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Q&A with Johannes Herrmann, new President of German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (GBM)

Prof. Herrmann speaks about his plans in his new role and his ambition to support early career researchers

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Prof. Johannes Herrmann is the new President of the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (Background © istock.com/MiljaPhoto)

Dr. Johannes Herrmann, Professor of Cellular Biology at the Technische Universität Kaiserslautern, Germany, was recently elected President of the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (Gesellschaft für Biochemie und Molekularbiologie, GBM). Since 2012, the GBM has been collaborating with Elsevier and our life sciences journal portfolio Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) to support and enhance excellence in research. Each year, Elsevier/BBA sponsors the prestigious Otto Warburg Medal , and supports the GBM by creating a broader visibility for the award. Both partners join forces to acknowledge pioneering achievements by outstanding international scientists, thereby inspiring young researchers and attracting the wider public’s interest in science.

In an interview with Elsevier’s Petra Ullrich, Prof. Herrmann speaks about his new position, his view on the future of teaching and the significance of awards at different stages of a scientific career.


First of all, it is my pleasure to extend my warmest congratulations to you on your new role as President of GBM. When expertise in biochemistry and molecular bioscience is needed, the GBM is an important point of contact. How does it feel to take on this role and responsibility now?

It is a great honor – and a lot of fun – to be the president of the GBM. Despite its long history, the GBM remains a very fresh and vivid society with many active members. In addition to the executive committee and the advisory board, there are contact persons at basically every university, in addition to study group leaders, Junior-GBM and GBM Young Investigator members, as well as many interested individuals who combine to make the GBM a highly dynamic and interactive community. It is an exciting task to be president of such an active network and to interact with so many interesting people every day.

What will be your main goal in your new role as president? What will you do differently than your predecessors?

Established scientists and professors are a very active and strong group in the GBM who enjoy the dynamic network the society offers. In addition, for several years now, the Junior-GBM groups have been one of the big successes of our society. These young members positively influence and shape our society. However, in between these two groups, we have the junior professors and young group leaders. They are often not members but are rather tied to their specific scientific communities and busy with all the different tasks they have to tackle. However, this group of young scientists would particularly gain from the interactions the GBM can offer. We therefore have founded the GBM Young Investigators group, which I hope we can expand further to help young people to pursue their careers in science.

Another very important activity will be to connect the GBM to other societies, such as the society for cell biology or the society for biophysics. We have already had a couple of joint meetings with society presidents to discuss how we can intensify interactions between our societies in the future.

At the Technische Universität Kaiserslautern, you are also well known for your innovative approach to education and teaching. The TU Kaiserslautern has established an “eTeaching Service Center” that lets students download lectures and seminars in electronic format. Will they replace the “real” lecture one day or will the personal interaction between professor and student always play an important role in the learning process?

Yes, in Kaiserslautern, we are in an excellent situation that we are able to have all of our lectures videotaped without any effort for us, and most of my lectures are filmed. In my experience, this does not lead to fewer students in the lecture halls but rather to a larger attendance. I do not think that e-teaching will or shall replace “real” lectures. Direct contact to the professors is extremely important. However, it is a very good opportunity for students to be able to re-watch lecture series segments. This helps them to better understand and memorize the large amount of knowledge that they are required to learn today.

You regularly receive highest ratings from your students, and in 2008, you received the Lehrpreis Rheinland-Pfalz, a prize for education from the State Ministry Rhineland-Palatinate for Education, Science, Further Education and Culture (MWWK Rheinland-Pfalz). With your modern approach to teaching and education, you are close to the students. From your personal experience, what kind of support is most important to young students and researchers nowadays?

The big challenge in teaching is it to make complicated and complex things simple. For this, a teacher needs to have a very broad knowledge of his or her field. At first, it might appear counterintuitive that you need to know a lot in order to keep things simple. However, to really impart understanding and a passion for science to the students in the lecture hall, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the basic and important principles of both your own discipline as well as related fields and to be in close touch with the current trends and developments from both the primary literature and scientific conferences. This is why I am convinced that university teaching has to be exclusively in the hands of active scientists who run research labs and visit scientific conferences. For example, I have visited the Mosbach conferences of the GBM since I was a PhD student. These annual three days conferences on changing biological topics offer an excellent opportunity to get updated on very different aspects of molecular biology, which helps me a lot in teaching.

