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Three New Consolidator Grants at the University of Freiburg

The European Research Council will be funding Maja Banks-Köhn, Henning Jessen, and Johanna Pink with 2 million euros each

Three New Consolidator Grants at the University of Freiburg

Maja Banks-Köhn, Henning Jessen und Johanna Pink (from left). Photos: Jürgen Gocke, Hans-Peter Fischer, Thomas Kunz

The chemical biologist Prof. Dr. Maja Banks-Köhn, the chemist Prof. Dr. Henning Jessen, and the Islamic studies scholar Prof. Dr. Johanna Pink have each received a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). The ERC Consolidator Grants will provide two million euros over a period of five years to each of the three grantees, who are working in strategic and emerging research areas at the University of Freiburg. Banks-Köhn and Jessen are biological signaling researchers, with Jessen also working on functional and bioinspired materials, while Pink is a researcher in comparative area studies. This is the first time that three ERC Consolidator Grants, which are regarded as one of the most prestigious research grants in Europe, were given to researchers at the University of Freiburg in the same awarding round. “I congratulate my colleagues on this outstanding success,” said Rector Prof. Dr. Hans-Jochen Schiewer, adding: “This honor is an excellent example of the outstanding work of our researchers. They are the driving force behind the innovative strength and international visibility of our strategic and emerging research areas.”

In her ERC project, Maja Banks-Köhn will be researching how artificially developed molecules can be used to impact signaling pathways with the aim to develop new medical applications in the future. She is particularly interested in the regulation of protein phosphatase 1 (PP1), which is an enzyme found in most cells in the body and also plays an important role in heart health. PP1 affects many different cellular proteins by biochemically removing phosphate groups from these proteins and is therefore a key control element in signaling pathways in the cell. Under normal conditions, PP1 binds with regulatory proteins that control its activity. However, if this balance becomes disturbed, this negatively affects the cell’s functions. In the heart, such malfunctions contribute to the development of cardiomyopathy and heart failure. Banks-Köhn has developed molecules called PP1-disrupting peptides that are able to control the activity of PP1. In her ERC project, these molecules will enable her to better understand how PP1 functions, with the goal of testing new approaches to treating heart disease in the future.

Banks-Köhn studied chemistry at the University of Kiel and received her PhD from the Technische Universität in Dortmund and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology (also in Dortmund) in 2005. She then became a researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA) before working as a group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. She became Professor of Integrative Signalling Studies at the Institute of Biology III of the University of Freiburg in 2016. She is a board member of the excellence cluster CIBSS and vice scientific director of the excellence cluster BIOSS, both of which focus on biological signaling studies. She is also the first researcher at the University of Freiburg to receive an ERC Consolidator Grant after having also received an ERC Starting Grant.

In his ERC project, Henning Jessen will be researching bacterial messengers of stress. When bacteria experience stress – for example, due to a lack of nutrients, a temperature shock, or antibiotics – they produce what are known as alarmones, which initiate a comprehensive and immediate adjustment program. This so-called stringent response can be found in all bacteria. This is what renders it an interesting area for the development of new antibiotics that will obstruct bacteria from reacting to stress adequately. In Jessen’s project, he will be developing new strategies for analyzing and modulating the levels of alarmones in living bacteria. He will also use new chemical tools to better analyze and understand the bacterial stringent response. For example, we still do not know how bacteria are able to stop this reaction and return to their original state. Another of Jessen’s goals is to establish new approaches for the development of antibiotics that will specifically prevent this stringent response, or at least suspend bacteria in a state in which they are no longer able to reproduce.

Jessen studied chemistry at the University of Hamburg, where he received a PhD in medicinal chemistry in 2008. He then worked as a postdoc in Switzerland at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, followed by the University of Basel. He began his independent career at the University of  Zurich in 2011 and became Professor of Bioorganic Chemistry at the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the University of Freiburg in 2015. He is a member of the excellence clusters livMatS – Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous Materials Systems as well as CIBSS – Centre for Integrative Biological Signalling Studies at the University of Freiburg, and he is a senior fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS).

In her ERC funded project, Johanna Pink will be researching the international dimension of Qur’an translations, which have become established as a key medium of Muslim religious practice all over the world since the early 20th century. She will be studying international connections in this field on two levels. First, she will investigate the institutional actors who produce Qur’an translations in many different languages for an international audience. These actors are primarily nation states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as missionary communities such as the Ahmadiyya. Second, she will analyze the complex history and spread of Qur’an translations into the languages of former colonial empires: in other words, English, French, and Russian. Based on this analysis, Pink will address the question of how discussions about interpretation are reflected in the various Qur’an translations – for example, regarding gender, the status of non-Muslims, and the idea of God. She will also be researching how the language, location, producers, and target audiences influence these debates. For example, what happens when a Mauritanian sheikh is commissioned by a Saudi institution to produce a French Qur’an translation? And will that translation be interpreted and received differently by Muslims in France than by French-speaking Muslims in Senegal?

Pink studied Islamic Studies at the Universities of Erlangen and Bonn. After earning her PhD in 2002 from the University of Bonn, she joined the graduate school Global Challenges – Transnational and Transcultural Solutions at the University of Tübingen. She then moved to the Institute of Islamic Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, where she began to research Muslim interpretations and translations of the Qur’an across different languages and geographical regions. She received a Heisenberg Grant from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) in 2011, after which she became Professor of Islamic Studies and the History of Islam at the Department of Oriental Studies of the University of Freiburg in 2012.

Prof. Dr. Maja Banks-Köhn
Institute of Biology III / The Excellence Clusters in Biological Signalling Studies CIBSS and BIOSS
Phone: +49 (0)761/203-67900

Prof. Dr. Henning Jessen
Institute of Organic Chemistry / livMatS: Living, Adaptive and Energy-Autonomous Materials Systems and CIBSS: Centre for Integrative Biological Signalling Studies
Phone: +49 (0)761/203-6073

Prof. Dr. Johanna Pink
Department of Oriental Studies
Phone: +49 (0)761/203-3144

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