News about our fellows and alumni

Would you like to find out what is going on around the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds (BIF) network? Here, you will find news about major awards, grants, and appointments, for example. In the print version of the BIF’s Futura journal, you will find a larger selection of news items.

Did you receive an award? Have you been selected as a new member of the EMBO? Or have you changed positions? Please let us know.

2022 News

As of 1 July 2022, Dr Stephan Formella and Marc Wittstock have taken over the helm of the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds, Foundation for basic research in medicine (BIF) from Dr Claudia Walther. The two new managing directors split the responsibilities: Dr Stephan Formella is the Managing Director Science & Research and Marc Wittstock is the Managing Director Finance & Administration. In this constellation, they have already been working for one of BIF’s sister foundations, the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation (BIS), since the middle of 2020.

Claudia Walther, herself an alumna of BIF’s PhD fellowship programme, has been with BIF for 23 years, 14 of those as its managing director. During this time, she has most successfully developed the BIF and its excellency programmes further and has played a decisive role in its professionalization. Moreover, her extensive scientific expertise together with her great personal dedication to the needs and interests of BIF’s fellows, have ensured that despite of BIF’s steady growth, the personal contact and the individual support of its young talents have always remained at the core of BIF.

Since July 2020, Stephan Formella has been Managing Director Science & Research of the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation (BIS). Before joining the foundation sector, the physician and pharmacologist has successfully served in different positions in global development and medicine at the Boehringer Ingelheim company, most recently as group leader in translational medicine.

Marc Wittstock has been Managing Director Finance & Administration of the BIS since May 2020. He spent the first 10 years of his career in banking, being a certified bank clerk and having obtained a degree in economics. He then joined the Boehringer Ingelheim company, where he worked some 13 successful years in Finance & Controlling, among other things being responsible for external accounting. Most recently, he was Head of Corporate Treasury.

During the transition phase, the three managing directors have together planned and led several BIF seminars and conferences. During these, Stephan Formella and Marc Wittstock have become familiar with – and learned to greatly appreciate – the special, stimulating, and trustful atmosphere of BIF. They are committed to continuing and further developing BIF’s programmes. And they are very much looking forward to fostering outstanding research and to seeing the lively network of stipend holders and alumni grow further from its by now 1,700 fellows.

The DFG (German Research Foundation) has accepted BIF fellows Michael Breckwoldt and Magdalene Schlesiger into its prestigious Emmy Noether group leadership programme. Michael wants to develop imaging methods and corresponding biomarkers to visualize and understand how invasive gliomas infiltrate the brain and how they react to different treatments. The title of his project is “Translational multimodality imaging of glioma hallmarks to assess the dynamics of the immune cell landscape and tumor cell invasion during targeted therapy”. Magdalene wants to characterize the neuronal signature of long-term memory formation in the lateral entorhinal cortex and to examine how the hippocampus and the ventral tegmental area interact to build long-term memory traces.

Micheal Breckwoldt, Heidelberg University Hospital, Heidelberg, Germany, Fellowship: 2006–2007

Magdalene Schlesiger, Heidelberg University, Germany, Fellowship: 2011–2014

Matilde Galli has received an ERC Starting Grant for her project “Timing cell cycles in multicellular development”. She will study nematodes to investigate how their cells change their division patterns during development. She wants to map changes in gene activity and identify the molecules driving the changes as well as implement a new imaging platform to visualize and manipulate cell divisions in the gut in real time.

Matilde Galli, Hubrecht Institute, Utrecht, The Netherlands, Fellowhip: 2008–2010

2021 News

Kristin Tessmar-Raible and Karsten Weis have been elected as members of the European Organization for Molecular Biology (EMBO). Kristin Tessmar-Raible wants to understand the molecular calendars that control how the behaviour and physiology of animals react to cues other than sunlight, such as seasons, tides, and phases of the moon. Karsten studies how the nucleus is organized, how material is transported across its membrane as well mRNA, transport, degradation and mRNA phase separation.

In 2021, 64 outstanding life scientists working in 21 different countries have been elected to the EMBO membership, joining the community of more than 1,800 leading life scientist.

