More women at the helm of the Max Planck Society

The new team of Vice-Presidents includes three women. This means women now hold the majority on the Executive Committee

June 22, 2023

At the 74th Annual Meeting in Göttingen, several changes occurred within the Max Planck Society's leadership. Alongside Patrick Cramer assuming the role of President, the Vice-Presidents also began a new term with a mix of new and familiar faces. The new Vice-Presidents are Claudia Felser from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids, Sibylle Günter from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, and Christian Doeller from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Asifa Akhtar from the Max Planck Institute for Immunobiology and Epigenetics, on the other hand, is entering her second term as Vice-President.

With the 74th Annual Meeting in Göttingen, a new era begins for the Max Planck Society as Patrick Cramer assumes the role of President for the next six years. Additionally, the Vice-Presidents also enter a new term with a fresh line-up: Claudia Felser from the MPI for Chemical Physics of Solids, Sibylle Günter from the MPI for Plasma Physics, and Christian Doeller from the MPI for Cognitive and Brain Sciences are newly appointed to their positions, while Asifa Akhtar from the MPI for Immunobiology and Epigenetics enters her second term.

Champion of equal opportunities and diversity

In her first term as Vice President, Asifa Akhtar already advocated for more diversity and equal opportunities within the Max Planck Society. As head of the Presidential Commission for “Opportunities”, her achievements include launching the Max Planck Diversity Excellence Fund in 2022 and campaigning in the MPG 2030 project to ensure that there will be at least one female director at each institute in future. Additionally, she introduced the “Welcome Guides” mentoring programme to assist  new directors in her Section: “When they take up office, newly appointed directors are on their own. So it is helpful if they can exchange ideas with experienced colleagues and thus also network better within the MPG,” says Akhtar. Junior scientists are another matter close to her heart, which is why she has campaigned for a revision of the Lise Meitner Excellence Programme and the implementation of the new Max Planck Careers programme.

Word of Akhtar’s commitment to diversity and equal opportunities has also reached beyond Max Planck. In 2021, she was honoured with the Christa Šerić-Geiger Prize by the Carl-Friedrich Geiger Foundation, which recognises women who have made outstanding contributions to science, education, culture, social issues, or gender equality. In 2023, she is set to receive the American Ellis Island Medal of Honour, which honours people who utilise their wealth of knowledge to support disadvantaged communities.

Focus on application and technology transfer

Claudia Felser is the first woman to serve as Vice President for the Chemistry, Physics and Technology Section. As director of the Topological Quantum Chemistry Department at the MPI for Chemical Physics of Solids in Dresden, Felser’s research primarily centres around the design, synthesis, and physical investigation of new quantum materials with applications in computer and energy technologies.

With her very application-oriented research field, Felser is ideally placed to tackle the topic of technology transfer and entrepreneurship in the Max Planck Society. She now takes over from her predecessor Klaus Blaum as chair of the jury for the Max Planck Start-up Prize of the Stifterverband, which is awarded every two years to a start-up originating from the MPG and endowed with a prize money of 50,000 euros.Felser has been a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society since 2011. Previously, she worked at the University of Mainz, where she founded the first NaT-LAB specifically designed for female school students. For this initiative she was recognised with the Order of Merit of the State of Rhineland-Palatinate in 2001. “We need to introduce school students to research at an early stage,” says the chemist. She also holds a positive view of the Max Planck Society’s long-standing commitment to the “Jugend forscht” youth research programme.

International and interdisciplinary networking

Christian Doeller was appointed director of the Department of Psychology at the MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig in 2018. In his research he seeks to identify the fundamental principles underlying our higher cognitive abilities. He utilizes two model systems, human memory and the neuronal code for spatial navigation, to investigate which basic mechanisms in the brain make human thinking possible. He also holds the position of Professor of Medicine at the Kavli Institute in Trondheim, Norway, founded by Nobel Prize laureates May-Britt and Edvard Moser to study the emergence of higher brain functions. Before joining Max Planck, Doeller was a research group leader and associate professor at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands for six years, and from 2016/2017 he was director at the Braathen-Kavli Centre, part of the Kavli Institute.

