Otto Hahn Medal for Gabriela Nass Kovacs

Award from the Max Planck Society for outstanding doctoral research

May 11, 2020
Gabriela Nass Kovacs earned her PhD in the department of Biomolecular Mechanisms under the guidance of Ilme Schlichting, while being a member of the FEL group. She receives this award for contributions to the development of time-resolved crystallography on light-sensitive membrane proteins at X-ray free-electron lasers.

Everybody likes movies, and structural biologists are no exception. X-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs), with their intense femtosecond short pulses, enable molecular reactions to be followed by time-resolved crystallography at high spatial and temporal resolution. Gabriela Nass Kovacs has developed methods to capture snapshots of reactions catalyzed by light-sensitive membrane proteins using XFELs. This involved identifying and surmounting numerous technical challenges, frequently at the intersection of physics, chemistry and biology. She used these methods to follow the light-induced isomerization of the retinal chromophore in bacteriorhodopsin, an archaeal light-driven proton pump. She showed that the vibrations of the photoexcited retinal chromophore are coupled with those of the surrounding protein, a mechanism that probably applies to all light-sensitive retinal proteins. In addition to providing this new mechanistic insight, she also identified serious errors in previous published work. This will have a major impact on future experiments in this field.

 “I am very honored by the award. More often than not, things did not work at first and the process of getting them to work was as challenging then as it feels rewarding now. I would never have gotten this far without the right amount of push and support from my supervisor and the amazing team spirit in the FEL group. Both of which I am very grateful for.” Gabriela Nass Kovacs is now a Scientific Account Manager with the Swiss software company Genedata.

The Otto Hahn Medal is awarded at the Max Planck Society's Annual General Meeting in June. It is currently still unclear whether the event that was due to be held in Berlin this year will take place as planned.

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