Rejected twice as a doctoral researcher, now honored for best dissertation

Mohammed Khallaf receives the Otto Hahn Medal of the Max Planck Society.

June 20, 2022

There is great joy at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena. Once again this year, a former doctoral researcher is being awarded the Otto Hahn Medal for his outstanding dissertation. The Egyptian Mohammed Khallaf worked on the neurobiological basis of sexual communication in vinegar flies from 2015 to 2020. Now, as a postdoc, he is studying the molecular basis of pain sensitivity at the renowned Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) in Berlin.

"I was rejected twice when I applied for a PhD position at the Max Planck Institute. But I didn't give up. Today, I am the recipient of one of the most prestigious awards given by the Max Planck Society to young researchers. The Otto Hahn Medal I am now receiving is the result of my perseverance and persistence. I am overjoyed. It is a great honor, not only for me, but also for my family as well as my colleagues at the MPI," says a delighted Mohammed Khallaf, who will be honored during this week's Annual General Meeting of the Max Planck Society.

His success shows how important it is to deal with setbacks. Mohammed Khallaf not only had a difficult start. The Corona pandemic had a major impact on the last year of his doctorate. He was suddenly confronted with being at home with two boisterous children. At times, he was unable to perform experiments or communicate with his coworkers and supervisors. "This difficult period allowed me to reconsider my priorities and properly manage my time. Not only did I complete and submit my dissertation to Jena University, but I also became closer to my family and happier. I had a lot of fun playing with the kids and cooking with my wife. However, I had to work on my dissertation and publications during the night. Looking back, it was undoubtedly a challenging time, but nevertheless the most fantastic experience of my life," he recalls of the hurdles he had to overcome during times of contact restrictions.

Mohammed Khallaf can talk about his research in a very inspiring manner. As a doctoral researcher in Jena, he not only received several awards for his presentations, but also emerged as the winner of the Science Slam of the Jena Graduate Academy in 2019. His topic: "Sex in flies" - mate choice in different species of the vinegar fly genus Drosophila! The male flies produce a chemical attractant, a so-called sex pheromone; the females have to detect the signal of the matching male of the same species. In his studies, he deciphered the chemical language on which the mating of 99 different Drosophila species is based. In the process, he was also able to show that male flies chemically mark their partners in such a way that mated females smell less attractive to other males. His work is groundbreaking for understanding how the release of sex pheromones, their perception and processing in the brain, and the resulting behavior in flies can be involved in the emergence of new species.

In Berlin, Mohammed Khallaf is no longer studying vinegar flies, but small mammals. For him, this is a welcome challenge. He prefers to move out of his comfort zone and swap familiar research on sexual communication in insects for a new topic: Touch and pain sensation in small mammals. To do this, he is exploring mice and naked mole-rats in Gary Lewin's lab at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine.

He thinks back on his time in Jena very fondly. "I had a great time in Jena at the MPI, made many friends. The welcoming and inspiring environment contributed significantly to this. During my PhD, I learned to set high goals for myself and to be enthusiastic about what I do. I had two wonderful supervisors in Markus Knaden and Bill Hansson, who not only taught me how to do science, but also important lessons for my future career, such as how to balance work and family well," says Mohammed Khallaf.

His big dream is to eventually lead his own research group and use model organisms to explore innovative topics in neuroscience, perhaps in his home country, Egypt, to which, he says, he would like to give something back. His great wish is to establish an Egyptian institute that is as well-equipped as the institutes he was able to work in Germany.

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