EPFL honors a climate advocate

The EPFL-WISH Foundation will award this year’s Erna Hamburger Prize to German marine biologist Antje Boetius.
Antje Boetius, winner of the 2019 Erna Hamburger Prize © 2019 EPFL

The 2019 Erna Hamburger Prize will go to Antje Boetius, a professor at the University of Bremen’s prestigious Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology and the head of the Alfred Wegener Institute at the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. Prof. Boetius has had an exceptional career in marine biology research since completing her studies at the University of Hamburg. A staunch climate advocate, she received Germany's Federal Cross of Merit in 2019 and was recently appointed as a climate advisor to the German government.

The Erna Hamburger Prize is awarded every year by the EPFL-WISH Foundation to an influential woman in science. The award is named after Erna Hamburger, who, when she was hired by EPFL in 1967, became the first female professor at a Swiss federal institute of technology.

One of Prof. Boetius’s breakthroughs was to describe the anaerobic oxidation of methane. She believes that, in the absence of molecular oxygen, the earliest forms of terrestrial life may have survived thanks to methane. She has also posited that such life forms could help slow the pace of climate change in the future. This is because methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and there are vast quantities of deep-ocean microorganisms that can break it down and limit its release into the atmosphere.

Dubbed by some “Marie Curie of the sea,” Prof. Boetius has also coordinated numerous marine and polar expeditions and has been involved in measuring firsthand the effects of global warming. The granddaughter of a whale hunter, she has helped focus attention on the impact that human activities have on our oceans. This includes the collapse in the cetacean population, which began in the 19th century, and its impact on the marine ecosystem down to the level of microorganisms.

Prof. Boetius, an environmentalist committed to spreading knowledge, deplores the fact that “science is talking but people aren’t listening.” And she warns: “We cannot survive without the oceans.”

The award ceremony took place on 6 November at the SwissTech Convention Center. https://www.epflwishfoundation.org/erna-hamburger-2019