May 2010

The Humboldt Foundation


Alexander von Humboldt
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.

For more information

• To learn more about the Alexander von Humbdolt Foundation, visit:

• Information on the American Friends of AvH can be found at:

• Read about the experiences of a Humboldt Fellow in this issue's Career Insights article.

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.”

The Humboldt foundation also supports other initiatives to engage in more networking; for example, the foundation encourages its members to organize special regional meetings known as “Kollegs,” in which scholars in various fields can get together to discuss issues that span a variety of disciplines.

“The sponsorship of these Kollegs exemplifies how the Humboldt is special and unique,” Fisher says. “They don’t just see these fellowships as prizes, but rather, lifetime investments in individuals that should be nurtured,” she continues. “That’s a big reason so many Humboldt fellows have remained involved with the foundation throughout their careers.”

ASBMB member A. Stephen Dahms can speak from firsthand experience. In 1979, as a rising young scientist at San Diego State University, he won a Humbdolt Research Fellowship, allowing him and one of his students to travel to the University of Munich to collaborate with Martin Klingenberg. It originally was a 16-month sabbatical, but, over the years, Dahms has returned to Germany on several occasions to revisit his scientific colleagues (and vice versa) and also has been involved with the Humboldt Foundation in other capacities.

“I like to joke to my colleagues that the Humboldt Foundation is like the mafia,” Dahms says, “in that you join an organization from which they never let you resign.”

Nick Zagorski ( is a science writer at ASBMB.


ASBMB's Humboldt Award Winners

The following is a list of ASBMB members who have received Humboldt Research Awards:
• Gilbert Ashwell, National Institutes of Health
• Paul Bartlett, University of California, Berkeley
• Günter Blobel, Rockefeller University
• Norman Bishop, Oregon State University
• Ralph Bradshaw, University of California, Irvine
• Michael Bustin, National Institutes of Health
• Melanie Cobb, University of Texas at Dallas
• R. John Collier, Harvard Medical School
• William Cramer, Purdue University
• Craig M. Crews, Yale University
• Donald Crothers, Yale University
• Harold Deutsch, University of Wisconsin-Madison
• Richard Dilley, Purdue University
• Michael Doyle, University of Maryland at College Park
• Wolfgang Epstein, University of Chicago
• Stanley Falkow, Stanford University
• Perry Frey, University of Wisconsin-Madison
• R. Clinton Fuller, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
• J. Woodland Hastings, Harvard University
• Erich Heftmann 
• George Hess, Cornell University
• Harry Hogenkamp, University of Minnesota
• Victor Hruby, University of Arizona
• Wolfgang Joklik, Duke University
• Jack Kaplan, University of Illinois at Chicago
• Eugene Kennedy, Harvard Medical School
• Richard Krause, National Institutes of Health
• Ernest Kun
• Janos Lanyi, University of California, Irvine
• Lars Ljungdahl, University of Georgia
• Stephen Lippard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
• Vincent Louis Pecoraro, University of Michigan
• D. James Morre, Purdue University
• Frederick Neidhardt, University of Michigan
• Björn Olsen, Harvard Medical School
• Stuart Patton
• Stanley Prusiner, University of California, San Francisco
• Dagmar Ringe, Brandeis University
• James Rothman, Yale University
• George Sachs, VA Wadsworth Medical Center
• Charles E. Samuel, University of California, Santa Barbara
• Anthony San Pietro, Indiana University
• Geoffrey W. G. Sharp, Cornell University
• Howard Schachman, University of California, Berkeley
• Immo Scheffler, University of California, San Diego
• Richard Schowen, University of Kansas
• Dieter Söll, Yale University
• James Spudich, Stanford University
• Jeffry Stock, Princeton University
• Joanne Stubbe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
• Aladar Szalay, Loma Linda University
• Thomas Thompson, University of Virginia
• Serge Timasheff, Brandeis University
• Bernard Trumpower, Dartmouth College
• Alexander Tzagoloff, Columbia University
• Kensal van Holde, Oregon State University
• Alexander Varshavsky, California Institute of Technology
• Sidney Velick 
• Elizabeth Vierling, University of Arizona
• Wolfgang Vogel
• Annemarie Weber, University of Pennsylvania
• Zena Werb, University of California, San Francisco
• Robert Yu, Medical College of Georgia

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