One molecule away from magic

With the live talk between Nobel Laureate Benjamin List and Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, the 73rd Max Planck Society Meeting in Berlin draws to a close

June 22, 2022

When two people meet whose passion it is to explain chemistry, a lively discussion is guaranteed. This was also the case during the panel talk between Benjamin List and Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim at yesterday's Plenary Assembly, which brought the 73rd Max Planck Annual Meeting to a close. In his keynote speech, incumbent Max Planck President Martin Stratmann addressed, among other things, the effects of the war in Ukraine on scientific cooperation - and with which measures from a specially established special fund Max Planck is providing assistance to Ukrainian researchers affected by the war.

In Berlin's Bolle Sälen, the science journalist and chemist Nguyen-Kim spoke with the 2021 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry about catalysts, the research for which List won the Nobel Prize last year, but also about catalytic events that had a lasting impact on his personal life. List remembered his childhood experiments in his home laboratory, but also talked about big questions for the future for which catalysis is needed: "Catalysis is a molecule away from magic." When asked what his wish for the future was after the Nobel Prize, List said: "The fact that I can continue to conduct research is the most beautiful prize in itself."

Max Planck Senate passes two decisions of significance

In its meeting today, the Senate unanimously elected Patrick Cramer as the future President of the Max Planck Society for the term 2023 to 2029. The 53-year-old chemist and molecular biologist will replace the current Max Planck President Martin Stratmann in June 2023. Another central Senate decision concerns the Institute landscape. The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena become the "Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology". The renaming reflects the Institute’s scientific reorientation. Max Planck director Jürgen Renn played a key role in developing the new concept. In the afternoon, the General Meeting adopted the Annual Report 2021.

Awards shower for young scientists

The day before, the Max Planck Society used its Annual Meeting to convey a special honour: 29 young early career researchers were presented with the Otto Hahn Medal 2022 in recognition of their outstanding scientific achievements, primarily in connection with their doctoral theses. The ceremonial awarding of the medals, which are endowed with 7,500 euros, took place during the Max Planck Society’s Sections meetings in Berlin. The young talents were introduced to the directors of their respective Sections and presented with their Medals. The award is intended to motivate particularly talented individuals to pursue a university or research career.


Max Planck start-up award for Meshcapade

On the eve of the Annual Meeting, the Max Planck Start-up Award was presented to Meshcapade in Berlin-Charlottenburg. The young start-up team was presented with the newly established award, jointly conferred by the Max Planck Society and the Stifterverband. Around 100 invited guests followed the award ceremony and the spirited debate on the challenges of technology transfer in Germany.

"It started as an experiment, now we have the chance to open up new industries with our avatars," said CEO Naureen Mahmood when asked how Meshcapade, the start-up she co-founded, planned to use the prize money of 50,000 euros. Founded in 2018 from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, the 15-member team led by Mahmood and Talha Zaman, co-founder and CFO, develops digital 3D human doubles - with promising opportunities for the fashion, gaming and film industries, but also for areas of medicine and healthcare. In addition to equipment, the company plans to invest in new employees to expand the team, which currently consists of 15 people. "Success is based on the people who work for us," explains Naureen Mahmood. She wants to promote a remote working culture and increase the proportion of women in the technology industry.

Prior to the official presentation of the award certificates, Max Planck President Martin Stratmann, Cornelius Riese, Vice President of the Stifterverband, and Thomas Sattelberger, Commissioner for Transfer and Spin-offs from Science, took the opportunity of the award ceremony for a lively discussion on topic of technology transfer.

Fostering an entrepreneurial mindset

"In order to motivate young talents in science to found new companies, we need an entrepreneurial mindset,” said Sattelberger.  Scientific entrepreneurship was also inspired by the joy of creation. "There is still not enough buzz in our research system. Something really has to change here," Sattelberger continued. The new start-up prize from the Max Planck Society and the Stifterverband is an important step towards fostering such a buzz and promoting an entrepreneurial spirit. President Stratmann made it clear that the Max Planck Society opens up diverse innovation spaces: "It is the young people who shape our research organisation. Our 9,000 doctoral students and postdocs create spaces of innovation throughout the Max Planck Society. One such vibrant innovative hub is Cyber Valley in Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg, where Meshcapade is based. In order for Germany to attract more international talent, Stratmann said that the legal framework conditions had to change. He criticised hurdles in the funding of research projects, such as the German Besserstellungsverbot, where employees in the same salary category cannot be offered different payment levels. Cornelius Riese, Vice President of the Stifterverband, also addressed the requirements of a start-up culture.

Further highlights on the agenda 

The Senate meeting on Thursday will come with a special announcement: the Chair of the Presidential Search Committee, Andreas Barner, will present the Commission's proposal for a successor to President Martin Stratmann, who is stepping down from office in June 2023.

The Annual Meeting also has also some other highlights in store for the Max Planck community. The plenary assembly, for example, will be shining a spotlight on the two Nobel Prizes 2021 to Klaus Hasselmann and Benjamin List. The latter will answer questions from Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim in a live discussion on location. The science journalist, chemist and influencer Nguyen-Kim has been a member of the Senate of the Max Planck Society since 2020.  

Berlin unites the Max Planck Society’s history and future

"The capital of Berlin has always had a very special significance for the Max Planck Society. It is the founding site of our predecessor organisation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, and there are few places in Germany where our historical roots can be felt as strongly as in the Harnack House, our conference venue in Dahlem," says President Martin Stratmann. The Max Planck Society maintains five Institutes and one research centre at its Berlin location: the scientists at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Infection Biology, the MPI for Human Development, the MPI for the History of Science, the Fritz-Haber-Institute the MPI for Molecular Genetics and the Max Planck Research Unit for the Science of Pathogens with the 2020 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier, help drive the dynamics of research based in the capital.

Note: This article was updated on June 24th, 2022.

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