She is one of the most cited Austrian researchers in the world: Microbiologist Christa Schleper of the University of Vienna is Austria’s new Wittgenstein Award winner.

The winners of Austria’s largest monetary research awards have been announced: On the recommendation of an international jury of experts, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) has honoured seven researchers—with one Wittgenstein Award and six START Awards. Austrian Federal Minister of Science Martin Polaschek and FWF President Christof Gattringer presented today the Wittgenstein Award worth EUR 1.5 million to microbiologist Christa Schleper, who will use the funding to expand her world-class research. Through the Wittgenstein and START Programmes, the FWF launches research projects with a total funding volume of roughly EUR 9 million. 

“I’m delighted to receive this award from the international jury of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF)”, says Christa Schleper in a first reaction. “The Wittgenstein Award gives me and my team a lot of freedom to tackle some of the as yet unanswered questions in biology”, continues Schleper. “We are studying why microorganisms—the smallest and oldest living things on the earth—play such a large role in the ecosystem. It is important for me that, with our insights, we not only stick hot on the heels of evolution, but we also contribute to the biodiversity and climate protection of tomorrow”, says Schleper in conclusion.

“I would like to extend heartfelt congratulations to Wittgenstein Award winner Christa Schleper of the University of Vienna as well as the six researchers receiving START Awards”, says Minister of Education, Science and Research Martin Polaschek, emphasising the importance of the two awards for Austrian research. “The Wittgenstein Award is Austria’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize and allows researchers to conduct world-class research here in Austria and build excellent teams at universities and research institutions. This not only leads to important scientific and scholarly discoveries, but also generates valuable momentum for Austria as a venue for innovation and research”, notes the Federal Minister.

“The Wittgenstein Award is the confirmation of a life devoted to outstanding research and in the case of Christa Schleper we may well expect many more discoveries in her field still to come”, observes FWF President Christof Gattringer, pointing out the topicality of Christa Schleper’s research: “Christa Schleper is conducting research into hitherto unexplored areas of biology. Her findings will help us to better understand the role of microorganisms in the soil and their influence on climate”, concludes Gattringer.

Wittgenstein Award winner 2022: Towards a better understanding of the influence of microorganisms on climate 

Christa Schleper has been a professor at the University of Vienna and the head of the Department of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology since 2007. She is one of the most cited researchers in Austria. Christa Schleper studied biology in Aachen and Constance, received her doctoral degree from the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, and has taught and conducted research in the USA, Norway, and Germany. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Microbiology and a member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Since the beginning of her career, she has been working on archaea—these microorganisms are, together with bacteria, among the first living things on earth. She would like to use the EUR 1.5 million Wittgenstein Award of the FWF to expand basic research into newly discovered archaea and to investigate not only their evolutionary significance, but also their role in the ecosystem. Her findings are intended to help us better understand the role of microorganisms in the soil and how they can be used in future, for example, to develop more sustainable agriculture.

A successful career including an ERC Advanced Grant and several FWF grants

Over the last few years, Christa Schleper has been able to secure, thanks to her outstanding research activities, several FWF grants, including a doctoral programme involving nine working groups. In 2016, she received a renowned ERC Advanced Grant of the European Research Council. Schleper’s research mainly focuses on the ecology, molecular biology, and evolution of archaea, virus-host interactions, as well as research on nonculturable microorganisms with the aid of metagenomics.

Jury’s statement: Pioneering contributions to microbial ecology

“Christa Schleper has made an extraordinary contribution to the field of microbial ecology. Her studies on archaea have led to groundbreaking discoveries and have improved our understanding of the nitrogen cycle”, says the START/Wittgenstein Jury in its statement. It continues, “Through the Wittgenstein Award we not only recognise the pioneering nature of her research, which has led to the discovery of new species and ecological niches, but also the far-reaching impacts on the future of this field of research”. 

The START/Wittgenstein Jury is composed of 13 leading researchers, among them, two Nobel Prize winners, Bruce Beutler (2011, Physiology/Medicine) and Stefan Hell (2014, Chemistry). The chairperson of the jury is Janet Wolff, University of Manchester, UK. You can find the members of the international START/Wittgenstein Jury here online.

Austria’s largest monetary research award

The Wittgenstein Award is open to excellent researchers from all disciplines. Endowed with 1.5 million euros per winner, the award enables the winners to conduct their research with the utmost freedom and flexibility. Researchers are thus enabled to intensify their research activities at the highest international level. 

Get to know Austria’s new Wittgenstein Award winner

The Austrian Science Fund (FWF)

The Austrian Science Fund (FWF) is Austria’s leading organisation for funding all fields of basic and arts-based research. On the basis of rigorous peer review by international experts, the FWF supports excellent researchers and their groundbreaking ideas. The insights they gain make Austria a more attractive research location and create the broad knowledge base needed to face future challenges.

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