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2013 Wittgenstein Award goes to physicist Ulrike Diebold

Nine outstanding early-stage researchers accepted into FWF's prestigious START programme

Vienna, June 17, 2013 – At a joint press conference held today, Austrian Federal Minister of Science and Research Karlheinz Töchterle, START/Wittgenstein Jury Chairman Jan Ziolkowski, and Austrian Science Fund (FWF) President Christoph Kratky announced the winner of this year's Wittgenstein Award as well as the nine early-stage researchers inducted into the FWF's START programme. Over the next five to six years, these ten researchers will have a total of approximately EUR 12 million at their disposal for their research efforts.

"The Wittgenstein Award and START programme both stand for excellence, and they showcase outstanding research in Austria. Once again, I am very pleased to see the broad spectrum covered by this year's award recipients," commented Karlheinz Töchterle, Austrian Federal Minister of Science and Research. "The START programme provides a springboard for the careers of early-stage researchers, and it is my hope that the recipients will make full use of the funds to further their own development as well as to strengthen their respective research disciplines and Austria as a research location," Töchterle continued.

"In addition to the Wittgenstein Award, the START programme in particular reflects the highly positive development observed at Austrian research institutions in recent years. We have never seen such a broad range of outstanding young researchers apply for START grants. Judging from the applications, there is little need to fear for the future of research in Austria," explained Christoph Kratky, President of the FWF.

The annual Wittgenstein Award and START grants were awarded for the 18th time in 2013, thus adding ten new and outstanding researchers to the list of people who have received these awards.

The 2013 Wittgenstein Award went to Ulrike Diebold, Professor of Surface Science at the Vienna University of Technology.

Born in Kapfenberg, Austria, in 1961, Diebold earned her doctorate at Vienna University of Technology in 1990, after which she spent three years at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In 1993, she moved on to Tulane University in New Orleans, where she became a full professor in 2001. She remained there until 2009, with visiting and short-term appointments at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, as well as Princeton University and Rutgers. However, over all those years she maintained her ties to the Vienna University of Technology (TU). In 2010, Diebold was appointed to the TU's Chair for Surface Science, where she has been conducting research and teaching since 2010. She has maintained her affiliation with Tulane as a research professor.

Diebold's research activities lie at the interface between physics and chemistry, and she has earned worldwide renown as a leading expert in metal oxide surfaces. Her specialty is the application of scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) and surface spectroscopy techniques in order to observe, describe and understand the surface structures and molecular processes of metal oxides down to the atomic level. Diebold's success in science and research essentially rests on three pillars: the systems she chooses, her ability to conduct precise and ground-breaking experiments, and her talent for leading research teams to outstanding achievements.

Her research work centres on oxidised materials. On the one hand, this focus represents a logical decision: As all metals and semiconductors eventually oxidise when exposed to the environment, it is worth studying their oxide compounds in order to learn more about their surfaces. At the same time, these materials have a fascinating range of physical and chemical properties. Metal oxides include the best insulating materials as well as superconductors; some can be used as particularly active catalysts, while others are known to be especially corrosion-resistant materials. Coupled with the possibility of influencing their properties, this versatility makes metal oxides highly promising for a wide variety of technical applications. In practically all of the current and imaginable future applications of these materials – such as catalysts, gas sensors, batteries, fuel cells and innovative electronic components – their surfaces and interfaces play a key role. As a result, research on fundamental questions of surface properties and processes is not only of interest to the scientific disciplines per se, but it also has a major impact on issues related to environmental protection, energy resources and storage, as well as other broad areas of technical application.

As a young faculty member at Tulane, Ulrike Diebold already began to investigate fundamental questions of surface science in metal oxides in the 1990s. At the time, metal oxides were considered an interesting field of research, but they were considered too complex and too "messy" to enable meaningful surface research. Diebold was the first to demonstrate that it is possible to use STM to make atomic-scale material defects visible, and that it is possible to observe the chemical reactions triggered by those defects molecule for molecule. She joined forces with the world's top theoretical groups in order to model the findings resulting from her experiments and thus to attain a better understanding of how chemical reactions occur on surfaces. Both her highly cited review articles as well as her original works have had a major impact on the entire field of surface science.

In the future, Diebold and her team plan to concentrate on applying new methods to investigate solid-liquid interfaces. With the Wittgenstein Award, she will be able to intensify her efforts to explore uncharted territory in surface science using an electrochemical scanning tunneling microscope.

The Wittgenstein Award is Austria's largest and most prestigious research prize, and it has been awarded by the FWF since 1996. The recipient is provided with a budget of up to EUR 1.5 million for research activities over a period of five years. The Wittgenstein is what is known as a "dry prize," meaning that the funds are only available for the scholar's intended research.

The award recommendation was prepared by the International START/Wittgenstein Jury on the basis of peer reviews from expert scholars based outside of Austria. The jury comprises a number of renowned scientists from outside of Austria in order to ensure a maximum of objectivity in award decisions. The jury convened last week and was chaired by Jan Ziolkowski, Professor of Medieval Latin and Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection at Harvard University.

After Ruth Wodak (1996), Marjori Matzke (1997, together with Antonius Matzke) and Renée Schroeder (2003), Diebold is the fourth woman to receive the Wittgenstein Award.

In addition to the Wittgenstein winner, nine outstanding young researchers were chosen among 96 applicants for the START programme. The START grant is the FWF's largest and most prestigious award for early-stage researchers. On the basis of their scientific track records, recipients are given the opportunity to plan their research work on a long-term basis (six years) with sufficient financial security and to establish, expand and lead their own research group independently. All grant recipients are subjected to an interim evaluation after three years. START grants are endowed with up to EUR 1.2 million each.

The new researchers chosen for the START programme in 2013 are listed below (in alphabetical order):

Stefan L. AMERES
"Molecular Characterization of the MicroRNA Life Cycle",
Austrian Academy of Sciences,
Institute of Molecular Biotechnology

Ovidiu PAUN
"Evolution through recurrent allopolyploidization",
University of Vienna, Department of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany

"Plant Surfaces and Interfaces in Plants: Lignin, Suberin and Cutin",
University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna:
Department of Material Sciences and Process Engineering

Thomas POCK
"Bilevel Learning for Computer Vision",
Graz University of Technology,
Institute for Computer Graphics and Vision

"PDE models for nanotechnology",
University of Vienna,
Faculty of Mathematics

"Seeing Like an Archive: Documents and Forms of Governance in Islamic Central Asia",
Austrian Academy of Sciences,
Institute of Iranian Studies

"Towards hole spin qubits and Majorana fermions in Germanium",
University of Linz,
Institute of Semiconductor and Solid State Physics

"Decodyn: Treating Hard Problems with Decomposition and Dynamic Programming", Vienna University of Technology, Institute of Information Systems

David A. KEAYS
"The Cellular Basis of Magnetoreception", Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP)


Both the START Program and the Wittgenstein Award are open to all scientific disciplines. The two programs have been carried out since 1996.

Austrian Science Fund FWF
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Haus der Forschung
Sensengasse 1
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / (0)1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

Vienna, June 17, 2013

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