Professor Kristin Tessmar-Raible, University of Vienna, Austria, Fellowship: 2001–2003

Professor Karsten Weis, ETH Zurich, Switzerland, Fellowship: 1993–1995

Yohanns Bellaïche has received an ERC Advanced Grant for his project "Scaling-Sensitivity", aiming to study the developmental scaling of cell mechanosensitivity in epithelial tissues. All biological systems have to scale their organization and processes, such as physiology, gene expression, cell cycle etc., to their size. Yohanns will use recent developments in mechanical detection to understand how the cells regulate and sense cell size in epithelial tissues. They will look at different scales from the cytoskeleton to tissues as well as their changes over time from seconds to hours.

Yohanns Bellaïche, Institut Curie, Paris, France, Fellowhip: 1985–1989

Johannes has been named as fellow of the Royal Society New South Wales, Australia. This recognises his significant and valued contributions to food science and the translation of his work from academia to industry.

Prof. Johannes Le Coutre, University of New South Wales, New South Wales, Australia, Fellowship: 1992–1995

2020 News

Frauke Gräter and Christine Selhuber-Unkel have each been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant: Frauke wants to find out how proteins are designed to withstand mechanical forces. Such stress is known to rupture chemical bonds, producing so-called mechanoradicals. Frauke will study whether such radicals influence the ageing of collagen in our body. As of 2021, she also takes on the position as Scientific Director of the HITS for two years, a rotating position as well as join the Editorial Board of “Biophysical Journal.”

Christine’s project “Photomechanical writing of cell functions” (PHOTOMECH) aims at regulating cell functions through external physical forces. To this end, she combines photoswitchable materials with a complex optical system that uses intensive laser light pulses. This laser is intended to be used as a “pen” to write cell functions in three dimensions and to enable the growth of cell tissues. This is already her fifth ERC grant.

Professor Frauke Gräter, Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) and Heidelberg University, Germany, Fellowship: 2002–2005

Professor Selhuber-Unkel, Institute for Molecular Systems Engineering (IMSE), Heidelberg University, Germany, Fellowship: 2004–2006

Detlef Weigel leads a team from Germany, France, and the US that has been awarded one of the prestigious and highly competitive ERC Synergy Grants for the project PATHOCOM. They will use the 10 million euros to discover how pathogens team up to cause disease. They will study how frequent different types of interactions between microbes are, and how ecology and genetics alter them. The team will infect Arabidopsis thaliana plants with almost 200.000 combinations of pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacterial strains, and measure who is helped by co-infection and who is not.

Detlef has also been awarded the 2020 Novozymes Prize, endowed with 3 million Danish kroner (approx. 400,000 euros) by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The prize recognizes the outstanding research he has undertaken throughout his career, which has advanced plant research and spurred the development of innovative biotechnological solutions to breed improved crops and feed the world.

Professor Detlef Weigel, MPI for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany, Fellowship: 1987–1988

Our MD programme alumnus Leif S. Ludwig has been awarded an Emmy Noether Group leader fellowship by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG – German Research Foundation) to study stem cell dynamics and mitochondrial genetics in hematopoiesis. His group is one of four junior research groups forming the Focus Area for 'Single cell approaches for personalized medicine’ jointly supported by the BIMSB/Max Delbrueck Center (MDC) and the BIH/Charité to bring state-of-the-art single cell multi-omic technologies into clinical application.

Leif Ludwig, MD, Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and Berlin Institute of Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB), Berlin, Germany, Fellowship: 2011–2012

Two BIF fellows have received prestigious ERC Starting Grants worth 1.5 million euros: Maria Hondele will use hers to investigate how certain non-membrane bound organelles assemble and function, selectively accumulate macromolecules, and control the fate of messenger RNAs.

Oleg Simakov will investigate and characterize modes of genome evolution during major transitions in animal evolution on multiple levels of genome organization. He will focus particularly on the enigmatic clades of cephalopods using the emerging model organism Euprymna scolopes (the Hawaiian bobtail squid).

