Helmholtz Monthly 10/23
Solidarity with Israel
Great success with the ERC Synergy Grants
Researchers have found why COVID-19 is less severe in children
Three questions for Rebekka Burkholz
The fusion energy options - Wim Leemans‘s point of view
Dear Readers,

The month is overshadowed by the terrorist attacks on Israel and the further escalation in the Middle East. The events also affect our research collaborations with Israel as the head of the Helmholtz office in Tel Aviv reports. In this month’s newsletter, we also turn our attention to the topic of nuclear fusion, which is currently strongly discussed in Germany: Wim Leemans from DESY advocates also pursuing laser-based approaches in fusion research and explains what contribution the Helmholtz Association can make. And experts from cancer research appeal to politicians to strengthen prevention research.

Franziska Roeder, Multimedia Editor
Talk of the Month
Solidarity with Israel
  On the occasion of the terrorist attacks on Israel, the Helmholtz Association, together with the Alliance of Science Organizations, publicly expressed its solidarity with the country (see statement). Israel has always been and will always be a central partner of the German research and innovation community. We hear from some of our project partners that research projects are severely affected by these events. The Helmholtz Association is also the only German scientific organization to operate a foreign office in Tel Aviv. Andrea Frahm, the head of the office, says: “I am very worried about the hostages and missing people as well as friends who have been drafted, just as I am about the people in Gaza who are not behind Hamas. The impact of the war on academia and the economy is already shown: It is estimated that more than 30 percent of Israeli students and more than 508,000 employees from Israel’s world-leading high-tech sector have been called up as reservists. The official start of the semester has been postponed until December 3 for now.”
More research in cancer prevention called for
  Experts from the field of cancer research appeal to policy-makers to consistently implement cancer prevention measures and, in particular, to strengthen prevention research. The opportunities in this area have so far been completely underutilized, nonetheless preventive measures could be the best means of combating cancer. After all, preventable cancer risk factors cause around 40 percent of all new cancer cases in Germany. The appeal is based on the “Memorandum on Cancer Prevention Research in Germany”, which the German Cancer Aid and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) jointly prepared.
East German Ministerpresidents meet at HZB
  The East German Ministerpresidents met at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin on October 19, 2023, for a special conference chaired by Saxony's Ministerpresident Michael Kretschmer to discuss research and technology funding, development of cutting-edge technologies in eastern Germany, as well as vocational training and continuing education. Federal Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger and the Federal Government Commissioner for Eastern Germany, Carsten Schneider, also attended. In a joint resolution, the representatives of the eastern German states emphasized the need to further improve the conditions for transferring research results to industry and to adapt them to new challenges. Science and business must be considered simultaneously to an even greater degree. Proximity to research institutions often plays a decisive role in the location decisions of new companies. The meeting was hosted by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, which is located in Berlin-Adlershof with the X-ray source BESSY II and its energy research.
What are the grand challenges of our time? And what solutions are we developing at Helmholtz? Discover our challenges 
Helmholtz Community
Federal President Steinmeier with GEOMAR on Cabo Verde
  On the Cape Verdean island of São Vicente, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel operates the Ocean Science Centre Mindelo (OSCM) in cooperation with the local Instituto do Mar (IMar). It offers deep-sea and atmospheric researchers from all over the world excellent conditions for their studies. The center, which opened in 2017, also contributes to scientific exchange and networking with West Africa, as well as playing a role in the training of students and scientists. During his state visit to Cabo Verde, German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier learned about OSCM’s research. Katja Matthes, Director of GEOMAR, as well as, among others, Helmholtz President Otmar Wiestler and Stefan Müller from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) attended the visit.
Opening Ceremony of the AWI Technical Center
  Following four years of construction, the technical center on the climate campus of the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven was opened on October 19, 2023. Here, scientists and engineers will develop and test equipment for the use in the polar regions as well as the deep sea and prepare it for expeditions. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the State of Bremen financed the new building with 18.5 million euros. In honor and memory of Alfred Wegener’s last companion, the building was named after the Greenlander Rasmus Willumsen.
Great success with the ERC Synergy Grants
  The Helmholtz Association received more Synergy Grants than ever before in the current call for proposals: Helmholtz researchers were awarded seven grants out of of 37. Unlike the ERC individual grants, Synergy Grants involve two to four partners working together on groundbreaking questions, new methods and techniques. The funding amounts to up to 10 million euros for up to six years.
International Cooperation in Times of Multiple Crises
  On October 18 and 19, the workshop “Security of Action in International Science Cooperation” took place in Berlin. Representatives from politics and the Helmholtz centers agreed on one issue: The crises of the last few years have fundamentally changed the world and are forcing science to closely examine existing and new collaborations in order to counteract the outflow of knowledge through control and influence. Raising awareness among researchers is also an important issue for the community. To provide the Helmholtz Association with a framework for orientation, the Helmholtz Berlin Office is working with stakeholders from the community to develop a guideline for action security in the coming period. In 2024, there will be another workshop on the topic.
Researchers have found why COVID-19 is less severe in children

Why are severe courses of SARS-CoV-2 infection less common in children and adolescents than in adults? Scientists at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) have now discovered that the immune system in the upper respiratory tract is much more alert and active in children before infection than in adults and is therefore better equipped to fight the virus.

During the pandemic, less than 0.001 percent of infected schoolchildren died from the infection. With age, the mortality rate increased almost exponentially, reaching over 10 percent in the very aged. Children and adolescents have fewer symptoms and a shorter duration of illness than adults do, and especially the elderly, although initial viral loads do not differ significantly.

