|Naturalist, explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander von Humboldt was a man who was ahead of the curve. A 19th century naturalist, explorer and geographer, Humboldt left a lasting legacy, not only from his countless scientific discoveries, but also his holistic vision of science. As detailed in his masterwork, Kosmos, Humboldt believed that understanding natural phenomena required that scientific disciplines operate with unity.
That same philosophy now underlies the foundation that bears his name. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, re-established after World War II (previous incarnations had existed at various times since 1860) to help facilitate and accelerate West Germany’s reintegration into the international community, has long been at the forefront of promoting international cooperation and collaboration among scientists and scholars.
The Bonn-based foundation achieves this lofty goal principally through generous fellowships (which can be applied for) and awards (which require nomination) given to international researchers at all levels and in all disciplines as a mechanism to bring them to Germany for sabbaticals and collaborations.
Two notable awards include the Humboldt Research Fellowship, which finances young academics to work for up to 24 months with a German host, and the prestigious Humboldt Research Award (also known as the Humboldt Prize), which recognizes career achievements and allows established scientists to work with a German colleague on a collaborative project. Many American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology members have been among the approximately 100 scholars chosen each year for this latter honor, including, most recently, Ellen Fanning of Vanderbilt University, who won the award last year for her groundbreaking work on DNA replication.
“It’s important to note that the Humboldt Foundation applies no quotes for either discipline or country,” says Cathleen Fisher, executive director of the American Friends of the Humboldt Foundation, a professional partner group that promotes the foundation’s fellowship opportunities in the U.S., helps organize meetings between the foundation and scientific or policy groups in Washington, D.C. and serves as a networking center for the 4,500 Humboldt alumni in the U.S. “Exceptional science is the only criteria.”