Research in far-away places

17 Jul 2023

They study the ashes of active volcanoes, monitor mosquito populations and go scuba diving by the moon to learn more about coral blooms. Here, academics tell us why their research takes them to far-away places.

Researchers across various disciplines give us an inside view of research projects that take them as far afield as Ghana and Japan.

In search of archeological evidence along the Nile

Prof. Julia Budka taking photos of a site in Sudan

Prof. Julia Budka

documenting a site in Sudan. | © Jose Manuel Alba Gomez / DiverseNile, LMU München

“Regrettably, Sudan’s presence in the media is currently restricted mainly to its status as a theater of war. Yet this wonderful country with its amazing people (the most hospitable people you could imagine!) and its rich legacy of archeological remains and historical monuments is also a paradise for archeological excavations. Compared to Egypt, for example, so much more still remains to be discovered in this country. Many questions about everyday life in past epochs but also about religious practices remain unclear. That is why Sudan is easily my favorite place to work.

We are currently working in a little-known region in northern Sudan, between the towns of Attab and Ferka. The great thing about this area is that we are investigating all kinds of finds covering a period of more than 8,000 years: from settlements, citadels, churches and cemeteries to rock art and simple artefact scatters. Our aim is to produce a biography of the landscape, documenting how the climate, terrain and river course interact with flora and fauna – and of course with humans and their activities. It is an ambitious search for evidence, but it has brought me to one of the most beautiful countries in the world.”

Prof. Dr. Julia Budka is Professor of Egyptian Archeology and Art History. In Sudan and Egypt, she is overseeing excavations for several projects, including the ERC project “DiverseNile”.

Japanese coral blooms by the light of the full moon

Prof. Annika Guse

with her Team in Okinawa, Japan. | © A. Guse

“I concern myself with symbioses between corals and algae. My working group normally investigates these complex relationships in the laboratory, using a symbiotic anemone as their model system. Once a year, however, we take a roughly three-week trip to Okinawa in Japan to verify our findings in the field. The moment when these creatures reproduce is of special interest, because it usually happens only once a year on a particular night when the moon is full.

Corals are rooted firmly in the seabed, and it is not easy for sperm and egg to find each other in the ocean. The cnidarians therefore coordinate their activities and all release their gametes into the water at the same time on one night in May or June. Since the moon phase plays an important part in orchestrating the timing, the ‘coral bloom’ is always bathed in the romantic light of the full moon. We do not yet fully understand how the corals manage to synchronize what they do not just to the day but to the precise hour. In our laboratory, we therefore seek to artificially reproduce the conditions by illuminating the anemones with blue LED light for a certain time. In nature, however, the phenomenon of coral procreation is vastly more spectacular.


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Since we do not yet know exactly how coral spawning works, we can predict the event only to within about six days before or after the full moon. Accordingly, we go out in a boat and, a couple of days before the actual full moon, collect coral colonies to take back to water tanks on land. These samples then give us a few hours’ warning so that we know the right night.

Snorkeling through the coral reef by the light of the full moon may sound very romantic. However, it can also be quite risky when typhoons barrel across Okinawa during the rainy season, or if you encounter poisonous sea snakes in the water.”

Prof. Dr. Annika Guse is a molecular cell biologist. Since the summer of 2022, she has been Professor and Chair of Quantitative Organismal Networks at the LMU Faculty of Biology.

Field trip to an active volcano

Dr. Corrado Cimarelli

in front of Sakurajima volcano | © C. Cimarelli

“In this photo I am standing in front of a 6 km tall ash plume at Sakurajima volcano (桜島, literally "Cherry Blossom Island”) in Kyushu, Japan. This volcano is permanently active and erupts explosively several times per week producing clouds of fine ash that engulf the nearby city of Kagoshima.

The island of Sakurajima became a peninsula during the 1914 Taisho eruption (named after the reign of Taisho emperor 1912-1926) after voluminous lava flows connected the volcano to the mainland. The volcano resumed its activity with more vigor in 1955 and since then it has been almost continuously erupting. Sakurajima therefore can be considered a “laboratory volcano” as volcanologists there can readily test monitoring instruments and eruptive models. Sakurajima is also famous for the frequent display of volcanic lightning produced during its explosions.

