At the University of Giessen, Justus Liebig exists not only in the university’s name. Uni Giessen’s aspirations are also still based on Liebig’s legacy: to form international networks, to establish strategic research partners and to promote young scientists. University President Prof. Dr. Joybrato Mukherjee explains the recipe for success of Hessen’s second largest university and explains how Justus Liebig University Giessen (JLU) has shaped Central Hessen as a research location.
Cutting-edge research and excellence in science, while providing applied solutions for society: How does the university live up to this claim, which Justus Liebig exemplified almost 200 years ago when he gave it its name?
Prof. Joybrato Mukherjee: Excellent but also application-oriented research was very close to Justus Liebig’s heart, and this principle still characterizes the university. With the “Liebig Concept,” we have created a strategy to further develop top-level university research. This includes cooperation with a skilled network of partners – regional, national and international. Our current development plan, “JLU 2030,” is also based on Liebig’s guiding ideas.
How can this be understood in concrete terms?
Prof. Joybrato Mukherjee: Central Hessen is a special research location. The three universities see themselves as strategic partners, and together we take our responsibility for the region of Central Hesse seriously. Each institution on its own is too small to survive in a tough competitive environment. Therefore, we are dependent on working together as partners.
Above all, the research location is an area of cooperation: We conduct science with an eye to concrete, social problems and want to find solutions. After all, our work is financed by taxes. This also includes establishing new promising disciplines such as insect biotechnology. We are an international leader in this field, which Giessen scientists have played a major role in developing. With the establishment of the Bioresources Unit of the Fraunhofer IME at the Giessen site, there is even the prospect of an independent Fraunhofer facility in central Hessen.
Which partnerships and branches of research are particularly important for the University of Giessen?
Prof. Joybrato Mukherjee: Our home region is Central Hessen, which is why we established a strategic alliance a few years ago together with the Technical University of Central Hessen and the Philipps University of Marburg. We founded the Research Campus of Middle Hessen (Forschungscampus Mittelhessen; FCMH), an inter-university institution, with the aim of promoting common priorities.
One of our strategically important partners is the Goethe University, Frankfurt, with which we have a whole range of collaborations – including a joint cluster of excellence in cardiopulmonary research. Our long-standing successful collaboration with the Kerckhoff Clinic in Bad Nauheim was formalized three years ago with a cooperation agreement. With the associated establishment of a “Kerckhoff Campus of the Justus Liebig University of Giessen and its Department of Medicine,” we have created a university cardiac, pulmonary, rheumatism and vascular center of JLU in Bad Nauheim, which expands our research and teaching offerings to include special topics. We also work together with the Max Planck Institute in Bad Nauheim in the field of cardiopulmonary research.
So medical research plays a special role for the University of Giessen?
Prof. Joybrato Mukherjee: Yes, medicine is an extremely important area for us: our spectrum ranges from basic research to the first preclinical studies – if necessary in cooperation with pharmaceutical companies – right up to market approval.
In the field of lung research, for example, physicians from Giessen have been internationally leading for many years. It is not for nothing that the German Centre for Lung Research (DZL) has its association headquarters in Giessen, an association of 29 leading university and non-university institutions dedicated to research into respiratory diseases. In addition, the new non-university Institute for Lung Health will be established in Giessen – initially under the umbrella of the DZL. Research results and findings are to be rapidly transferred into clinical practice.
One indicator of success is the approval of new active substances. For example, there are five substance classes for the treatment of the various forms of previously incurable pulmonary hypertension, which have been developed over the past 20 years. Researchers at JLU have been involved in the development of three of these substance classes, from the idea to the approval. Our research has thus made a significant contribution to the treatment of this serious disease of the lungs and heart.
Another very recent example is Corona research, where scientists from Giessen are involved both in the search for a vaccine and in the development of drugs. Among other things, an active substance against Covid-19 is being tested in a clinical trial at JLU. I think this is the secret of our success: We have to bring together all the necessary and the best players.
What challenges do you see in medicine?
Prof. Joybrato Mukherjee: I see several aspects to this. Firstly, medicine is faced with problems in recruiting new talent: It’s becoming more and more difficult to fill physician positions. This shortage of qualified staff is becoming an increasing challenge – also in terms of attracting doctors to a scientific career. Secondly, I see economic difficulties coming our way: In the future, we will be even more concerned with providing an aging society with the resources for more expensive therapies. Then there are the current challenges posed by the Corona pandemic – and also possible further pandemics for which we must be prepared. That, too, costs money. Another challenge is certainly digitization, which opens up completely new possibilities and opportunities for medicine. But that also means that the resources for all the new digital options must be made available.
What are the main areas of research besides medicine?
Prof. Joybrato Mukherjee: In addition to very successful heart-lung research, the psychological domain of “perception and action” is one of our main areas of research. Here we work closely with the University of Marburg. Other important research areas are “Material and Energy,” especially with regard to storage materials of the future; the research field “Culture – Conflict – Security,” with its focus on Eastern Europe; and, of course, insect biotechnology as a sub-area of bioresources, which we are very interested in overall.
What is the situation at the international level – particularly when one thinks of the training of young scientists?
Prof. Joybrato Mukherjee: With over 100 partnerships, cooperations and exchange agreements worldwide, JLU is very well-positioned and networked internationally. As a relatively small city with a large university, Giessen is also very attractive internationally. We have around ten percent international students at JLU. Between 35 and 40 percent of our doctoral students come from abroad. This is a very high figure, which shows that we are very successful in promoting young talent with international visibility.
For example, since 2012, we have been cooperating with Australia’s renowned Monash University in an international research training group on reproductive medicine, which is investigating the causes of male infertility. This is the first German-Australian Research Training Group ever to be funded by the German Research Foundation. A special feature is the joint award of the doctorate by both universities for successful graduates.
Our international cooperation in research and teaching focuses on seven strategic partner regions: Australia; Europe, with a focus on Eastern Europe; Colombia; Southern Africa; Wisconsin/USA and – still in the process of being established – China and South Asia. We have established three “JLU Information Points” in Australia, Colombia and Poland, which will further strengthen the existing cooperation with a permanent JLU presence in Sydney, Bogotá and Lodz. There, we present our range of courses and our research focus, advise on funding opportunities and recruit students and researchers.