Professor Maria Hondele, University of Geneva, Switzerland, Fellowship: 2008–2011

Assist. Professor Oleg Simakov, University of Vienna, Austria, Fellowship: 2008–2011

Our board member Andreas Barner has received the highest distinction bestowed by the German government for services to society:
the Federal Cross of Merit, First Class. It honours his outstanding contributions to the business community and science. When presenting the award, Malu Dreyer, minister president of Rhineland-Palatinate, emphasized Barner’s energy and unwavering support for young researchers.

Professor Andreas Barner, C.H. Boehringer Sohn AG & Co. KG, Ingelheim am Rhein, Chairman of BIF's Executive Board

Simon Elsässer has received a Proof-of-Concept Grant worth 150,000 euros from the ERC for his project “Highly Multiplexed, Quantitative Epigenetic Profiling”. These grants allow researchers to explore the commercial potential of work they have done as part of a previous ERC grant. Simon has also been accepted into the 7th Generation of Future Research Leaders, a programme funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research. Providing 12 million Swedish kronor (approx. 1.16 million euros) over a period of five years, it supports and promotes young scholars who have the aptitude to become future leaders of academic and/or industrial research in Sweden.

Professor Simon Elsässer, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, Fellowship: 2008–2010

Sarah Teichmann has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the UK’s most prestigious scientific organisation. The fellowship recognises her outstanding contribution to scientific understanding, through computational biology and genomics. This includes her role as co-founder and co-leader of the international Human Cell Atlas consortium initiative to map every cell type in the human body.

She has also been honoured in the 2020 Biochemical Society Awards, with the GlaxoSmithKline prize 2020. She is one of of 12 eminent scientists and exceptional early career researchers who have been chosen based on nominations from their peers, to celebrate their excellence and research achievements.

Sarah Teichmann, Wellcome Sanger Institute, Hinxton, UK, Fellowship: 1997–1999

Three BIF alumni are among the 185 researchers receiving ERC Advanced Grant worth up to 3.5 million euros in the 12th call of this funding scheme. Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said at the announcement: “By supporting frontier research, the EU enables our brightest scientists to push the frontiers of knowledge for the long-term benefit of all".

With his project “SynapsBuild: Mechanisms of Presynaptic Biogenesis and Dynamic Remodeling” Volker Haucke wants to analyse human nerve cells to understand, how presynaptic vesicles and their precursors are formed and mature, how they are transported and assembled and last but not least how these processes are coordinated and regulated. Besides the ERC Advanced Grant, Volker has also been awarded the 2020 Feldberg Prize by the Feldberg Foundation. The foundation wants to promote anglo-german scientific exchange in the sphere of experimental medical research and therefore awards the prize yearly to one outstanding researchers residing in German and to one in the UK.

With his project “BrainRedesign: Redesigning brain circuits in development” Rüdiger Klein wants to understand how the amygdala helps us to learn by attaching positive or negative emotions to events and objects. He will use so-called guidance molecules to change how the neurons in the amygdala of mice connect during development. These leads to reorganized circuits, thereby transforming the innate and learned emotional behaviour of the mice.

In his project “MultiOrganelle Design: Multiple Designer Organelles for Expanded Eukaryotic life“, Edward Lemke uses designer organelles in cells engineered to have effectively two genetic codes to study so-called intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs). These abundant proteins are very difficult to study due to their flexible and dynamic structure. The two genetic codes allow the researchers to incorporate fluorescent groups at specific locations in proteins. They can thus label proteins at multiple specific sites to visualize and study conformational changes of IDPs at unprecedented resolution without altering the host physiology of the cell.