In addition, Doeller has also been an honorary professor at both the University of Leipzig (for psychology) and the Technical University of Dresden (for cognitive neuroscience) since 2019 and 2023 respectively. In addition, Doeller has also been an honorary professor at both the University of Leipzig (for psychology) and the Technical University of Dresden (for cognitive neuroscience) since 2019 and 2023 respectively.

Cross-sectional tasks – with a special focus on digitalisation

Vice President, Sibylle Günter is taking on cross-sectional tasks – a novelty in the Max Planck Society, which so far has only had three scientific Vice Presidents. One of the responsibilities she has inherited from the previous Vice President Klaus Blaum is the supervision of the ongoing digitalization initiative within the Max Planck Society: “The digitalisation initiative already underway is a major task that I want to advance together with the Administrative Headquarters and the Institutes,” says Günter. “Beyond that, however, there are many other important topics. Together with my colleagues, I would like to develop a new IT strategy for the MPG, in which we will also have to address various questions, for example, about the equipment required with computing technology or about IT security.”

The physics graduate has plenty of experience with major projects: Günter’s research interests are plasma physics and fusion research, two topics which regularly bring her a lot of attention from politics and the media. In two large-scale experiments, she explores different concepts for generating energy through magnetic fusion, drawing inspiration from the Sun's example. In 2000, she was appointed as a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society and director at the IPP - the youngest woman to hold such positions at that time. Sibylle Günter is not only a sought-after member of scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina or the German Academy of Science and Engineering, but also in business and society.

New members for Executive Committe and Senate

There are also changes in the important bodies of the Max Planck Society. In addition to the incumbent President and the Secretary General, the three Vice-Presidents also belong to the Executive Committee, as do the new Vice-Presidents. Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller (Chairwoman of the Board of the mechanical engineering company Trumpf) and Treasurer Ralf Thomas (Member of the Supervisory Board of Siemens Energy) will serve another term on the Board, with Renate Köcher and Frank Appel joining as new members. Köcher is Managing Director of the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research (IfD) and in this capacity advises numerous supervisory boards of German companies, but also the boards of scientific organisations. Frank Appel, who has been a senator of the Max Planck Society since 2017, holds a degree in chemistry and previously served as Chairman of the Board of Deutsche Post DHL Group. Additionally, he has been the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Deutsche Telekom AG since 2022.

Alongside the new members of the Board of Directors, several distinguished individuals from various fields have been elected as new external senators. These include notable figures from the scientific community such as Antje Boetius, Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute of the Helmholtz Association, Tanja Brühl, President of the Technical University of Darmstadt, Alon Chen, President of the Weizmann Institute, and Heyo Kroemer, Chairman of the Board of Charité.

Representing the business sector, the new external senators include Christiane Benner, Second Chairwoman of IG Metall, Joachim Kreuzburg, Chairman of the Executive Board of Sartorius AG, Melanie Maas-Brunner, Member of the Executive Board and Chief Technology Officer of BASF SE, Sabine Nikolaus, Chairwoman of the Executive Board of Boehringer Ingelheim Deutschland GmbH, and Joachim Wenning, Chairman of the Executive Board of Münchener Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft AG.

Furthermore, the Senate has welcomed Anna Christmann, a Member of the Bundestag for Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, Michael Kaschke, President of the Stifterverband, Bettina Limperg, President of the Federal Court of Justice, and Andreas Sentker, Managing Editor of the ZEIT weekly newspaper. Stefan von Holtzbrinck, who has held various positions within the Max Planck Society and played a significant role in establishing the Max Planck Foundation, has been elected as an Honorary Senator, along with former President Martin Stratmann.


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