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Helmholtz awards Doctoral Prize

From left to right: Leonardo Ayala, Karina Winkler, Martin Angerer, Lukas Körber, Nils Christiansen, Zina Kallien, Joel Joseph, Maike Becker (MTZ-Helmholtz Health Award), Tobias Röddiger, Lina Dinkel, Michael Bergmann, Anna Vanderbruggen, Otmar D. Wiestler. Photo: David Marschalsky

At Helmholtz, nearly 9,000 doctoral candidates conduct research. Eleven of them have now been honored. Each year, Helmholtz awards the best and most original doctoral theses with the Doctoral Prize.

Anna Vanderbruggen

Anna Vanderbruggen is a mineral processing engineer. Initially working with natural resources, she shifted her focus in 2018 to lithium-ion battery recycling. This led to the creation of her own research project, primarily aimed at anode graphite recycling. Driven by her passion and commitment to this field, she pursued her doctorate at the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology (HIF) and Aalto University, where she successfully defended her dissertation with distinctions in 2022. Her innovative method on graphite recycling from used lithium-ion batteries earned her the European Innovation award in the category EIT Change in 2022. Currently, Anna Vanderbruggen is a postdoctoral researcher at the GeoRessources laboratory at the University of Lorraine in France. She continues her work in battery recycling and teaches mineral processing and recycling at the university.

“As I explored lithium-ion battery recycling, I discovered that graphite – an essential component – was often disregarded as insignificant. Through my work, I proved that anode graphite can be effectively recovered and reused in new batteries.”


Joel Joseph

The ever-increasing number of connected devices specifically designed to accurately sense environmental conditions is driving the demand for local, distributed energy generation to new heights. The ability to harness significant amounts of energy locally has the potential to revolutionize the widespread use of these devices. This in turn promises to reduce maintenance, which is not only a technological breakthrough, but also an economic advantage in the long run. As part of his dissertation, Joel Joseph investigated at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) the the innovative use of thin film thermomagnetic actuators to develop very high power per footprint thermal energy harvesters. The development of a model resulted in a 340 percent increase in power per footprint over the first prototype.

“With the increasing number of connected devices, the demand for self-sufficient devices that harvest energy from their environment is growing worldwide. I wanted to contribute to the effort to find a green and sustainable solution.”

Karina Winkler

About 75 percent of the world's land surface shows traces of human use. In her doctoral thesis, Karina Winkler investigated at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) land use changes on Earth over the last 60 years. Using satellite data, land use statistics and maps, she was able to visualize the spatio-temporal patterns of global land use change in high resolution and analyze their drivers and impacts on climate. Karina Winkler works as a scientist in the Land Use Change and Climate research group at KIT Campus Alpin.

“With my research, I want to make land use tangible as a globally networked system of human-environment interactions in order to better understand the human ‘footprint’ on the Earth.”


Leonardo Ayala

Following his passion on applied sciences, Leonardo Ayala studied physics in Argentina and worked in an optics laboratory in El Salvador where he studied biological tissues with optical imaging methods. This encouraged him to pursue a Doctorate at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) on applied biophotonics for cancer research enabled by computer science. Leonardo Ayala develops optical imaging applications powered by artificial intelligence with the aim of translating spectral imaging to clinical practice. During his doctoral work, he aimed at developing spectral imaging solutions that can be applied to clinical problems. Together with his team he worked on monitoring how much blood and oxygen are in internal organs during surgery (e.g. kidney cancer removal).

“My dream is to see spectral imaging being applied as routine in the hospitals because I believe it has much to offer regarding patient care.”


Lina Dinkel

Niemann-Pick disease type C (NPC) is a rare lysosomal storage disorder that leads to neurodegeneration in the childhood. Investigation of the cellular mechanisms leading to neurodegeneration is a research focus of the Tahirovic laboratory at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), Munich. There Lina Dinkel investigated the role of immune cells in the brain, called microglia, in the neuropathology of NPC. She was able to show that changes in microglia occur early in NPC pathology and that these changes alone can lead to neurodegeneration. She was also able to demonstrate these cellular changes in the peripheral immune cells, the macrophages, of NPC patients, providing new opportunities for drug screening or monitoring therapeutic interventions in NPC patients.

“With my work, I hope to bring more attention to rare diseases and show that their research is essential for understanding cellular mechanisms.”

Lukas Körber

In his doctoral thesis “Spin waves in curved magnetic shells”, Lukas Körber investigated at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) the complex properties of spin waves in curved magnetic structures and thus made a significant contribution to the understanding of magnetic phenomena at the nanoscale level. During this work, he contributed to the development of new numerical methods in micromagnetism. For example, he developed an efficient method for calculating spin-wave spectra in curved geometries. Together with Attila Kákay, he developed the open-source software TetraX, which quickly became widespread in the scientific community for researching spin waves.

“During my doctorate, I studied the fundamental properties of magnetic waves in curved geometries and hopefully contributed to a deeper understanding in the field of magnetization dynamics.”

Michael Bergmann

Highly accurate, scale-resolving simulations offer the opportunity to better understand and analyze complex turbulent flows in engines. In his thesis, Michael Bergmann developed at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) an efficient framework based on the discontinuous Galerkin method in the CFD tool TRACE to make these computationally intensive simulations accessible for industrial use.

“By working closely with leading engine manufacturers, I hope to use this framework to contribute to the realization of climate-neutral aviation.”

Nils Christiansen

Offshore wind energy is an important building block on the path to climate neutrality. However, the far-reaching effects of offshore wind energy have hardly been researched to date. In his doctoral thesis at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, Nils Christiansen used numerical modeling to investigate the physical footprint of offshore wind energy and showed what changes can occur in the North Sea as a result of wind turbines. These findings can serve as an important basis for ensuring nature conservation in the expansion of offshore wind energy.

“With my research, I want to provide insights into the footprint of offshore wind energy and contribute to shaping a nature-friendly energy transition.”


Tobias Röddiger

Traditionally, headphones are used to provide private audio channels. Tobias Röddiger’s dissertation at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) explores what the headphones of the future might look like. His research has shown that earables – smart sensor devices worn on the ear – can be used for in respiration and eye tracking, cough detection, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and invisible human-computer interaction.

“Through my research, headphones are becoming multifunctional everyday helpers for health monitoring and enhancing human capabilities.”


Zina Kallien

Zina Kallien investigated friction-based materials’ processing technologies during her doctorate at Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon. The work focused on friction surfacing – a process that shows potential as coating and additive manufacturing approach. The simple setup, the low energy input that is necessary as well as the homogeneous properties of the structures at high strength highlight the potential of the friction surfacing principle in comparison to other (fusion-based) technologies.

“Modern materials’ processing technologies have to meet several requirements with perspective to environment and sustainability. A comprehensive understanding of green technologies is crucial to exhaust their potential and to establish them on the long term.”


Martin Angerer

Maertin Angerer’s research interests include novel sensors and transducers with a focus on medical applications. His expertise includes the development, modelling, fabrication, characterization and optimization of piezoelectric and micromechanical sensor and transducer technologies. He completed his doctorate at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) about novel ultrasound transducer systems for 3D imaging for early breast cancer diagnostics. Ultrasound computed tomography combines the advantages of ultrasound imaging and 3D image diagnostics. As a result, it has the potential to significantly improve the early diagnosis of breast cancer.

“Ultrasound holds vast, untapped potential across various fields of science and technology. I am particularly fascinated by the synergy between theoretical principles and their practical application to enable new technologies and devices.“

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