Otto Hahn Medal - Outstanding Young Scientists

by Raed Hmadi

January 23, 2019

The Otto Hahn Medal is a prestigious prize awarded by the Max Planck Society to young researchers who have completed their doctoral studies in the natural or social sciences at one of the Max Planck Institutes.

During the society’s annual meeting, thirty junior scientists are awarded the medal in recognition of outstanding scientific achievements. The award is intended to motivate young, gifted scientists to pursue a future career in research, may it be at a university or research facility. Awardees are selected from three main categories: Biology and Medical Sciences, Chemical and Physical Engineering, and Social Sciences and Humanities. The award comes with a monetary sum of 7, 500 Euros. Interestingly, the award’s name derives from Otto Hahn, a german chemist and Nobel laureate, who served as the first president of the Max Planck Society.

The Offspring had the chance to meet with some of the 2018 Otto Hahn Medal awardees to ask about their doctoral experience and advice they would give to younger scientists in the early stages of their studies.

Paul Mollière

Paul Mollière

Paul Mollière is an astrophysicist who studied and pursued his PhD in Heidelberg, Germany. Currently, he is working at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands.

Offspring: What got you first excited about science?

I think the earliest science-related interest I had was when reading children’s books on astronomy, when I was quite young. It is thus maybe not too surprising that I also ended up in astronomy. I love how it combines scientific reasoning with room for imagination: we often know very little about a given astronomical object. Thinking about previously unknown processes, and how they could potentially be inferred, is what makes astronomy particularly interesting.

Offspring: What made you pursue a PhD in science?

I enjoyed working in science when I did my bachelor and master, doing a PhD was a logical consequence of wanting to keep working in science.

Offspring: What was your project about?

I constructed a computer model which calculates the temperature and abundance structures of exoplanet atmospheres (mainly strongly irradiated gas giant planets, like Jupiter, but hotter). From this I could make spectral predictions and study how various parameters impact the resulting planetary structures and spectra. I also studied how mineral clouds (which condense around 1,600°C) may be detectable in such atmospheres with the upcoming Jame Webb Space Telescope.

Offspring: What was the best part about pursuing a PhD? And the most difficult?

The best was the sense of independence, constructing one’s own code and finding out in which direction the next steps need to be taken, which physics to include etc. This also made it difficult, however. One develops a kind of emotional bond to the code / project. And if something is not working, or there is a hidden bug somewhere, that can actually be pretty stressful and depressing.

Offspring: What are you doing now?

I am now a postdoc in Leiden, Netherlands, where I continue my work on exoplanets.

Offspring: What advice do you give to early starting PhD students?

If you are working very hard, try to give yourself a break every once in a while. Meet your friends and family. I know this is much easier said than done, and took me a long time, but finally it turned out that I wasn’t less productive, and happier in my life in general.

Offspring: What would you be working on if you weren't a scientist?

I would probably try and find something connected to renewable energies, like an organisation which promotes climate-friendly technologies. As an (exoplanet) atmospheric scientist I am aware of what humanity is currently doing to itself, and I think we actually need to make every effort to mitigate our own impact on this planet. Sometimes I feel bad about myself, because I essentially turn a blind eye to this when continuing to work in astronomy. But it is just too much fun…


Manuel Schottdorf

Manuel Schottdorf

Manuel Schottdorf studied physics and neuroscience at the Universities in Würzburg, Rutgers, Göttingen and the Jülich Research Center. He grew up in Hammelburg; a small town in a region of southern Germany called Franconia.

Offspring: What got you first excited about science?

Aristotle wrote in the first book of his Metaphysics that all “humans by nature desire to know”. I think that this is quite true and at least for me, the desire to know the causes of things has always been strong. Also, as long as we are consciously shaping the natural world, it is our duty to extend human knowledge.

Offspring: What made you pursue a PhD in science?

I wanted to learn more about the principles governing the nervous system and contribute something meaningful in answering this question. Naturally, my project was far too risky and basic for a company and so I pursued a PhD.

Offspring: What was your project about?

I developed a conceptually new experimental approach to conduct structure-function studies with living neuronal circuits. I hope that at some point, we can engineer living neuronal circuits with specific functions to our needs. We might even come up with a language, similar to electrical circuits, to effectively represent connectomic structure and quantitatively understand circuit function.

Offspring: What was the best part about pursuing a PhD? And the most difficult?

The best part of my PhD was clearly the tremendous freedom to develop my own ideas. The most rewarding thing about research is being the first one to ever see a particular phenomenon and push forth the limits of human knowledge. The most difficult part for me is having only 1/3 of my time free for research in the lab (besides writing/rewriting, doing administration, attending meetings and teaching).

Offspring: What are you doing now?

I am starting a postdoctoral position at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute to study cognitive functions in the nervous system, specifically working on memory and spatial navigation.

Offspring: What advice do you give to early starting PhD students?

Find out what you deeply want to know, speak up and challenge established thinking and most importantly: your first duty is to the truth.

Offspring: What would you be working on if you weren't a scientist?

I enjoy programming, engineering and building things. I like electrical circuits, optical elements and mechanical components, and over time I got quite good in making things. I might have ended up as an engineer.

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