For these reasons, Sakurajima is one of the target volcanoes of my ERC Consolidator project “VOLTA” on volcanic lightning and the electrification of volcanic ash plumes. Models and theories of ash electrification and lightning generation developed at Sakurajima are now being applied to many other volcanoes of the world.”

Dr. Corrado Cimarelli is a geologist who researches volcanic lightning and, in particular, the electrification of volcanic ash plumes at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Interview with Corrado Cimarelli: “We are powerless in the face of natural forces”

Rediscovering the art and life of theater migrants in the 19th century

Prof. Berenika Szymanski-Düll


“My ERC research project T-MIGRANTS examines the migrations of theater professionals and its consequences in the 19th century – a century when theater was a mass medium and global mobility was a reality for many of its actors.

While such transnational lives left a large number of traces and sources, these are often as fragmented and widely dispersed as the lives of the actors themselves. It therefore takes a lot of effort and many field trips to put together relevant information, piece by piece.

To take just one example: Reconstructing the life and work of theater director Ryszard Ordyński (1878-1953) necessitated research in German-speaking Europe, but also in Poland, France, England and the USA, to name only the most important countries.

Berenika Szymanski-Düll tracked down this cigarette case in Warsaw. It tells of an important point in the life of director Ryszard Ordyński. | © B. Szymanski-Düll

This photo, which I took a few weeks ago at the Museum of Theater in Warsaw, shows a cigarette case which was a gift given by famous director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) to Ordyński, who oversaw guest performances of the former’s production of Sumurun from 4 January through 23 April 1912 in the USA. This fact barely gets a mention in the history books, as the tour is primarily associated with the name of the master himself.

The interesting thing about my find in Warsaw is that it contains valuable information about the US guest performances: Alongside details of the destinations and, hence, the venues (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston), the names of everyone in the ensemble who traveled to the USA with Ordyński are engraved on the case, along with Reinhardt’s kind word of thanks for the service rendered by his colleague of his colleague.”

Prof. Dr. Berenika Szymanski-Düll is Professor of Theater Studies with a strong focus on transnational theater history at LMU’s Institute for Theater Studies.

Monitoring mosquitoes to save lives

Dr. Günter Fröschl

(pictured at left) with his Ghanaian colleague Dr. Andreas Kudom. | © G. Fröschl

“I am an infectiologist, an expert in tropical medicine and a specialist in international public health. I lead the Teaching and Training Unit of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine at the LMU University Hospital. In the context of my teaching and project activities, I often travel abroad – for example, to Nepal and Ghana.

On top of the PhD and master’s courses, our program also includes shorter training modules. My team and I are especially proud of one of these: our advanced module Vector Biology and Control in Ghana. On this ten-day course, participants from around the globe learn how to catch mosquitoes at different life stages, how to distinguish between them, how to identify expressions of resistance and how to control a mosquito population. The course was developed in collaboration with one of my former doctoral students in Ghana, the insect expert Dr. Andreas Kudom.

It is a very important topic, because lots of children in countries like Ghana die of diseases – such as malaria – that are transmitted by mosquitoes. Yet this knowledge is also important to Europe, because mosquitoes that used to exist only in the Tropics are now encroaching on more and more regions here, too. This has to do with issues such as climate change and globalization.

Although I am increasingly seeing that expertise in tropical medicine relates not only to distant countries, I still always enjoy visiting our colleagues on Ghana’s Cape Coast for our course. The resultant dialogue is important to our collaboration with colleagues on other continents: Despite all the modern digital developments, nothing can replace personal contact.”

Dr. med. Günter Fröschl is a specialist in internal medicine, infectious diseases, tropical medicine and head of the Teaching & Training Unit as well as Board Member of the Center for International Health at the LMU University Hospital.

