The Max Planck Society honours the physicist for her science communication during the COVID-19 pandemic
Her expertise is in demand. She advises politicians such as Angela Merkel, gives interviews, writes statements and publishes her scientific work in respected journals. Where Viola Priesemann gets her energy from is a mystery to many. Since the beginning of the pandemic, she has been calculating scenarios of how the spread of the Sars-CoV2 coronavirus accelerates or weakens under different conditions. She took up the topic not least because she can rely on similar mathematical theories as she does in her research on the spread of information in the brain.
Viola Priesemann dedicated herself to the analysis of neuronal processes with physical-mathematical methods as early as her diploma thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, where she also completed her doctorate after studying at TU Darmstadt. She moved to the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation after completing her doctorate in 2013. In 2014, she became a Bernstein Fellow and shortly afterwards Max Planck Group Leader for the Theory of Neural Networks.
From information dissemination in the brain to coronavirus models
In April, Viola Priesemann succeeded in quantifying the effect of the first lockdown and published this in the journal “Science” in July. She then turned her attention to the effect of containment strategies and found that, in addition to an R-value above 1, a further tipping point can occur in the infection process when the infection numbers increase so much that the health authorities can no longer thoroughly identify, test and, if necessary, isolate the contact persons of infected persons. From this, she derives a containment strategy that has found its way into several statements. Since the virus does not stop at borders, she recently initiated two interdisciplinary statements to achieve joint European action on containment – supported by over a thousand scientists.
The advice of scientists has rarely been in such demand as during the coronavirus pandemic. Science communication is also finding more space than usual in the daily press – and yet: science finds itself facing a real dilemma. “We are used to taking our time in the search for explanations, and yet we are currently forced to give advice and recommendations under extreme time pressure, to reduce our knowledge to core statements, in interviews, talk shows or news programmes,” said Max Planck President Martin Stratmann during the award ceremony.
Admirable confidence, perseverance and straightforwardness
With people seeking answers, researchers cannot hide away in the ivory tower, but have to face the needs and fears of the citizens, so Stratmann. “Viola Priesemann has taken on this challenge with admirable confidence, perseverance and straightforwardness,” says President Stratmann. “She persevered and still managed to keep a balance on the fine line between objectivity and personal expression of opinion. I think that is truly admirable.” Despite the complexity of the matter, she has continued her research, refined her models and kept the public informed.
“We at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation are all very proud of the role Viola Priesemann has played as a public voice of reason at a time when there was so much uncertainty,” says Ramin Golestanian, the Institute’s Managing Director.
With the Max Planck Communitas Prize, the President of the Max Planck Society has honoured members for their dedicated service to the society since 2014. The award recognizes scientific and non-scientific members. Before Viola Priesemann, the following researchers have received the award: Ulrich Sieber and Rüdiger Wolfrum (2018), Reinhard Jahn (2016), Wolf Singer (2015) and Jürgen Renn, Robert Schlögl and Bernard Schutz (2014). Among the non-scientific members, Georg Heyne and Heinz Junkes (2019), Verena Mauch and Christane Walch-Solimena (2017) and Georg Botz (2014) were honoured.