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09/16/15

Harvard-Professor Tobias Ritter is the new director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

Harvard-Professor Tobias Ritter is the new director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

Professor Ritter’s plans for his welcome speech at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung were different: He wanted to stand by the balustrade on the upper level, while his guests are downstairs looking at the new laboratories. But most spectators crowded on the long corridor of the upper level. Ritter spontaneously grabbed a pack of copying paper to stand on, so that as many people as possible would be able to see him. And there were a lot of people both from his own institute as well as from the neighbor institute MPI für Chemische Energiekonversion. Everyone finally wanted to meet the famous Professor from Harvard.

In his short speech Ritter thanked everyone passionately who helped with the move from Boston to Mülheim: “First I have to thank the other directors and also the administrative people and technicians. Everybody was extremely helpful and solved the problems before there were any.”


One can feel the excitement when Professor Ritter starts to talk about the new laboratories in Mülheim. “The facilities exceeded my expectations. Our new glovebox-solvent system suite is absolutely top-notch and world-class”, explained Ritter proudly. A glovebox is a sealed container, in which hazardous or sensitive work can be executed in an inert atmosphere.


Ritter is born in Germany but has a dual citizenship. In the year 2006 he started working at the Harvard University in Cambridge, Boston. As Post-Doctoral Fellow he was at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and he wrote his Ph.D. Thesis at the ETH in Zürich – to mention only the most important steps of his career. Since his studies at the Technical University of Braunschweig Ritter didn`t live in Germany. After all the years in the US he experiences a small culture shock. For example when he stands at the cashier in a supermarket with his wife and three kids to realize, they should have brought bags for the groceries.


To leave Harvard and move to Germany with his family was a big step for Ritter. “There are not many things that can make you leave a place like Harvard. But the Max Planck Society with its resources and opportunities is very unique.” Now Ritter is happy to finally get things going as a director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Mülheim. “A great praise goes to the members of the Ritter Group who were already here and prepared everything, before there even was a ‘Ritter’ in Mülheim.” Generally he is very pleased, that many of his co-workers joined the move from Harvard to Mülheim. “This was not obvious.” There are only two Germans in his team, otherwise it is very international.


His group will continue to work on the topics that were important for the group at Harvard. So far the fluorine chemistry played a major role. „It is a field that blossoms, but there are still a lot of unsolved problems.” As especially promising Ritter sees his work to target the functional imaging technique Positron Emission Tomography, PET. The technique is generally very suitable to addressing problems in the field of Brain Research. “You can`t just cut into the brain to observe. But PET is not invasive and therefore very applicable.”


Ritter sees himself as a basic researcher, but he likes to keep an eye on applications. In his opinion there is a strong connection between his work and the field of medicine. Four years ago he founded the company SciFluor Life Sciences that creates new chemical entities to design drugs with improved pharmaceutical profiles. Ritter’s dream is to develop new techniques, which can enable wide applications for example in hospitals. The field he works on is not new, but new advances in modern chemistry could translate into breakthroughs in several areas in medicine. “Now is an exciting time, because a lot of fundamentally new reactions are developed. The molecular revolution in Biology and Medicine makes it possible to imagine a lot of new things. But the chemistry for that is still missing. This is what we want to change.”