It also opens up integrative perspectives for Islamic and Christian theology and culture, as well as new possibilities for a coalitional and comparative political theology in contemporary pluralist societies, which would encourage equitable coexistence.

Dr. Ulrich Schmiedel is a Lecturer in Theology, Politics and Ethics in the School of Divinity at Edinburgh University.

Contributions to animal health and welfare

Prof. Dr. med. vet. Helen Louton (Faculty of Veterinary Science) receives the award for her Habilitation thesis entitled “Compilation, Application and Evaluation of Animal Welfare Indicators in the Context of the Rearing, Transport and Slaughter of Poultry”.

In order to properly evaluate and improve the conditions under which farmed animals are reared, reliable indicators of their health and welfare must be defined. Helen Louton’s Habilitation thesis explores this issue from a scientific point of view. On the basis of such indicators, she shows how current regulations in relation to rearing conditions and the transport of poultry can be modified to make them more appropriate for these species. The results described in this work, and in others published by the author, are amenable to practical implementation in veterinary medicine. They also constitute significant recommendations in the context of political efforts to amend the existing legislation on animal welfare.

Prof. Dr. med. vet. Helen Louton is Professor of Animal Health and Animal Welfare in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Science at the University of Rostock.

PhD Prizes 2021

Early forms of interdisciplinary cooperation

Caterina A. Schürch (Faculty of History and the Arts) receives a PhD Prize for her thesis on “The Quest for Fundamental Mechanisms of Physiology: Collaborations between Biology, Physics and Chemistry (1918-1939)”.

In her thesis, Caterina Schürch studied the emergence of a new branch of research, which became increasingly more prominent during the two decades following World War I. Its goal was to understand biological processes in terms of intracellular ‘mechanisms’. This task in turn required close collaboration between the classical fields of biology, chemistry and physics. Using approaches derived from the philosophy of science, Schürch analyzed the interactions between the three fields in the context of research specialisms such as sensory physiology, the study of hormones, chemical genetics and electrophysiology. She concludes that the specialists involved in these collaborations viewed each other as equals. She then goes on to argue that this mutual recognition explains the rapid rise of molecular biology – with its emphasis on physicochemical mechanisms – after 1945. The triumph of molecular biology did not constitute a revolution, she avers, as the necessary social and methodological conventions were already in place. In her study, Schürch also presents a general model for optimal interdisciplinary cooperation.

Caterina A. Schürch is now a research fellow in the History of Science section of the School of History at LMU. She has also been awarded an Early Postdoc Mobility Fellowship from Switzerland’s Nationalfonds, which she will take up in August 2021.

Expectation and effectiveness

Dr. Franziska Hünnekes (Faculty of Economics) receives a PhD Prize for her dissertation on “Expectations, Returns and the Macroeconomy”.

Franziska Hünneke’s thesis deals with two highly topical and politically relevant aspects of modern macroeconomic research. The first relates to the rates of return on foreign investments made by German firms; the other examines the role of expectations in determining the effectiveness of macroeconomic policy. Consequently, her study focuses on the extent to which expectations or ‘moods’ cause commercial enterprises to adjust production targets or pricing policies in ways that are out of tune with economic fundamentals – and on the impact of monetary policy upon such expectations. Part of Hünneke‘s dissertation has been published in the most prestigious journal in the field, the Journal of Monetary Economics.

Dr. Franziska Hünnekes is now a member of the Graduate Program at the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt, where she is involved in the preparation of briefing papers for the Bank’s Governing Council.

Natural bypass

Dr. med. Manuel Lasch (Faculty of Medicine) receives a PhD Prize for his thesis entitled “From Increased Shear Stress to the Recruitment of Leucocytes: Mechanistic Insights into Arteriogenesis”.

Cardiovascular disorders, such as acute coronary syndrome, stroke or obstruction of peripheral arteries, were already among the most prevalent causes of death worldwide long before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. As a rule, treatment of patients with severe atherosclerosis or vascular occlusions involves interventions such as stent implantations and bypass operations. However, cases have also been reported in which a natural bypass develops in the vicinity of an occlusion. This process is referred to as arteriogenesis. How the capacity for arteriogenesis is activated and which signaling pathways stimulate the growth of such a natural bypass are long-standing questions in the field. In his doctoral thesis, Manuel Lasch was able to show that, following the occlusion of a vessel in response to an enhanced mechanical stimulus (increased shear stress in the small collateral vessels), the cells actively release RNAs. These extracellular RNAs can then recruit immune cells, which secrete growth factors that act on the obstructed vessel. This process can then lead to the formation of a natural bypass. The results of Lasch’s project, which have been published in the highly regarded journal Blood, could provide the basis for the development of new approaches to the treatment of atherosclerosis.