Researchers from the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité and the DKFZ took an important step toward understanding the causes of this remarkable resistance children have to severe COVID-19 disease as early as 2022. They discovered that the epithelial cells of the nasal mucosa of healthy children are permanently on “high alert”.

But why is it that children’s nasal mucosa is so much better prepared to defend against SARS-CoV-2? To answer this question, Marco Binder and his team at DKFZ, together with colleagues from BIH, investigated the cellular composition of the mucosa in the nasal cavity of healthy children in even greater detail at the level of individual cells.

The main result of the DKFZ virologists revealed that, compared to adults, the nasal mucosa of children is colonized by significantly more immune cells. Not only that, even in healthy, non-infected children, the individual immune cells also produce more pro-inflammatory cytokines. The immune system communicates with the mucosal cells via these messengers, stimulating them to produce the sensor proteins.

Marco Binder assumes it may be worthwhile to explore prophylactic strategies for SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory infections. “Such approaches could aim to mimic the cellular composition of children’s mucosal tissue, for example, by inhalation of low-dose cytokine preparations.” (Image: Pezibear/Pixabay)



The EDEN ISS Antarctic greenhouse is back in Bremen and will be transformed into EDEN LUNA in the coming months. Astronauts will be able to train in the cultivation of vegetables, salad ingredients and herbs, as well as in the technology and procedures behind this, integrated into the LUNA test and training facility planned jointly by DLR and ESA in Cologne. Read more 

One of 45.000

Dr. Rebekka Burkholz joined the CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security in Saarbrücken in 2021 as tenure-track faculty, where she leads the Relational Machine Learning group. (Photo: Tobias Ebelshäuser/CISPA)

What is the most exciting thing about your job?

The most exciting thing about my job is that it is so diverse. I am very grateful that I am free to choose my research topics. It is also a great privilege that I get to work with such talented and motivated people. Gaining new insights together and sharing those makes me get up every day with excitement. I also like that so many young students with a thirst for knowledge are interested in our topics and are engaged in the lectures and seminars.

If money and time were no object, what would your next project be?

I am very lucky that the European Research Council has granted my wish by awarding me an ERC Starting Grant for the SPARSE-ML project. For this project, I changed the subject from statistical physics to machine learning and took some career risk. Therefore, even if time and money were no object, I would still work on SPARSE-ML, only on a larger scale.

Who would you like to have dinner with and what would you talk about then?

I would love to have dinner with Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI's Chief Scientist, to talk about whether we really need these massive deep learning models and whether superalignment is possible.

Point of View
The fusion energy options
The question of the next steps toward nuclear fusion energy is hotly debated in the Helmholtz Association right now. Wim Leemans, accelerator director at DESY, is an expert in laser plasma acceleration and chairman of the Helmholtz Task Force “Laserbasierte Fusionsforschung”. Here he comments on the existing strategies and concepts, explains why, despite current successes, a cool head and staying power are still needed, and how the Helmholtz Association can contribute to overcoming the existing challenges in the energy transition.

One thing is certain: Nuclear fusion is seen in Germany as a significant element of a future renewable energy supply portfolio and is of outstanding strategic importance for achieving the goals of the energy turnaround and securing Europe as a high-tech location.

The most advanced concept for nuclear fusion energy is based on magnetic confinement of hot plasmas, which can be realized by two different approaches: Tokomak or stellarator. Experiments based on this approach are already getting close to conditions needed to release energy from plasma. The world leader in the development of stellarators is Wendelstein 7-X in Greifswald. In this facility, essential technologies relevant for a power plant are already integrated. A power plant technology suitable for everyday use based on this can probably be made available in the next two decades. The funds required to get there will amount to around one billion euros per year over this period.

In the field of laser-assisted nuclear fusion, ignition was recently successfully demonstrated for the first time when in at least two separate experiments at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States, high-energy laser pulses caused a pellet to ignite. More energy was generated than was supplied to the pellet in laser energy. However, it must be taken into account that in these experiments, a hundred times more energy had to be injected into the laser system itself. In addition, it has only been possible to fire one shot per day. For a fusion power plant millions of shots per day would be necessary. Moreover, before a power plant-ready concept can actually be developed, significant intermediate goals must still be achieved. In other words, a great deal of basic research is still needed to make laser-assisted nuclear fusion a power plant technology suitable for everyday use. Nevertheless, pursuing this concept can add a great deal of value, both in the field of fusion research and beyond.

In this context, the Helmholtz Association can make an effective contribution in, among other things, the field of high-energy density physics, as well as in research into laser-plasma interaction, which plays an essential role in the development of compact plasma-based accelerators. In addition, the Helmholtz Association can contribute a wide range of core competencies to the research field: From modeling and simulation activities on high-performance computers, as used for plasma physics, to a broad spectrum of materials research, from which magnet-based fusion research also benefits.

However, this will require additional resources. We need investment in high-power laser facilities, which are an essential element in the development of laser plasma accelerators. We need partnerships, for example, with the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and industry, because they offer great opportunities for technology development. But we also need to create new centers of excellence because they play a coordinating role in answering fundamental questions about fusion research. And we need to invest in young talent, because only with young talent can we shape the future.

(Photo: DESY)

Discussion paper of the Helmholtz Task Force “Laserbasierte Fusionsforschung” 

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