In your role as GBM president, you will present the Otto Warburg Medal, the most prestigious Life Science award in Germany. From your perspective, how important are these awards for a researcher´s career and how are the candidates selected each year?

There are many small awards and prizes which can be very helpful to support one’s career. They increase the visibility of excellent people and help them to find a job. However, the Otto Warburg Medal, as the most prestigious life sciences award in Germany, is awarded to people who have already climbed to the highest steps of the career ladder and who already have an outstanding reputation. Here, the purpose of the awards is not so much to help them even further but rather to give these excellent prize winners the opportunity to serve as a role model that can inspire others with their exciting discoveries. All the awardees of the Otto Warburg Medal that I have heard speak in the past, which were very many, did this in an excellent way. The GBM is grateful to Elsevier for the funding of this prestigious award and help in enhancing the broader visibility of this award.

About a third of the GBM members are young members in the “Junior GBM” groups you mentioned. They are organizing many events independently, from visits to companies and institutes to scientific lectures, networking and career events, etc. How does a scientific society motivate students to commit themselves to these activities alongside their studies?

To be honest, it is not so much society that motivates young members; rather the motivation comes from the young people themselves. Once a Junior GBM group is founded at a university and has a core of active students, they typically attract many others to join them. The strong combination of scientific exchange and networking with pleasure and fun activities such as barbecues or parties is what most motivates Junior GBM members to join the society. Although, of course, the society strongly supports the Junior GBM groups, financially, structurally and in every other way we can.

GBM obviously has no problems recruiting new young members, while other associations sometimes struggle with acquiring new members. The GBM obviously is doing something right. Is there a new trend that young people are starting to engage in activities on a voluntary basis again, or is it merely to have this aspect covered in their CV?

In chemistry and physics, many young students join the one big society of their field, almost by default. In life sciences, however, there are many small societies, and it is more difficult for students to pick their specific society as they often do not know yet whether they will become microbiologists, plant scientists, zoologists, biochemists, geneticists, etc. Most Junior-GBM members join the society to be part of the active group at their university, to visit conferences for little financial cost and to be integrated into a network with others who, like them, have to find attractive jobs after their studies. I am convinced that the Junior GBMs offer an excellent opportunity for young people to train their organizational skills, to interact with many others in universities, industry and the public and to identify their individual interests and specific strengths. Thus, the Junior GBMs are an excellent training ground for the next generation of life scientists regardless of where they will end up in their professional lives.

The Otto Warburg Medal and the GBM

On September 24, Prof. Johannes Herrmann will award the Otto Warburg Medal – the highest German distinction in the field of biochemistry and molecular biology. This year, the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (GBM) and its partners Elsevier and Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) will posthumously award Prof. Stefan Jentsch for his research on the importance of the protein Ubiquitin and its role in protein degradation.

The Otto Warburg Medal has been conferred by GMB since 1963. It honors outstanding, internationally recognized results in fundamental biochemical and molecular biological research. Since 2012, GBM has been cooperating with Elsevier and BBA to support excellence in research. Elsevier and BBA are the exclusive sponsors of this medal, with a prize of €25,000 to support continued research by the awardees.

Professor Johannes Herrmann

Dr. Johannes Herrmann is Professor of Cell Biology and Head of the Biology Department at the University of Kaiserslautern. He was recently elected President of the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (GBM), after serving as Vice President. In his research, he focuses, among other topics, on mitochondria, for example, on the function of certain proteins in energy production. Prior to his current position, Prof. Herrmann was Group Leader in the Department of Physiological Chemistry at the Adolf-Butenandt Institute in Munich. He conducted his PhD studies at the Institute for Physiological Chemistry, Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, and completed his postdoc at the University of California in Berkeley.

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