Professor Volker Haucke, Director at Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP), Berlin, Germany, Fellowship: 1994–1997

Professor Rüdiger Klein, Director at Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Martinsried, Germany, Fellowship: 1988–1990

Professor Edward Lemke, Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB), Mainz, Germany, Fellowship: 2003–2005

The ERC has awarded two Proof of Concept (PoC) grants to BIF fellows. PoC grants are follow-up grants to verify the innovation potential of ideas arising from ERC-funded projects and bring the research results to a pre-demonstration stage. Yohanns Bellaïche will develop a computer algorithm that will teach itself to recognize when a biological phenomenon is about to occur in a sample observed via microscope. The programme can then adapt how images are taken, for example, by zooming in or taking more images per time. In his previous work funded by the ERC, Yohanns has already developed this type of “deep learning” programme to track and understand cell and tissue dynamics. The new project will widen the field of applicability to other phenomena. Christine Selhuber-Unkel has already been granted her third PoC grant in as many years. She will build synthetic blood vessel grafts that mimic natural vessels in the way they stiffen under pressure. They will be build from a material she has developed with her previous PoC grant.

Yohanns Bellaïche, Institut Curie, Paris, France, Fellowship: 1995–1998

Professor Christine Selhuber-Unkel, University of Kiel, Germany, Fellowship: 2004–2006

2019 News

Bernd Bodenmiller and Marc Erhardt-Singer have both received an ERC Consolidator Award. Bernd wants to develop novel approaches that comprehensively capture tumour complexity and support precision medicine by developing new technologies and computer-aided methods that rationalize this complexity and describe tissues akin to social networks. Marc is aiming to use the grant of up to two million euros to reconstruct the coordinated self-assembly of a bacterial nanomachine, namely the bacterial flagellum.

Professor Bernd Bodenmiller, University of Zurich, Switzerland, Fellowship: 2005–2007

Professor Marc Erhardt-Singer, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, Fellowship 2007–2010

Volker Hauke has been elected as member of the Academia Europaea in the section Cell & Developmental Biology. He is one of 324 international scholars who have been thus honoured this year.

Professor Volker Hauke, Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) in Berlin, Germany, Fellowship: 1994–1997

Katharina Sonnen has received an ERC Starting Grant for her project "Signalling dynamics in the control of cell proliferation and differentiation during development and homeostasis". She and her team will use a comprehensive toolset including advanced light microscopy, perfusion chambers, and in vitro cultures of embryos and mini-organs in the dish to reveal how cells communicate with each other via signalling dynamics to ensure proper development and tissue homeostasis.

Katharina Sonnen, Hubrecht Institute, Utrecht, The Netherlands, Fellowship: 2008–2010

Marc Lemoine has received the Wilhelm P. Winterstein Award of the German Heart Foundation (Deutsche Herzstiftung) for his part in finding a new molecular mechanism causing hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and a way to treat patients who carry the specific gene variant responsible.

Marc Lemoine, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany, MD-Fellow: 2010

Ludger Johannes has been elected as member of the Leopoldina, Germany’s National Science Academy. He has joined the Genetics/Molecular Biology and Cell Biology section. Leopoldina is the world’s oldest academy involved in natural sciences; its members are distinguished scientists from all over the world.

Professor Ludger Johannes, Institut Curie, Paris, France, Fellowship: 1993–1995

Sebastian Bonhoeffer, Ivan Dikic, and Detlef Weigel have been elected as members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, AAAS. To be so honoured, individuals have to show compelling achievements in academia, business, government, and public affairs. “With the election of these members, the Academy upholds the ideals of research and scholarship, creativity and imagination, intellectual exchange and civil discourse, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge in all its forms,” said David W. Oxtoby, President of the AAAS. All three are members of the same class, the biological sciences, but in different sections: while Sebastian and Detlef have been elected into section 2 (Cellular and Developmental Biology, Microbiology, and Immunology) and 4 (Evolutionary and Population Biology and Ecology) respectively, Ivan is elected as an intersectional member. Among the new members is also former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Professor Sebastian Bonhoeffer, ETH Zurich, Institute of Integrative Biology, Zurich, Switzerland, Fellowship: 1992-1995

Professor Ivan Dikic, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany, Postdoctoral Award: 1997

Professor Detlef Weigel, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany, Fellowship: 1987–1988

Anne Eichmann has received an ERC Advanced Grant for her project “Targeting endothelial barriers to combat disease”. The 11th call had a success rate of below 11 percent with 222 grants of altogether 450 million euros going to scientists across Europe. The grants of up to 3.5 million euros will not only enable top researchers to execute their best ideas at the scientific frontiers, but could create up to 2,000 jobs for postdocs, PhD students, and other staff in the grantees' research teams.

