UniversityStudying at Universität Heidelberg

18 October 2023

Interview with Rector Frauke Melchior

The start of the winter semester has seen molecular biologist Prof. Dr Frauke Melchior take up office as the new Rector of Heidelberg University. In doing so, she follows geographer Prof. Dr Bernhard Eitel. In the “Unispiegel” interview she recalls her own time at university, explains what makes studying in Heidelberg so attractive, and encourages all new-comers to contribute to the university community from the start.

Portrait of Heidelberg University's Rector Frauke Melchior

The motto of your statement during the electoral race for the Rectorate in March was “Heidelberg University – the place to be”. What exactly do you mean by that?

Melchior: Regardless of what they are doing here – studying, doing research, or working in support units like the administration or the workshops – I hope that everyone has the feeling ‘Heidelberg University is the right place for me’. The place where I am especially supported, that I would like to help develop, and where I also enjoy contributing to the advancement of others. That definitely applied to me when, in 2008, I decided to accept a professorship and come to Heidelberg. Heidelberg had the best working conditions for my research field and extremely well-trained students. Another factor for me was the outstanding environment: the partnership and cooperation with scientists in non-university research institutions like the German Cancer Research Center or the Max Planck Institutes, but also the international ethos which, compared to elsewhere in Germany, is particularly evident here.


What makes studying at Heidelberg University so attractive? Why is Ruperto Carola “the place to be” for students as well?

Melchior: Heidelberg is a strongly research-oriented university. Students who come to us have the opportunity to be drawn into current research very fast and very intensively. Another important thing is that going to university means for students the start of a new phase in their lives. And, looking beyond lectures and seminars, that should be an enjoyable time. Heidelberg is not too big but also not too small. There is active student life here, with many opportunities to get involved. In addition, the city is surrounded by wonderful scenery and has a lot to offer culturally, as well.

At Heidelberg University we have excellent, internationally prominent researchers. So our students study their subjects with the brightest and best.

Rector Frauke Melchior

What characterises good teaching, in your opinion?

Melchior: Research-driven teaching that inspires students to want to delve deeper into the topic themselves. At Heidelberg University we have excellent, internationally prominent researchers. So our students study their subjects with the brightest and best. That is a great asset, which we can capitalise on.


Does your Rectorate already have special plans for the Student Affairs portfolio?

Melchior: It’s certainly a bit early to answer that at present. But I can say that with educationist Prof. Dr Silke Hertel we have gained a wonderful colleague as Vice-Rector for Student Affairs and Teaching. She will take this area forward with her great experience, enthusiasm and all her good ideas and initiatives.


At the moment everyone is discussing the use of AI applications such as ChatGPT, which opens up many opportunities but is also giving rise to fears, for example in the school and university context, about the assessment of written work. How do you see the future of studying and teaching against the backdrop of these new technologies?

Melchior: That is a very important topic. We will have to familiarise ourselves with it very quickly and also discuss possible issues with all concerned, also and particularly with the teachers. My personal attitude is that we have to embrace these technologies. We have to learn how to handle them responsibly, how to use them so as to benefit from the opportunities they offer. They call for innovative approaches and avenues to tap their great potential. We have to support the students in using AI applications meaningfully and consciously as support instruments that can help, for instance, with analysing research literature, writing code, and carrying out searches or scientific evaluations.


Besides digitalisation as a new focal area, the topic of sustainability is to play a special role in your Rectorate. In what sense?

Melchior: We want to concern ourselves with sustainability questions as extensively as possible – in research, in teaching, but also in our actions as an institution. With the foundation of the Heidelberg Center for the Environment over ten years ago, we were the first university in Baden-Württemberg to combine the environmental sciences in one interdisciplinary centre. We aim to reinforce and expand on such activities.

We want to concern ourselves with sustainability questions as extensively as possible – in research, in teaching, but also in our actions as an institution

Rector Frauke Melchior

Can you actually remember your first day at university? And did you already have an idea of what kind of career you would have later?

Melchior: I started studying chemistry in Marburg. Many of us students back then regarded getting a job in the chemical industry as an attractive career goal. That was something that I, too, was able to imagine very well, in principle. However, since my school days I had found so much enjoyment in the process of curiosity-driven research that I was also always able to imagine staying in academia. The final decision then came rather late. Working on my doctoral thesis was an important step but I really only definitely opted for an academic career during my second postdoc phase in the United States. There it became clear to me that research was what I wanted to do in the long term. I have never regretted this decision: the freedom of academic research – it has always seemed to me – is a great privilege.


Many young people are starting a degree course at Heidelberg University around now. What advice do you give the students?

Melchior: They should in any case take up the many offers of support, networking and orientation provided at many points, for instance during the introductory week. The early days of student life are defining moments – in my case, I made friendships for life. Alongside your degree course as such, which I hope both challenges and inspires you, it is very rewarding – I can confirm that again from my own experience – to get involved and help to organise activities at the university – for example, in the departmental student committees. In the beginning, the support mainly comes from older, already experienced students. Make the most of it and then, perhaps as early as next year, pass it on to the freshers!

Personal details

Frauke Melchior was born in Heidelberg and, from the age of six, grew up in Frankfurt am Main. After graduating from high school, she studied chemistry at the University of Marburg and the University of Bristol (UK). In 1990 she earned her doctorate in Marburg with a biochemical thesis topic. As a postdoctoral researcher in the field of molecular cell biology, she first worked at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen and, from 1992, at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla (USA). There she studied protein sorting in human cells and discovered what is called the SUMO protein – denoting a mechanism of post-translational protein modification that became a focus of her scientific work. She started the first research group of her own in 1998, at another Max Planck institute, the MPI of Biochemistry in Martinsried, near Munich. Six years later, she accepted a professorship for biochemistry in the field of human medicine at the University of Göttingen. In 2008, Frauke Melchior was appointed to the Faculty of Biosciences at Heidelberg University, to pursue research as Professor for Molecular Biology at the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH). In April 2021, she joined the Board of Directors of Forschungszentrum Jülich, a research centre of the Helmholtz Association. After being elected the new Rector, she has returned to Heidelberg University as of the present winter semester.