Marina Pekmezović receives Leibniz PhD Award

Research on vulvovaginal candidiasis

The president and prize winners with certificates and flower bouquets
President of the Leibniz Association Martina Brockmeier (middle) presented the Leibniz Doctoral Prizes to Marina Pekmezović (left) and Magdalena Novak (right). Source: Peter Himsel/LeibnizAssociation

This year's Leibniz PhD Award winners are microbiologist Marina Pekmezović from Leibniz-HKI in the Natural and Technical Sciences category and educational researcher and psychologist Magdalena Novak from the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media in Tübingen in the Humanities and Social Sciences category.

In her doctoral thesis, Marina Pekmezović investigated molecular mechanisms of interaction between epithelial cells of the vagina and the yeast Candida. Magdalena Novak's doctoral thesis dealt with the role of haptic experiences, i.e. experiences with authentic objects made by touching them, for learning in museums. The two theses, each awarded 5,000 euros, were selected as the best from more than 800 doctoral projects completed at Leibniz institutes in 2021.

Marina Pekmezović's thesis, "Fungal virulence attributes and epithelial responses during vaginal Candida infections," submitted to Friedrich Schiller University Jena, dealt with pathogenicity mechanisms of yeast fungi of the Candida genus. Specifically, she studied the infectious disease vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC). This is one of the most common infections of the female genital tract worldwide and is caused by fungi naturally occurring in the vagina under certain circumstances. The condition, which is estimated to affect 75 percent of all women at least once in their lifetime, is associated with symptoms such as skin irritation, itching and burning, as well as pain during urination and sexual intercourse. In in-depth studies, Pekmezović explored the body's immune defenses against VVC infections caused by Candida albicans, C. glabrata, C. parapsilosis and C. tropicalis. Her research yielded both fundamentally new information on the principles of vaginal Candida infections and an elucidation of the mechanisms of Candida glabrata pathogenicity related to its interaction with protein albumin, which is very abundant in humans. Marina Pekmezović's work provides the basis for new developments in immunotherapy research. The two central publications of her dissertation project were published in the renowned journals "Nature Microbiology" and "PLOS Pathogens" and were each awarded "Paper of the Month" by the German Society for Hygiene and Microbiology.

Marina Pekmezović studied molecular biology in Serbia at the University of Belgrade, where she obtained her master's degree in 2013. This was followed by a PhD program at Leibniz-HKI. As part of her PhD project, she completed internships in Nijmegen, Utrecht and Barcelona. Currently, Marina Pekmezović works as a scientist at the company CureVac in Tübingen.

Publications (excerpt):

  • Pekmezović M et al. (2021) Human albumin enhances the pathogenic potential of Candida glabrata on vaginal epithelial cells. PLOS Pathogens 17(10).
  • Pekmezović M et al. (2021) Candida pathogens induce protective mitochondria-associated type I interferon signaling and a damage-driven response in vaginal epithelial cells. Nat Microbiol 6(5).

The Leibniz Association PhD Award:

The Leibniz Association PhD Award is awarded annually for the best doctoral theses from Leibniz Institutes in the categories "Humanities and Social Sciences" and "Natural and Technical Sciences". In addition to an outstanding evaluation, the award-winning theses must be distinguished by interdisciplinary significance, a reference to application and publication in specialist journals or presentations at specialist conferences. The prize is endowed with 5,000 euros each. The eleven-member Leibniz Prize Jury, which consists of public figures and leading scientists and is chaired by Leibniz President Martina Brockmeier, selects the prize winners from the proposals submitted by the scientific sections of the Leibniz Association.


Marina Pekmezović