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The Transformative Effect of Science – A Joint Event of the Berlin University Alliance and the European Research Council

Berlin University Alliance, European Research Council | Maria Leptin, Sabine Kunst, Jan-Martin Wiarda, Susanne Schreiber, Matthias Rillig, Begüm Demir, Surjo Soekadar


Since the start of the Scientific Revolution nearly five centuries ago our understanding of the world and our ability to manipulate it have massively increased. This has led to huge improvements in our capacity to harness energy, produce material goods, fight diseases and feed a rapidly growing population. Life expectancy and quality of life have greatly increased in many places and we have newfound abilities to travel and communicate across the world unimaginable to our ancestors.

But at the same time, this unprecedented growth has resulted in the destruction of ecosystems, resource depletion and pollution, the breakdown of traditional communities, as well as the emergence of existential risks such as global warming and the possibility of nuclear war. The question of how science is related to technology, innovation, practical application and growth is therefore central to addressing the many societal challenges that we face and to creating a sustainable future.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. Sabine Kunst, President of the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and spokesperson for the Berlin University Alliance (BUA), warmly welcomes Prof. Dr. Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council (ERC), to Berlin. For Maria Leptin, who took up her post on November 1, 2021, it will be her first visit to the German capital in her new role. She will provide insight into her ideas for the ERC, explain why basic research is essential for research and how it contributes to the transformation of research and society. ERC grantees from the four network partners will present how their projects have a transformative effect:

Prof. Dr. Matthias Rillig Prof. Dr. Matthias Rillig has been researching and teaching as professor for plant ecology at the Free University of Berlin since 2007. He introduces what what happens to soil and its biodiversity under the influence of multiple factors of global change.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Schreiber has headed the Computational Neurophysiology research group at the Institute for Biology at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin since 2009. Her ERCProject focuses on neuronal action potentials in the brain and whether “homoclinic spike generators” could revolutionize our understanding of how signal transmission in the brain with its neural networks works.

Prof. Dr. Begüm Demir heads the Remote Sensing Image Analysis (RSiM) and the Big Data Analytics for Earth Observation groups at Technische Universität Berlin. In her ERC Starting Grant, she investigates how the wealth of information provided by countless images from remote sensing satellites can be optimally used to revolutionise the understanding of our earth.

Prof. Dr. med. Surjo Soekadar took up the first German professorship for clinical neurotechnology at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in 2018. It shows the transformative potential that can be found in the combination of highly developed technologies such as human-machine interfaces and transcranial magnetic / electrical stimulation for patients with severe central nervous impairments.



This event can be attended digitally via livestream or for invited guests at the Museum of Natural History.

Livestream: Shortly before the event begins, the stream will be made available on this site. Add the event to your favourites and receive a reminder via email.

Maria Leptin

European Research Council

Professor Maria Leptin has been appointed President of the European Research Council as from 1 November 2021.

Prior to that, Professor Leptin served as Director of EMBO from 2010-2021. She also established a research group in Heidelberg at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The group studies the mechanics of shape determination during development.

After completing her studies in mathematics and biology at the University of Bonn and the University of Heidelberg, Professor Leptin worked for her PhD at the Basel Institute for Immunology, Switzerland (1979-1983) studying B-lymphocyte activation under the supervision of Fritz Melchers.

In 1984 she moved, as a post-doctoral fellow (1984-1987) to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), Cambridge, UK, where she started her research on the embryonic development of Drosophila, joining the laboratory of Michael Wilcox. This work laid the foundations for her future work in the field of molecular morphogenesis. In 1988, she was appointed as staff scientist at the same institution. As visiting scientists in Pat O’Farrell’s lab at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) she began her work on gastrulation which became the core of her research interests at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, where she worked as group leader (1989-1994).

In 1994, Maria Leptin became Professor at the Institute of Genetics, University of Cologne, Germany, where she still leads a research group. She spent sabbaticals as a visiting Professor at the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France (2001) and as visiting scientist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Hinxton, UK (2004-2005).

