Research AwardLeibniz Prizes for Neuropharmacologist Rohini Kuner and Classical Philologist Jonas Grethlein

Press Release No. 132/2023
7 December 2023

Most important research award in Germany goes to two outstanding academics at Heidelberg University

Two outstanding academics at Heidelberg University – neuropharmacologist Prof. Dr Rohini Kuner and classical philologist Prof. Dr 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 mechanisms underlying chronic pain. Her research aims to identify the causes in order to address them pharmacologically. Prof. Kuner is the Managing Director of the Institute of Pharmacology, which is based in the Medical Faculty Heidelberg. Prof. Grethlein 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. One of the leading Greek scholars worldwide, Prof. Grethlein has left a deep imprint not only on his subject but also on literary, cultural, and historiographical studies, according to the DFG. Jonas Grethlein teaches and conducts his research at the Department of Classical Philology. The most important research prize in Germany comes with prize money of 2.5 million euros each.

Prof. Dr Frauke Melchior, Rector of Heidelberg University, commented on the award of the Leibniz Prizes to Rohini Kuner and Jonas Grethlein: “We warmly congratulate the two prize-winners. The university is proud of this award, which honours two outstanding and internationally recognised researchers at once. 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 this news today with great pleasure as a clear confirmation of our strategy as a comprehensive university.”

Focal points of Prof. Grethlein’s 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 German Research Foundation. 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 “Ancient Greek Texts and Modern Narrative Theory. Towards a Critical Dialogue” 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.

Jonas Grethlein studied at the University of Göttingen and the University of Oxford (U.K.) and earned his doctorate in 2002 at the University of Freiburg in Latin Philology, Greek Philology and Ancient History. From 2003 to 2009 the scholar was a junior research group leader in the DFG’s Emmy Noether Programme; in 2005 he achieved his habilitation in Freiburg. From 2007 he taught and did research as an Assistant Professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara (USA), before being appointed in 2008 to a professorship for Greek Literature at Heidelberg University. As early as 2006, Prof. Grethlein received the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize, which is awarded by the German Research Foundation in recognition of outstanding achievements to early career researchers. Prof. Grethlein declined invitations to accept professorships at the University of St. Andrews (2012) and the University of Cambridge (2021) in order to continue his research in Heidelberg.

Porträt Jonas Grethlein

Prof. Kuner 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 German Research Foundation underlines. Most recently the scientist has been investigating mechanisms of neuropathic pain arising from the severing of nerves.

Rohini Kuner studied pharmaceutical biotechnology in India and earned her doctorate in 1994 at the University of Iowa in the USA. Following that, she continued her academic career in Germany. From 1995 to 1998 she did research as a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University and at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. After two years spent working for a life-science company she switched in 2000 to Ruperto Carola’s Institute of Pharmacology. There she established a DFG-funded Emmy Noether group and earned her habilitation in 2005 at the Medical Faculty Heidelberg. In 2006, Rohini Kuner was appointed to a professorship in Pharmacology and Toxicology; since 2009, Prof. Kuner has headed the Institute of Pharmacology. Since its inception in 2015, she has been spokesperson for the Collaborative Research Centre “From nociception to chronic pain: structure-function properties of neural pathways and their reorganisation” (CRC 1158). Prof. Kuner has received a number of important research prizes for her work.

Porträt Rohini Kuner

The Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize – the most important research award in Germany – 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. The awards for the year 2024 go to three women and seven men, including Rohini Kuner and Jonas Grethlein. The purpose of the Leibniz Programme, established in 1985, is to honour outstanding scientists and scholars, to expand their research opportunities and facilitate the employment of particularly qualified early career researchers. The prizes will be presented on 13 March 2024 in Berlin.