Gathering of Scholars, Fellows and Alumni 2023


The gathering of current and former scholarship-holders of the Daimler and Benz Foundation took place from September 22 to 24, 2023 in Ladenburg.

In September 2023, scholarship-holders, fellows, and alumni of the Daimler and Benz Foundation’s development program for up-and-coming young academics met in Ladenburg for an exchange of ideas on science, professional careers, and developments in society. Together with its Alumni Association, which subsidizes travel expenses through its membership fees, thereby enabling fellows from distant locations to participate, the Foundation regularly invites participants to these gatherings.

Dr. Jörg Klein, Managing Director of the Daimler and Benz Foundation, welcomed the more than 30 participants and emphasized the ongoing importance of the Foundation’s work in promoting young talent. Dr. Jochen Langer, Chairman of the Foundation’s Alumni Association, then welcomed all participants and pointed out the intensive academic exchange among scholarship-holders in the Alumni Association. This year’s gathering was also attended by Prof. Dr. Gisbert Freiherr zu Putlitz, founding Chairman of the Foundation and honorary member of the Alumni Association.

Where is the journey heading? The emergence of Germany as a tourist brand
Dr. Mathias Häußler from the University of Regensburg’s Chair of European History (19th and 20th centuries) opened the academic program with a lecture on the emergence of modern tourism in Germany around 1900. In his project funded by the Foundation, he is investigating how modern tourism emerged in the German Empire and what factors significantly shaped its development. In his lecture, Häußler highlighted the role that emerging tourism played in consolidating collective notions in everyday culture and the (linguistic) means that were used at that time to advertise tourist landscapes such as the Rhine or emerging cities like Munich. This journey through time helped not only in better understanding how modern tourism came into being, but also provided insights into the society of the Empire.

Promenade as a ritual and the image of women in Jane Austen’s novels
In her lecture, Associate Professor Sandra Dinter from the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Hamburg focused on female pedestrians and the social role of walking in novels of the British author Jane Austen (1775-1817). Dinter explained how walking – similarly to all other forms of mobility – is culturally shaped and to what extent it can be associated with social class or gender. Prior to the 18th century, Dinter continued, strolling was seen as strange, suspicious, and in some cases even criminal, as it was associated with poverty or sexual motives. Dinter’s research has brought to light that Jane Austen, in her novels such as Sense and Sensibility (1811) or Pride and Prejudice (1813), created a new literary prototype that became established in British and Western literature, embodied by a flaneur who takes to the fresh air not only to stay healthy, but above all to draw attention to the interplay of gender roles and class orders.

Pupillometry and mental health in childhood
Mental health problems constitute a social challenge that can be vividly quantified in terms of percentage: 20 percent of all children suffer from mental health problems, often triggered by anxiety, which can lead to sustained psychological stress. Dr. Nico Bast from the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy at Frankfurt University Hospital has set out to study the genesis and development of mental disorders, with the goal of making a long-term contribution to the protection and promotion of mental health. In his lecture, Bast reported on an innovative approach in which he linked pupillometry to the question of how hormone release under stress leads to altered perception in the brain. By manipulating the activity of the locus coeruleus – a neurophysiological structure that plays a role in the control of attention – and by measuring changes in pupil diameter, Bast said, it is hoped that new neurobiological insights can be gained into developmental disorders in childhood.

The neural foundation of visual perception in children and adolescents
Dr. Marisa Nordt from the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Uniklinik RWTH Aachen investigated the relationship between brain development and experience. Nordt’s project is focusing on the region of the brain responsible for recognizing written words. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, she is studying activity in this region among schoolchildren aged 5 to 17. When children learn to read, Nordt said, activation increases when written words are recognized. At the same time, a decrease in activation is then seen in a region involved in the perception of hands and gestures. This may be related to the fact that young children look more at hands, for example, when playing or gesturing. At school age, however, written words attain increased significance. The insights gained in this project are expected to lead to a deeper understanding of developmental disorders with perceptual deficits, such as dyslexia.

Artificial immune systems
In his lecture, Dr. Oskar Staufer from the Leibniz Institute for New Materials in Saarbrücken considered the question of how an artificial immune system can be constructed. Based on the latest findings from synthetic biology, Staufer is developing artificial lymph nodes in his project. As with natural lymph nodes, their main tasks will include coordinating the defense against infectious pathogens and controlling the formation of an immunological memory. Since the artificial lymph nodes do not contain genetic information, Staufer said, neither do they pose any risk. Staufer then described how this new approach helped in the discovery of individual molecular mechanisms of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, and what effect certain fatty acids had on the spike protein of Sars-CoV-2. New insights into host-virus interactions are expected to facilitate the development of targeted therapies, vaccines, and other preventive measures.

Climate protection and humanitarian aid: support from geoinformatics
The lecture program concluded with the evening presentation by Prof. Dr. Alexander Zipf from the Institute of Geography at Heidelberg University. Zipf gave insights into his research involving intelligent routing and navigation services for sustainable mobility, and showed the extent to which geospatial data can help support humanitarian missions. Earthquakes, devastating forest fires, severe storms, and floods are increasingly dominating the headlines. Relief supplies are essential in these situations of disaster. But how can the urgently needed supplies be delivered if it is unclear to what extent the local infrastructure has been destroyed? Help is at hand here in the form of geospatial data, which provides information on what areas and infrastructures are particularly affected, where potential victims and danger zones are located, and how they can be reached to enable the further planning of deployment and logistics. With developments in GPS and satellite imagery technology, and thanks to increased opportunities for online participation, even laypeople can easily digitally map their surroundings and thus contribute to more precise descriptions of their locations. The best-known provider of user-generated geospatial data, Zipf reported, is OpenStreetMap (OSM), a worldwide geodatabase for a wide variety of geospatial objects that anyone can process, use, and propagate. Following a disaster, for example, local mappers can flag collapsed bridges or impassable roads in the OSM system so that inaccessible roads or areas are bypassed. Zipf cited the severe earthquake in Haiti in 2010 as an example. Here, there was a great need for information about the local situation, which could not be obtained via traditional channels. To remedy this situation, the global OSM community rapidly generated detailed maps based on satellite imagery, which enabled safe routes for aid transports. Finally, Zipf gave an overview of further possible applications of user-generated geodata, focusing on alternative scenarios for sustainable, efficient and climate-sensitive land use, as well as prototypes for personalized route planning. These included for example bicycle routes that are safe overall or which protect specific risk groups in hot weather.

The meeting concluded on the Sunday morning with a joint visit to the Federal Garden Show in Mannheim. During a guided tour of the former Spinelli U.S. military site, the alumni and fellows immersed themselves in topics relevant to the future, such as environmental and climate protection, sustainability, energy, and food security.