Geneticist Josef Penninger becomes new Scientific Director of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research
HZI in Braunschweig to be expanded by 20 new research groups
From 1 July 2023, Professor Josef Penninger takes over the Scientific Management of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI). Penninger is internationally renowned for his outstanding contributions to genetic and molecular biology. Joining HZI from the University of British Columbia (Canada), where he had led the Life Sciences Institute, he starts his position as head of the interdisciplinary infection research center in Braunschweig. Penninger is taking over the role of Professor Dirk Heinz, who had led the research center since 2011.
Prof Veronika von Messling, Ministerial Director of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and Chairwoman of the Supervisory Board of the HZI, explained that “We are very pleased to have Prof Josef Penninger, an outstanding researcher, as the new Scientific Director of the HZI. His appointment will accelerate internationalization and increase the scientific profiling of the center. With Prof Penninger, we bring back one of the world’s top scientists to Europe and Germany, creating a renewed push to excellence. Consequently, Germany will become even more attractive as a research destination.”
At the HZI, foundational and translational research is focused on bacterial and viral pathogens, the immune system, and the generation of new drugs to explore fundamental mechanisms of infections. Across six locations in Germany, in Braunschweig, Hannover, Hamburg, Greifswald, Saarbrücken, and Würzburg, more than 800 scientists uncover solutions for diagnosis, therapy, and the prevention of infectious diseases, as well as the development of innovative vaccines. A second key mission of HZI is the translation of foundational research in order to develop novel therapies for patients.
Prof Otmar D. Wiestler, president of the Helmholtz Association, said: “We would like to express a warm welcome to Josef Penninger to the Helmholtz Association and wish him good luck and success with his new responsibilities at the HZI. His expertise in genetics and molecular biology and his international experience are excellent preconditions for strengthening internal health research at Helmholtz. With his ambitious plans, Josef Penninger will actively take part in building the bridge from foundational research to medical applications.”
Interdisciplinarity and the possibility to connect research to direct benefits to humans is one of the motivations of Josef Penninger to move to Germany: “I am very excited about the new challenges and opportunities at HZI. The HZI is a great place for research in infection biology with great scientists and a great organization. Now it is time to make the next step – to position HZI as the best international center for infection research in the world. To accomplish this we now build the right steps to execute on this vision, including the creation of multiple new research positions to refresh the HZI community with the best young minds from all around the world. We will also develop a unique program on technology fellows, to make Germany a world-leader in research innovation in infection biology with the potential to develop radically new and personalized therapies and to establish unicorn companies.”
Christian Scherf, Administrative Director at the HZI since 1 January 2023, is looking forward to a close collaboration with Josef Penninger within the HZI management: “With Josef Penninger, we welcome an excellent scientist and great communicator of science with vast international experience from building and leading world class institutes in Europe and North America and experience with large pharmaceutical companies and start-ups. I am convinced that he will strongly drive and provide new perspectives for the future of infection research at HZI and in Germany.”
Josef Penninger has also been appointed as Professor for Precision Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, providing new opportunities and synergies for scientific cooperation and expanding the immediate reach of Helmholtz to other EU countries.
About Josef Penninger
Josef Penninger was born on 5 September 1964 in Gurten, Oberösterreich. After attending medical school in Innsbruck, he started his scientific career at the University of Toronto, Canada. In 2002, he was the founding director of the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology IMBA – a research institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. In 2018, he returned to Canada as a Canada 150 Chair and took over the Life Sciences Institute at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Starting from 1 July 2023, he has been appointed as Scientific Director of the HZI in Braunschweig.
Since 1995 Josef Penninger has been receiving multiple competitive research grants in the EU and North America, among those a C150 Canada Research Chair in Functional Genetics, an Innovator Award from the US, an EU Excellence Grant, as well as an ERC Advanced Grant.
Josef Penninger has earned a long list of awards and honorary awards. Among those are the Ernst-Jung-Price for Medicine, the Descartes-Price (highest European award) and the Wittgenstein-Price, also referred to as the “Austrian Nobel Price”. In 2015 he placed 11th in the ranking of the most influential thought leaders in German-speaking countries. Additionally, he was among the Top 10 of the most cited scientists worldwide twice, has been given an Honorary Professor title of the Chinese University of Qingdao and is a recipient of the Austrian Cross of Merit.
Selected Stations of Josef Penninger
Scientific Director at Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Braunschweig
2018 – 2023
Director of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of British Columbia, Canada
2018 – 2023
Full Professor, Department of Medical Genetics, University of British Columbia, Canada
2002 – 2018
Founding Director at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, IMBA, Vienna)
Full Professor of Immunology, University of Toronto, Canada