Two Internationally Recognised Researchers Honoured

Rohini Kuner and Jonas Grethlein received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize in Berlin on 13 March

Two outstanding and internationally recognised academics of Heidelberg University - neuropharmacologist Rohini Kuner and classical philologist Jonas Grethlein - have been honoured with the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG). With the award, the DFG pays tribute to Prof. Kuner’s ground-breaking studies on the mechanisms underlying chronic pain. Prof. Grethlein, one of the leading Greek scholars worldwide, receives the award for his research on the narratology of ancient forms of narrative, ancient aesthetics, and the relation between perception of history and experience in the narrative and historiographical texts of antiquity. The prizes were presented in the presence of the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, on 13 March 2024 in Berlin.

The most important research prize in Germany, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize comes with prize money of 2.5 million euros each. The Rector of Ruperto Carola congratulated the two Heidelberg prize-winners. "The university is proud of Rohini Kuner and Jonas Grethlein," said Frauke Melchior, emphasising: "The two Leibniz Prizes are also proof of the strong research position of Heidelberg University in the broad spectrum ranging from classical philology to neuropharmacology. We take in the decision to award two prizes to Heidelberg researchers with great pleasure as a clear confirmation of our strategy as a comprehensive university." Prof. Kuner is the Managing Director of the Institute of Pharmacology, which is based in the Medical Faculty Heidelberg; Prof. Grethlein teaches and conducts his research at the Department of Classical Philology.

With his research, Jonas Grethlein has left a deep imprint not only on his subject but also on literary, cultural and historical studies in general, according to the German Research Foundation. Focal points of his work are in-depth interpretations of texts from nearly all genres of ancient Greek literature. He often interprets the texts with the aid of approaches from modern literary and cultural theory "in an unprecedented way", to quote the statement by the DFG. For example, when interpreting Greek tragedies in his doctoral dissertation, which was published in 2003, the scholar already took guidance from the question of the role of asylum in Athens for constructing cultural identity.

Prof. Grethlein’s scholarly work to date comprises eleven monographs - the most recent publication on ancient Greek texts and modern narrative theory appeared in May 2023. "In it, as in all’his publications, antiquity seems relevant and close to hand, because it enters into critical dialogue with the present," the DFG emphasises. The classical scholar was appointed to a professorship for Greek Literature at Heidelberg University in 2008. As early as 2006, he received the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize, which is awarded by the German Research Foundation in recognition of outstanding achievements to early career researchers.

Rohini Kuner’s research aims to identify the causes of chronic pain and thus to be able to address them pharmacologically. The scientist had already addressed the topic of pain research during her doctoral studies in the United States. Her contributions to the mechanisms of pain signal transmission and pain transfer to the central nervous system form an important basis for identifying what triggers chronic pain and for developing new therapeutic methods. Unlike a lot of pain research worldwide, says the German Research Foundation, Prof. Kuner concentrates on systemic approaches and particularly highlights neuroplasticity - the modifiability of neuronal connections in the nervous system that underlie chronic pain.

"With the assistance of experimental approaches such as neurogenetic and optogenetic techniques, or methods such as in-vivo imaging and 3D electron microscopy, she was able to define central neural pathways of pain transfer," the DFG underlines. Most recently the scientist has been investigating mechanisms of neuropathic pain arising from the severing of nerves. She was appointed to a professorship in Pharmacology and Toxicology at Heidelberg University in 2006; since 2009, she has headed the Institute of Pharmacology. Prof. Kuner is the spokesperson for a Collaborative Research Centre set up in 2015 on the topic of chronic pain. She has received a number of important research prizes for her work.

The Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize has been awarded annually since 1986 by the German Research Foundation. Up to ten prizes can be awarded each year with prize money of 2.5 million euros each. DFG President Katja Becker presented the 2024 awards to three female and seven male prize-winners, among them Rohini Kuner and Jonas Grethlein. 

Two other prize-winners have a connection to Heidelberg University: Moritz Helmstaedter, neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt (Main), studied at Ruperto Carola and conducted research for his doctoral thesis at the MPI for Medical Research in Heidelberg. Historian Jörn Leonhard from the University of Freiburg completed his habilitation at Heidelberg University, having also completed his studies and doctorate here.