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Research in times of Corona

How everyday life at Humboldt-Universität is slowly getting back on track

The quantum physicist Arno Rauschenbeutel moves in the world of atoms, electrons and molecules. He is researching glass fibres, which are 100 times thinner than a human hair, in order to understand quantum optical processes in the nano range. He uses laser experiments for this purpose. When the essential-only mode at the Berlin universities started, he and his 17-member research group had to slowly shut down almost all of these experiments. "We were only able to continue one of five experiments while working from home and monitor and control it with the help of the computer and a webcam; all the others had to be partially regulated manually," says the physicist, who moved from Vienna to the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) two years ago for an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. Since research operations at HU have been slowly restarted for a week now, Rauschenbeutel can also gradually restart the experiments at the Institute of Physics.

But Arno Rauschenbeutel is not yet in the mood for celebrating. "The well-known hygiene measures must be observed. We will work in shifts, only one third of the team will be present at any given time. One person per office, a maximum of two per laboratory is allowed." This reduces the efficiency of the work a lot, but it's not the only problem. "There is no more casual communication, that worries me a lot, we lack contact at the coffee machine." What may sound like a luxury problem at first glance is the be-all and end-all in scientific research, the spontaneous exchange of technical information over lunch, in the corridor or in the group leader's office. "This direct contact cannot be replaced by a Zoom meeting."

"A convention thrives on personal contact"

The social and economic historian Alexander Nützenadel, as a humanities scholar, is not dependent on a laboratory to produce documents and publications. He had the information he needed on his computer or could order it from the electronic stock of libraries. "For me, the essential-only mode was not so dramatic. I could finish manuscripts." But there was one disappointment. "I have a sabbatical in the summer semester, a stay at Sciences Po Paris was planned. I had to postpone it until next year."

Nützenadel who does research on historical financial crises, is currently working on a project on the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930's and the financial crisis of 2008. In this respect, the economic consequences of the Corona Pandemic are also of interest to him. "In difficult situations, the state resorts to instruments from the past to solve current problems or to justify measures. This can now be observed again, the state uses support measures for certain industries - similar to the crisis in 2008".

Nützenadel is convinced that the Corona crisis will result in an innovation boost for research and teaching. "I am optimistic that we will continue to maintain video conferencing in some areas. You don't have to fly to every editors' meeting, it has a positive impact on climate change and time budget." The Commission for Research and Young Scientists - a commission of the Academic Senate of the HU - whose chairman is Nützenadel, also met successfully via Zoom. However, the topic of conferences is a difficult one. The historian is spokesman for the priority programme "Experience and Expectation. Historical foundations of economic activity" with 16 projects. Here, events had to be cancelled or postponed. "A conference thrives on personal contacts," he emphasizes.

Research on the corona virus 

The biophysicist Andreas Herrmann is interested in the corona virus SARS-CoV-2 from a technical point of view. As a virus researcher, the current time is extremely exciting for him. Recently, during the shutdown, a publication appeared which deals with an inhibitor, an inhibitor called "phage capsid", which he developed together with other Berlin scientists. It renders influenza viruses harmless in the laboratory and gives hope for new therapies against influenza and bird flu.

At this point, his research continues seamlessly. "This is exactly the concept we would like to investigate with regard to the corona virus," said Herrmann, who is a member of the "Corona Virus Pre Exploration Project", in which Christian Drosten from the Charité and Christian Hackenberger from the HU / Leibniz Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology are involved and which is funded by the Berlin University Alliance. Among other things, this involves a spike protein that is located on the surface of a virus and with which it docks to cells in order to penetrate into the interior of cells. "The aim is to develop a drug that prevents coronaviruses from binding to host cells in the respiratory tract and thus preventing infection. Even though Herrmann has filled the time of the shutdown with writing publications and expert reports, he is happy to finally be able to return to the laboratory to investigate the binding behaviour of the viruses in the early infection phase. He is not afraid of corona viruses from the laboratory; the experiments at the Institute of Biology are carried out with pseudoviruses that are not infectious.

Author: Ljiljana Nikolic

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