Press release 2020/158 from

This year, Leipzig University has once again landed Germany’s most valuable research award: it will now be able to appoint Professor Oskar Hallatschek from the University of California, Berkeley as an Alexander von Humboldt Professor. The 44-year-old is one of the world’s most renowned researchers dealing with the interface between physics and biology. He analyses phenomena of collective self-organisation in biological systems, which result from the interaction of ecological and evolutionary effects. Hallatschek investigates the influence of spatial structure on biological processes, for example in evolutionary adaptation, random genetic drift, and the spread of epidemics such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof. Dr. Oskar Hallatschek analysiert Phänomene kollektiver Selbstorganisation in biologischen Systemen.

Prof. Dr. Oskar Hallatschek analysiert Phänomene kollektiver Selbstorganisation in biologischen Systemen. Foto: Erik Martens

“We are continuing our university’s success story: I am delighted that we have once again succeeded in securing an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship with Oskar Hallatschek. He will strengthen the link between the life sciences and medicine with physics and mathematics in and around Leipzig. Together with our partners, we are growing into a major international and interdisciplinary centre for quantitative eco-evolutionary research,” said Professor Beate Schücking, Rector of Leipzig University. “Oskar Hallatschek adopts both a mathematical-physical perspective on ecology and evolution and an evolutionary perspective on biological physics. But his research also addresses medical questions relating to HIV, cancer and the development of drug resistances,” said Professor Christoph Jacobi, Dean of the Faculty of Physics and Earth Sciences, which will host the professorship. He added that Hallatschek’s research forms a substantive interface with important neighbouring faculties and local institutions, such as the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and the Max Planck Institutes for Mathematics in the Sciences, for Evolutionary Anthropology, and for the Science of Human History.

What influence do random effects have on spreading processes?
Oskar Hallatschek overcomes traditional boundaries, both between disciplines and between theory and experiment. With theoretical research methods rooted in the statistical physics of soft matter, his experimental research is primarily aimed at microbial systems. He analyses phenomena of collective self-organisation, which play an important role in the formation and evolution of microbial ecosystems up to the spread of evolutionary novelties. These phenomena are often strongly influenced by random effects, which Hallatschek tries to understand with the help of theoretical models, computer simulations and evolutionary experiments. This has many applications, ranging from regulating microbial biofilms to predicting the spread of epidemics. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Hallatschek is currently investigating how temporal spread varies from place to place.

Born in Kaufbeuren in Bavaria, he studied physics at Heidelberg University and ETH Zurich. He received his doctorate at Freie Universität Berlin before joining Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow. He then headed a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen before returning to the US as an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Four Humboldt Professorships for Leipzig
Three Humboldt Professors currently research and teach at Leipzig University: chemist Professor Jens Meiler, philosopher Professor James Conant and classical philologist and computer scientist Professor Gregory Ralph Crane.

About the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship
The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation employs a rigorous selection process to award Germany’s most prestigious international research prize. Its aim is to enable German universities to appoint world-leading researchers who are based abroad and to offer them internationally competitive conditions for pioneering research. The prize money of up to five million euros is intended to finance the first five years in Germany.