Professor Leptin is an elected member of EMBO, the Academia Europaea and the German National Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina), and an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Sabine Kunst


Prof. Dr. Sabine Kunst has been President of the Humboldt University of Berlin since May 2016 and is currently also the spokesperson for the Berlin University Alliance (BUA). Prior to that, she was Minister for Science, Research and Culture in Brandenburg since February 2011. Before she was appointed Minister, she was President of the University of Potsdam from January 2007 to February 2011, and President of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) from 2010 to 2011. Before that, she was a university lecturer and scientist and held various managerial positions at the University of Hanover, including Director of International Affairs and Vice President for Teaching, Studies and Further Education.

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Moderator Dr Jan-Martin Wiarda, born in 1976, is a freelance journalist and blogger for education and science. From January 2013 to July 2015, he was Head of Communications and Media and Press Spokesperson of the Helmholtz Association. From 2004 to 2012, Wiarda was editor and most recently deputy head of the education department “Chancen” of the weekly newspaper “DIE ZEIT”. He studied political science, economics and sociology in Munich, attended the German School of Journalism there and then transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,USA, where he continued his journalism studies.

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Susanne Schreiber is an Einstein professor for Theoretical Neurophysiology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin who applies mathematical approaches to neurobiological questions. Trained as a biophysicist at HU, she entered the field of neuroscience during her Diploma thesis at the University of Cambridge, UK, and spent the first half of her PhD at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, US. The Bernstein Award for Computational Neuroscience in 2008 enabled her to found her own lab at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her interests are focussed on the principles of neural computation combining biophysics with an evolutionary perspective.

Schreiber chairs the national Bernstein Network for Computational Neuroscience (since 2018) and was elected Vice Chair of the German Ethics Council in 2020. She recently received an ERC Consolidator Grant to investigate the generation of different types of electrical pulses in the brain.

Matthias Rillig is a professor of ecology at the Institute of Biology of Freie Universität Berlin and director of the Berlin-Brandenburg Institute of Advanced Biodiversity Research (BBIB). His work currently focuses on effects of microplastics in terrestrial ecosystems, and on understanding the joint impacts of multiple global change drivers. His team’s research explores the effects of factors of global environmental change on soils, including its functions and biodiversity.

After studying biology at Universität Kaiserslautern and Edinburgh, he earned his PhD in Ecology from University of California Davis/ San Diego State University, and after a postdoc at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford, he was professor of microbial ecology at University of Montana, Missoula for 9 years.

Begüm Demir is a Professor and the founder head of the Remote Sensing Image Analysis (RSiM) group at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, TU Berlin and the head of the Big Data Analytics for Earth Observation group at the Berlin Institute for the Foundations of Learning and Data (BIFOLD). She performs research in the field of processing and analysis of large-scale Earth observation data acquired by airborne and satellite-borne systems. She was awarded the prestigious ‘2018 Early Career Award’ by the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society for her research contributions in machine learning for information retrieval in remote sensing. In 2018, she received a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for her project “BigEarth: Accurate and Scalable Processing of Big Data in Earth Observation”. She is an IEEE Senior Member and Fellow of European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS).

Surjo Soekadar

Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Surjo R. Soekadar, MD, is Einstein Professor of Clinical Neurotechnology and head of the Center for Translational Neuromodulation at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. He and his team demonstrated for the first time that a noninvasive brain-hand-exoskeleton can enable quadriplegic people with complete finger paralysis to eat and drink independently in an outside restaurant. For his work, Dr. Soekadar received various international prizes, such as the international BCI research award and NARSAD as well as BioMag Young Investigator Awards.

Brain disorders, such as depression, anxiety or attention deficit disorder affect hundreds of million people worldwide. Due to the lack of effective treatments, these disorders often impede quality of life for many years or even decades. In his ERC-funded project, Surjo Soekadar and his team aim at developing the next-generation brain/neural-machine interfaces (NGBMI) that capitalize on the brain’s capability to reorganize and recover. After showing how brain-computer interfaces can impact quality of life in severe paralysis, Soekadar explains how the latest advances in neurotechnology may soon revolutionize how we tackle brain disorders, but also require implementation of neuroethical guidelines and neurorights to safeguard their beneficial societal impact.

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About the Venue
Berlin Science Week Campus – Museum für Naturkunde Berlin
Invalidenstraße 43
Berlin, Berlin 10115 Germany
(030) 8891408591

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