Plunging into hidden worlds

Prof. Gert Wörheide

diving in the underwater national park of Bunaken, Sulawesi, Indonesia. | © G. Wörheide

“I have been captivated by Indo-Pacific coral reefs since the early 1990s, when I did my first dives in the Red Sea as a student. The breathtaking diversity, especially among invertebrates, was utterly overwhelming and made a lasting impression on my academic career. I sensed a deep desire to learn more about these mesmerizing organisms about which we still know so little.

On our numerous expeditions to the coral reefs, we have repeatedly encountered hitherto unknown species. Every dive discovers new secrets and divulges a little bit more of this concealed world.

Yet the tropical coral reefs also face huge challenges, especially due to climate change. Through our research, we aim to contribute to a better understanding of these fascinating ecosystems and thus to the conservation of these unique habitats and their enormous diversity.”

Prof. Dr. Gert Wörheide researches the evolution and diversity of invertebrate animals, especially from coral reefs, and holds the Chair of Paleontology and Geobiology at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at LMU.

Interview mit Gert Wörheide: Die Regenwälder der Meere

Fieldwork on foot in the forests of the Philippines

(at right) accompanying experts on a hike through a 26-year-old reforestation area. | © C. Klapperich

“What will Philippine forests look like in the future? While reforestation projects are a ubiquitous feature of current climate policy debates, the question of what kind of trees to plant often takes a back seat. Although the Philippines is home to some 3,600 endemic tree species, reforestation projects over the past 70 years have focused mainly on a small number of non-native species – a trend in evidence throughout Southeast Asia.

Dr. Marlito Bande and Jimmy Pogosa of the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Environmental Management at Visayas State University are seeking to counter this trend, along with the narratives that indigenous tree species are ‘too complex’ and ‘grow too slowly’. For 30 years, they have been piecing together knowledge about endemic species and seeking to convince farmers and public authorities alike of their value by establishing reforestation areas such as the one in the picture, which was established in 1997.

My doctoral research project is devoted to these persuasion and communication practices and to the varying perspectives on Philippine tree species. From the vantage point of environmental anthropology, I examine which processes have led to the dominance of non-native tree species and what narratives, perspectives and practices continue to hinder the planting of indigenous species. To answer these questions, I conduct interviews with government agencies, attend workshops that share knowledge about endemic species and go walking with scientists through reforestation areas so that we can talk about both the past and the future of forests in the Philippines.”

Christopher Klapperich is an anthropologist and a member of the international doctoral program ‘Rethinking Environment’ at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

Trawling through theater archives and libraries from Hong Kong to Europe to the USA

Dr. Nic Leonhardt

in the Rare Book Collection, Chinese University of Hong Kong Library | © Shan Luk

“Academic work in an international environment has essentially been my bread and butter since I earned my doctorate as part of an international program. I deeply appreciate the dialogue I share with fellow researchers from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. Again and again, both my research activities and my duties as President of the International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centers of the Performing Arts (SIBMAS) take me to other countries.

To research my latest book on theater agents, I spent a lot of time in the USA and in Paris, but also at archives in the UK and Hungary. Only last month, I traveled to Hong Kong and was able to get to know the local theater libraries and archives – as well as visiting theaters, of course. Next year, SIBMAS’ anniversary conference will be held there.

My current research will take me to Iran. I am writing about an American impresaria and journalist who, under the rule of Reza Shah, helped develop the theater in Tehran and set up a ballet company, with which she toured extensively in the early 1950s. Given the ongoing unrest in Iran, it is not possible to conduct research in situ at the present time. Like everyone, I hope that the situation will calm down again soon. In the meantime, I am working with relevant repositories in France, the USA and the UK, and with the private estates of and interviews with her former dancers.”

PD Dr. phil Nic Leonhardt is a senior researcher and lecturer in theater studies. She is currently a fellow of the Käte Hamburger Research Center “Global Dis:Connect” in Munich, and President of the International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centers of the Performing Arts (SIBMAS).

Exploring and preserving cultural heritage worldwide

Prof. Nicola Lercari

documenting stucco decorations of a Hellenistic house at Heloros, Sicily, in 2022. | © N. Lercari

“During my career, I have conducted research at the intersection of humanities and computational sciences at various sites of cultural significance located in several countries. These include Heloros, a Greek site located on the Ionian shore of Sicily near Syracuse, Italy, Central Anatolia in Turkey (home of Çatalhöyük), the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California (site of Bodie), Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast in Northern California, and Palenque in the State of Chiapas, Southern Mexico.

Digital Cultural Heritage is an academic field that combines Cultural Heritage Studies, Conservation Science, Archaeology, Museology, Computer Science and Information Science. It creates new frameworks and methods to explore, understand, and protect the ancient world.

As a researcher in Digital Heritage, I have the privilege to travel to fascinating places, immerse myself in local cultures and traditions, and utilize the latest technologies, such as drone-based LiDAR and terrestrial laser scanning, to record archaeological and historic sites and collections of ancient artifacts.


Research at the interface between the humanities and computer science.

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Back at LMU, my team and I process the data using geospatial analysis and machine learning to create beautiful 3D visualizations and curated datasets that we share with the communities and people related to our case studies. Despite the excitement surrounding new digital and geospatial methods used in my research, the broader impact of my work is to improve the understanding, preservation, and sustainable use of cultural and material legacies from the past in many parts of the world.”

Prof. Dr. Nicola Lercari helds the Chair of Digital Heritage Studies at LMU. In his research he is using innovative technologiesto make the past visible.

Solving historical puzzles in Rome

Katharina Kainz

in front of the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome.

“The dream of one day being able to live and study in the Eternal City came true for me. For my doctoral thesis, I am doing research into the Wittelsbach family’s treasure trove of relics at the time of Duke Wilhelm V and Duke Maximilian I (1577–1651). The Munich dynasty went to great pains to acquire relics from all over Europe in order to establish a magnificent store of sacred articles. Diplomatic relations and the exercise of power in the Catholic church at the time of the Counter-Reformation had a major role to play. The counts were in contact with the popes and even received relics from them as gifts.

How sacred remains found their way to Bavarian churches is what I am researching at the Archivio Apostolico Vaticano and the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu. It is an incredible feeling to hold in your hands a letter that is around 430 years old and that probably no one before you has ever read. Working in the archives feels like something between panning for gold and working as a detective: You have to reconstruct historical events from individual fragments, which can be quite a brainteaser. The findings are not only put into writing, however: All correspondence and documents are also fed into a graph database, based on which it is possible to reconstruct the origins while also identifying who the most important people were in the acquisition of relics, what historical events influenced the emergence of the store of relics, and whether the collection focused specifically on certain aspects.”

Katharina Kainz studied art history and – funded by a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) research grant – traveled abroad for four months to research her doctoral thesis. After completing her stay in Rome, her work is now continuing in the archives of Bavaria, this time with the support of a scholarship from the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

Excavation of the new city of Assur

Prof. Karen Radner

on the excavation site in Iraq. | © Jens Rohde

“I often go to the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region of Iraq. I first visited it in 2010, when it still had the character of a sleepy little town in the mountains. Here and in the vicinity, I am researching the culture of ancient Assyria, once the political and cultural center of the world – and one of the first great powers in history.

Since 2010, Sulaymaniyah has changed a lot. It now has skyscrapers and luxury hotels. I still stay in the guesthouse of the Directorate of Antiquities: an old two-story mudbrick house with the bathroom and kitchen in separate buildings, located at the end of the old bazaar near the Grand Mosque. Over the years, I have made many memories in this house: a dinner party where the lovingly prepared fish found no takers among our Kurdish guests and we discreetly bought kebabs at the bazaar; long evenings in the yard with colleagues from Baghdad, playing the Iraqi version of dominoes, where a new rule was introduced every time you thought you were sure of a win; and, of course, spontaneous encounters with old friends I had assumed to be in Afghanistan or the Caucasus. I always like to come back. My excavation of the new city of Assur has only just begun.”

Prof. Dr. Karen Radner is Chair of Ancient History of the Near and Middle East

Interview with Karen Radner: "I do research, wherever I find m yself"

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