Professor Anne Eichmann, Yale University, MA, USA and National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), Paris, France, Fellowship: 1990-1992

The Scailyte AG, co-founded and headed by Peter Nestorov, has been listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the Top 30 most promising start-ups in the Germany-Austria-Switzerland region developing machine learning technology. The company specializes in the analysis of single-cell data with the aim to accelerate biomedical research and to enable the discovery of novel biomarkers for precision medicine. The spin-off from the ETH Zurich was only founded in June 2017 and has already raised 2.75 million Swiss Francs in seed-funding.

Pester Nestorov, Scailyte AG, Luzern, Switzerland, Fellowship: 2010-2012

Research project highlights the high quality of work done by foundations

Mainz, Germany, 30 Jan 2019: For the third time, the Centre for Social Investment (CSI) at Heidelberg University has analysed the work of non-profit foundations. Among the eight participants of the 2017/2018 study were the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds (BIF), the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU, German Federal Environmental Foundation), and the Volkswagen Foundation.

Through an online survey, the study systematically evaluated the cooperation and the relationship between foundations and their partners (applicants, grantees, and others). The partners were asked to give feedback about their level of satisfaction with the work of “their” foundation and about topics such as administration, capacity building, and the general perception of the foundation. The study shows that the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds is perceived as a renowned organization that is reliable and has high standards and that it “obtains high levels of satisfaction among its partners”. Furthermore, the BIF’s “purposeful and customized supportive programmes” are rated as highly beneficial for academic careers.

The BIF does not intend to rest on its laurels: It will use the feedback from the study to further optimise its programmes and processes.

Executive summary in English as a download

Link to further information from the CSI about the study and the participating foundations

Mareike Albert has been selected as a fellow of the Emmy Noether Programme of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation). She started her new group “Gene regulatory mechanisms of neocortex evolution” in January 2019 at the Center for Regenerative Therapies (CRTD) at TU Dresden. The group wants to develop in vivo epigenome editing tools to study which role epigenetic mechanisms play in neocortex development. The group also wants to find gene regulatory regions that have contributed to human brain evolution and investigate the role of non-coding genetic variants in neurodevelopmental diseases.

Mareike Albert, Technical University Dresden, Germany, Fellowship: 2005–2007

2018 News

Kristin Tessmar-Raible has received an ERC Consolidator Grant worth about two million euros to study the mechanics marine organisms use to establish monthly rhythms based on the moon cycles. She will use the grant to investigate how the highly variable natural environmental conditions compare with those in the laboratory and to identify key molecules responsible for establishing and upholding the circalunar clock of organisms such as the bristle worm Platynereis dumerilii and the midge Clunio marinus.

Professor Kristin Tessmar-Raible, University of Vienna, Austria, Fellowship: 2001-2003

Christoph Thaiss has been named the 2018 Grand Prize winner of the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists for his work implicating the microbiome in three phenomena associated with human obesity – the disruption of the biological clock, recurrent weight gain, and enhanced susceptibility to infection. Thaiss and his team discovered that specific molecules produced by intestinal bacteria are altered by these factors and influence disease development.

The 30,000-dollar prize recognizes promising early-career scientists who conduct ground-breaking lifescience research. It is supported by SciLifeLab (Science for Life Laboratory), a national centre for advanced molecular life sciences in Sweden, by the Science journal, and by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Professor Christoph Thaiss, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA, Fellowship: 2013-2015

Together with three other researchers from Heidelberg, Michael Boutros has been awarded an ERC Synergy Grant worth 10.6 million euros for six years to decode the interplay of the wiring diagrams of gene activity not just for a single cell, but also for complex tissues in Arabidopsis and Drosophila. This type of ERC grant was reintroduced 2018, and only 10% of the proposals were successful. As Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the ERC, commented: “The selected projects represent truly daring ideas put forward by some of Europe’s top scientists.”

Professor Michael Boutros, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany, Fellowship: 1997-1999