Thomas Boehm talks to us about his groundbreaking contributions to immune research, the amazing variety of immune solutions in nature, the role of fundamental research and the rocky path to the perfect kitchen.

Who are you and what is your profession?

I am a physician and now work as a scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics.

What are you researching at the moment?

We are interested in the events that could have led to the development of the distinctive form of the immune system in vertebrates. It is a puzzle in which we try to deduce the possible original form from the characteristics of representative specimens living today.

Can you describe your workplace in two words?

Interesting, exciting.

What tools do you use to organise your ideas?

In a now somewhat tattered notebook, and an ever-growing card index.

What role does fundamental research play in combating very acute diseases such as COVID-19?

Fundamental research is not goal-oriented per se, which is why it is particularly valuable when it comes to tackling unexpected problems. You never know which findings from the social or life sciences, or from the natural and engineering sciences, will suddenly become relevant for application.

To what paradigm shift in immunology has your research contributed?

The most important insight gained in recent years is the enormous variety of solutions that nature has found to the problem of maintaining physical integrity through immune defence. What would lead to fatal immune deficiency in one species has been the starting point for the development of entirely new forms of life and reproduction in others. Nature thus offers the physician an unexpectedly rich selection of possible therapeutic approaches for the alleviation of immunological diseases.

Which finding surprised you the most?

The astonishing molecular diversity while preserving the same design principles of immune defence.

Is there a takeaway from the pandemic that you would like to share? 

It has become apparent that the process of gaining knowledge in science is not very familiar to the public. The perpetual search for provable facts and the constant revision of the state of knowledge that this requires appears to many outside of science as a sign of insufficiency, whereas this process is precisely the strength of the search for the best possible explanation of the world.

Which newsletter(s) have you subscribed to? / What are you currently reading?

Orlando Figes: “The Europeans” and, thus rediscovered, Pauline Viardot-Garcia.

Tell us a fun or unknown fact about you!

I carpenter and build kitchens; but every time there is something else that goes wrong.

In the future, you would like to…

create the perfect kitchen.

What is your favourite spot in Berlin?

I am there too seldom to have already found a favourite place.

PS: What is the most delicious thing you ate this week?

Fried eggplant with yoghurt sauce (borani banjan).


The world-renowned immunologist professor Thomas Boehm has researched how the immune system of vertebrates has evolved, how it establishes itself over the course of our lives and even how it affects our choice of partner. In doing so, he has repeatedly made important and surprising discoveries that reach far beyond immunology. For his groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of the evolution of the immune system in vertebrates he received the Heinrich Wieland Prize 2021.

He has presented his work at the event [GER] Hoffnungsträger Immunforschung – Eine Perspektive für den verwundbaren Menschen?, which was organized by the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation and took place on 2 Nov 2021 at Berlin Science Week.


The Heinrich Wieland Prize

The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation awards the Heinrich Wieland Prize to outstanding scientists worldwide for their pioneering research on biologically active molecules and systems in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, and physiology as well as their clinical importance. The award, which is endowed with 100,000 Euros, is named after the chemist and Nobel laureate Heinrich Otto Wieland (1877-1957) and has been awarded annually since 1964. Among the laureates, who are selected by a scientific board of trustees, are four future Nobel laureates. The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation has been awarding the prize since 2011.


The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation

The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation is a legally independent, non-profit foundation that promotes medical, biological, chemical and pharmaceutical science. It was established in 1977 by Hubertus Liebrecht, a member of the family of shareholders of the Boehringer Ingelheim company. With its Perspectives Programme Plus 3 and the Exploration Grants, it supports excellent independent junior research groups throughout Germany. It also endows the international Heinrich Wieland Prize as well as awards for up-and-coming scientists and supports institutional projects such as the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB), the life sciences at the University of Mainz, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg.