Prof. Manja Marz: bioinformatician and Go player.

Go, Go, Go!

Prof. Manja Marz and her team of bioinformaticians are investigating the genetic blueprints of viruses. The scientist and trained vocalist – who almost became a pianist – reveals what the oldest board game in the world has taught her about life.
Prof. Manja Marz: bioinformatician and Go player.
Image: Anne Günther (University of Jena)

»Okay, you go first!,« says Manja Marz with an air of competition. She’s crossed over her legs and is now rocking restlessly in her chair. She’s sitting in front of a board game, where a 19 x 19 grid forms a total of 361 intersections. The young woman puts her hand into a bowl and pulls out a few white glass stones – they look a bit like chocolate buttons – and waits for her opponent to make the first move. She isn’t too fussed by the fact he doesn’t have a clue how to play the oldest board game in the world. As she explains the few rules and spreads black and white Go stones across the board, it looks like she’s done so a million times before. The game begins. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end...

Prof. Manja Marz won the European Go Championship in 2017; here she’s teaching LICHTGEDANKEN writer Sebastian Hollstein how to play the fascinating board game. Prof. Manja Marz won the European Go Championship in 2017; here she’s teaching LICHTGEDANKEN writer Sebastian Hollstein how to play the fascinating board game. Image: Anne Günther (University of Jena)

Manja Marz learnt how to play Go at the age of 21 during a semester abroad at the University of Edinburgh. »To be honest, I only went to the Go club to learn English – but I got hooked,« she recalls. She’s never actually understood how that ended up happening. »I usually only like things that I find easy. If I’m not good at something, I often lose interest very quickly,« says the 39-year-old. »But weirdly enough, that wasn’t the case with Go«. She lost all her games for months on end but stuck at it. She’s now one of the best players in Germany, became the European Champion in 2017 and has even competed in the World Cup. Go has taken her all around the world and introduced her to lots of different cultures, people and even her husband. After managing clubs and associations, she founded the first ever Go School in Europe just a few months ago, allowing young and talented European players to blossom into professionals and face the world’s greats in Asia. The board game’s popularity in China is similar to the importance of football in Europe. The stars there are light years ahead and earn big bucks. Founding the Go School was an organizational challenge. »It’s difficult to set something in motion without any reference points – but I love challenges like that,« says Manja Marz. In fact, she’s wearing a t-shirt with the words »be greater than average«.

Rigorous and random

Manja Marz hasn’t exactly had your average career. Born in Leipzig, she came to Jena as a junior professor in 2012 at the tender age of 31. In 2015, she was promoted to the Chair of Bioinformatics. Similar to her Go career, her professional journey has been characterized by a paradoxical combination of randomness and rigour. »I chose my field of study by process of elimination: When I was at secondary school, I made a list of various subjects and crossed one off every evening – biology ended up being the one that annoyed me the least,« recalls Manja Marz, adding that she wouldn’t recommend that method now that she looks back. When she started studying in her hometown, she quickly realized she was missing her passion and mathematics, which had been one of her favourite subjects at school. That’s why she looked for a way to integrate maths into her studies and found herself in a numerics course. »Fortunately, I didn’t know it had something to do with computers. Otherwise, I might never have signed up for it,« she says. »I avoided computers like the plague back then – I even did all my homework by hand«. But it wasn’t long before computer science became the centre of her universe.

Only after achieving a diploma in both subjects did Marz realize they were a good combination. Bioinformatics was only in its infancy back then, but it just so happened that Peter Stadler, one of the most renowned ambassadors of the young science, visited Leipzig and convinced her to do a doctorate. However, she didn’t have big plans to stay within the university system and carve out a career in academia: »I was really enjoying my time in academia, but I wasn’t aiming to pursue a career purely in research; I wanted to look for a job as a programmer by the time I was 35 at the latest,« says Manja Marz. »And then I ended up becoming a ›professor‹«. You can tell by the way she says the word that she’s at odds with the title. »In my eyes, a professor is someone who knows everything and can do everything. That’s not how I see myself,« she says. »I’m incredibly ambitious when it comes to improving in a certain area, but I never thought of making a career of it«. That’s probably why she always feels a bit like an alien at scientific congresses.

How do viruses make the leap to other species?

That might be precisely why Manja Marz is one of the top researchers in her field and has transformed Jena into a European Virus Bioinformatics Centre, where she works with other specialists like Christian Drosten from the Charité in Berlin. The pair have been working together to investigate how coronaviruses are transmitted from one species to another. »It doesn’t happen very often, because it’s a complicated process,« explains the bioinformatician. »If the virus changes organism, it has to adapt its genome to that of the host cell to enable its further proliferation. However, the virus can’t afford to change completely, as it doesn’t want to lose the old host«. Marz and her colleagues are sequencing DNA and using the resulting strings of letters to see how the genome of the virus varies and changes to adapt to different species. The project will give us a greater understanding of pandemics like COVID-19. »It’s good that the eyes of the world are currently on our field,« says Marz. »Over the past few years, I’ve travelled to Brussels with my colleagues on many occasions and had many discussions. We wanted to raise awareness of the topic to be better prepared, but we didn’t really have much success«.

As part of a different project where she is researching the half-life of viruses – a question that has amazingly gone unanswered until now – she recently brought together virologists, doctors, mathematicians, physicians and a glassblower. »This diversity is what I love about research,« explains Manja Marz. There are around 30 people in her research group, and they’re currently working on 70 to 80 projects. This diversity is often criticized by people who recommend a greater degree of focus and specialization. »But that just wouldn’t suit my personality; I’m inquisitive by nature and think an important part of my work is about marrying different fields of science. That’s also what enables my young colleagues to forge their own careers. When doctoral researchers are passionate about a subject, they progress much faster than they would if I gave them a certain topic«. She gives young researchers their own working groups very early on, allowing them to move beyond the pure content of their research and learn a lot about organization, communication and leadership. After all, she too had the opportunity to gain such valuable experience at a very early stage in her career.

Family comes first

This experience also helps her coordinate the enormous workload in her professional and private life – with a clear priority: »My family always comes first!,« says the mother of three. She would also like to devote more time to music again in the future – she almost became a pianist and was even offered a place at a university. »That was the penultimate item on my list«. She also took up singing lessons at the age of 13. It’s the only one of her musical hobbies that has survived to this day, because it’s easier to practise in the car. She’s now a trained opera singer – even though she isn’t really the biggest opera fan. »I prefer singing«.

Meanwhile, her Go career has stalled due to a lack of time. »I actually founded the Go School to get back into training myself, but that was probably a complete error of judgement on my part,« she explains. »Most of my time is taken up by organization and supervision«. She now plays one hour a week at most, but Go will always have a special place in her life. »It’s just given me so much,« explains Manja Marz. »Whenever I mucked up in the past, for example, I usually just avoided the problem. But the game taught me you can still win even if things aren’t looking pretty in one corner of the board«.

The oldest game in the world

The Chinese board game, Go, is considered the oldest in the world. The Chinese board game, Go, is considered the oldest in the world. Image: Anne Günther (University of Jena)

As archaeological findings date Go back to the year 0 and written sources presumably mention it 400 years before, the Chinese board game is considered the oldest in the world. In addition to playing the zither, calligraphy and painting, Go was one of the »four arts« that learned people were supposed to master in ancient China. As the basic rules are very simple, there are many variations in gameplay: On the square game board, known as the »goban«, a 19 x 19 grid forms a total of 361 intersections, where both opponents take it in turns to place one of the 181 black and 180 white »stones«. Once the stones have been placed, they can no longer be moved around the board. The aim is to capture as much space as possible in the form of intersections. If one of the players fully encircles a stone belonging to the opponent and removes all its »liberties«, the stone is defeated and removed from the board. If a stone has just defeated another, it cannot be immediately beaten in return. Players are forbidden from placing a stone in such a way that the chain to which it then belongs loses all its liberties.

The points for conquered intersections and captured stones are added together to determine the winner – the player with the most points wins. The game is also over when neither of the players want to make any more moves (e.g. because they would otherwise reduce the size of their conquered territory). The game is very popular in East Asian countries, such as China, Japan and Korea, where professionals can win six-figure amounts at major tournaments. By contrast, around 2,500 players are currently registered in the German-speaking world. A player’s proficiency is expressed in ranks – similar to judo. Go masters can attain a rank of 1 to 9 dan pro, while students of the game improve from 30 to 1 kyu. And there’s an old saying: »It takes an hour to learn Go but a lifetime to master it«.


By Sebastian Hollstein

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