Two outstanding young researchers at Heidelberg University - neurobiologist Dr Ana Oliveira and biochemist Dr Stefan Pfeffer - have been honoured by the Chica and Heinz Schaller Foundation with the award for biomedical research named after its sponsors. Both scientists will receive 100,000 euros for their research. Dr Oliveira received the award for her basic research on epigenetic mechanisms in learning and memory processes. She works at the Interdisciplinary Center for Neurosciences. Dr Pfeffer is a member of the Center for Molecular Biology. In awarding him the prize, the foundation acknowledges his groundbreaking structural studies on the function of ribosomes and the processes of protein synthesis by means of cryo-electron tomography.
Prize winner Ana Oliveira is exploring the coupling of environmental stimuli and neuronal modifications that underlie memory formation as well as age-related cognitive decline. She is particularly interested in the role of epigenetic processes - the factors that transiently determine the activity of a gene and hence the function of the cell, in this case the nerve cell. Her work is providing fundamental insights into gene regulation within neuronal networks and their function in memory retention.
Ana Oliveira studied biochemistry at the University of Coimbra (Portugal), where she earned her PhD in cell biology in 2008 in cooperation with the University of Pennsylvania (USA). She then moved on to post-doctoral research at the Institute for Neurobiology at Heidelberg University. Since 2014 Dr Oliveira has led a junior research group at the Interdisciplinary Center for Neurosciences (IZN) funded by the Emmy Noether Programme of the German Research Foundation. Her work was recognised in 2013 with the Feature Article Prize of the Portuguese Society for Neuroscience as well as the Young Investigator Award of the European Brain and Behavior Society.
Dr Pfeffer’s research work is devoted to explaining the structural basis of central molecular processes by directly imaging them with modern cryo-electron microscopy methods. His main focus are ribosome-associated processes required for protein biosynthesis in cells. Among others, his research aims to understand how molecular chaperones - folding helpers - and enzymes promote the correct folding and maturation of proteins during their synthesis and how these processes are coordinated on the surface of the ribosome. Dr Pfeffer’s research provides data that lead to a better understanding of pathological cellular processes, such as protein aggregation associated with neurodegenerative diseases.
After studying biochemistry at the University of Tübingen, Dr Pfeffer joined the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, where he pursued research for his dissertation and was honoured with the Institute’s Junior Research Award in 2013. He earned his PhD in chemistry at the Technical University of Munich in 2015. After postdoctoral work in Martinsried, Dr Pfeffer joined the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH), where he leads a junior research group. This year he received the Life Sciences Bridge Award given by the non-profit Aventis Foundation for innovative research projects in the life sciences field.
The eponymous foundation established by researchers Chica Schaller and Heinz Schaller has supported basic biomedical research in Heidelberg since 2000. It is particularly committed to setting up and financing the "Schaller Research Groups" that work at Heidelberg University and the German Cancer Research Center. The research award that bears the name of its two benefactors is one of the foundation’s major funding instruments and has been presented annually since 2005 to outstanding young researchers at Heidelberg.
The virtual award ceremony was held on 4 December 2020 online due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus. Two members of the foundation’s scientific advisory council praised the work of the two prize recipients. Klaus-Armin Nave, director of the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, paid tribute to Dr Oliveira, and Frauke Melchior, from the ZMBH board of directors, to Dr Pfeffer.