Dr. med. Manuel Lasch is an Assistant Physician at the LMU Medical Center.

Microglia (cyan) that gather around deposits of proteins called plaques (red) and decompose them. The nuclei of microglia and nerve cells appear dark blue. | © Haass Lab/LMU

Alzheimer's: The role of immune cells in the brain

Dr. Samira Parhizkar (Faculty of Medicine) has been awarded the prize for the best doctoral dissertation for her PhD thesis entitled “Loss of TREM2 function increases amyloid seeding but reduces plaque-associated ApoE”.

It is estimated that some 1.6 million people in Germany alone suffer from various forms of dementia, primarily Alzheimer’s disease. Detailed knowledge of the molecular mechanisms that underlie the pathogenesis of the disorder is a prerequisite for the development of effective treatments that reduce the rate of progression of the disorder. In her doctoral dissertation, Samira Parhizkar focused on one aspect of Alzheimer‘s that has been largely neglected so far: What role do microglia – the brain’s immune cells – play in the development of the condition? Microglia are responsible for the detection, ingestion and destruction of damaged and dead cells, as well as extracellular material such as bacterial pathogens. Parhizkar’s work demonstrated that microglia have a protective function, as they recognize and degrade early forms of the pathological deposits known as plaques. In addition, they secrete a substance in the vicinity of newly seeded plaques, which inhibits their further growth and the release of toxic molecules that could otherwise damage nearby nerve cells. The findings may lead to the development of pharmacological agents that enhance the protective effects of immune cells in the brain. The paper has been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Dr. Samira Parhizkar is now a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (Missouri) where she continues to pursue her studies of the role of immune cells in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

The diversity of algal communities

Dr. Juliane Kretschmann (Faculty of Biology) receives a PhD Prize for her dissertation on “Diversity, Morphology, and Taxonomy of Selected Dinophytes”.

Dinoflagellates belong to the same lineage as algae, and are found in almost all freshwater and marine biotopes. Under favorable conditions, some dinoflagellate populations can expand at a rapid rate, giving rise to algal blooms, which are especially problematic if the species concerned produce toxins. For this reason, it is important to learn more about the composition of dinoflagellate communities and monitor changes in algal populations. In her PhD project, Juliane Kretschmann studied the taxonomy and morphology of a selection of dinoflagellates. More specifically, she clarified the taxonomic status of a dozen previously named dinoflagellates by means of ‘epitypification’ – no easy task in the case of micro-organisms that exhibit very few distinctive characters. Since the central aim of the project was to determine the basis for historical species names, Kretschmann had to collect her specimens from sites as close as possible to the type localities mentioned in the original species descriptions. In addition, she had to understand what led the authors of these descriptions to demarcate the species as they did. The important point here is that the recognition of true epitypes enables one to reliably identify a species. Moreover, epitypes are directly linked to living material – and therefore accessible for further ecological investigation and DNA sequencing. The resulting ecosystematic data are of considerable social importance. Kretschmann’s work has appeared in highly regarded scientific journals.

Dr. Juliane Kretschmann is now working as a postdoctoral researcher on the project “Diversity, Morphology and Taxonomy of Dinoflagellates in Bavaria” at LMU.

Hydrometeorology: The dynamics of extreme events

Dr. Benjamin Poschlod (Faculty of Geosciences) receives a PhD Prize for his thesis entitled “Using Regional Climate Models to Simulate Hydro-meteorological Processes over Europe”.

In an era of rapid climate change, climate modelling is of fundamental importance. In his dissertation, Benjamin Poschlod set out to analyze empirical datasets in the context of high-resolution models of regional climate, with a view to understanding the dynamics of selected hydro-meteorological processes on scales ranging from the local to the continental level. He focused on the impact of episodes of extremely high precipitation (on local to European scales) alone, or in combinations with other extreme events (‘compound events’) in which the effects of rainfall, snowmelt and soil moisture all play a role. Poschlod also included data in seasonal effects and the influence of temporal and spatial dynamics, such as the flow dynamics of river systems in Bavaria. In the course of the study, he made use of a uniquely diverse ensemble of climate models. This enabled him to obtain novel and statistically robust insights into the temporal and spatial dynamics, and variability of hydro-meteorologically extreme events. His findings will make it possible to provide more accurate forecasts of the impact of climate change on the incidence of extreme weather events. Furthermore, he established new methods for distinguishing the effects of climate variability from those attributable to climate change. His work has appeared in leading journals in his field.

Dr. Benjamin Poschlod worked as a postdoctoral researcher on the ClimEx II project in the Department of Geography at LMU, before joining the Research and Monitoring Division of the Berchtesgaden National Park in July 2021.

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