Six Ghent University researchers win ERC Consolidator Grant

(31-01-2023) Six Ghent University researchers win an ERC Consolidator Grant. This important European research grant enables them to continue their groundbreaking research.

321 researchers have won 2022 European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grants. Among them are six Ghent University researchers (clockwise): Diego Miralles, Michal Heller, Francis Impens, Cosmin Cercel, An Ghysels, and Wim Hardyns. With this result, our university again performs excellently, leaving only major institutions as the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Max Planck Society and University of Cambridge ahead. The funding - worth in total €657 million – is part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. It will help excellent scientists, who have 7 to 12 years’ experience after their PhDs, to pursue their most promising ideas.

The winning projects

An Ghysels: PASTIME

Time matters: the interplay between fast and slow molecular processes determines the fate of living matter (protein folding, drug delivery, etc.) The aim of the PASTIME project is to properly understand the role of time in biomedical processes. Therefore An will lay the theoretical foundations of memory reduction and memory tuning in molecular simulations. These new time concepts will be applied in drug transport kinetics, such as drug (un)binding to protein binding sites and permeation of molecules through cell membranes, but the concepts will also be applicable to understand time in an endless range of other molecular processes.

Wim Hardyns: BIGDATPOL

Since 2015, Professor Wim Hardyns was one of the first criminologists to conduct innovative research on big data and predictive policing. Today, knowledge about big data policing in Europe is still fragmented, with a lack of interdisciplinarity and a lack of scientific evaluations. In his ERC-funded big data policing project (BIGDATPOL), Wim Hardyns uses historical and real-time data to predict when and where the risk of new criminal acts is high.

The overarching goal of this ERC project is to integrate statistical-methodological, criminological, legal and ethical conditions into a single evidence-based 3D model. This model will be tested by several randomized controlled experiments in European settings. The approach of this project is innovative and radically different because it is transparent in terms of predictive algorithms, effectiveness, and legal and ethical safeguards. The ultimate goal of the evidence-based model is to provide both academia and law enforcement practice with guidelines and recommendations for studying, applying and implementing big data policing. This ambition is challenging and innovative, as it will be the first time that interdisciplinary research on this topic has been conducted in Europe, and even worldwide. Wim Hardyns therefore intends to present the results as a European benchmark for big data policing.

Francis Impens: MULTIMOYA

The MULTIMOYA project will focus on a rare disorder called Moyamoya, with the overall ambitious aim to solve the etiology of this mysterious disease. Moyamoya is characterized by progressive narrowing of arteries at the base of the brain leading to stroke. While genetic mutations in ring finger protein 213 (RNF213) are a risk factor for Moyamoya, further underlying mechanisms remain elusive.

Recently, the lab of Francis Impens discovered RNF213 as a novel antibacterial protein, strongly suggesting a role for the immune response to infection in the development of Moyamoya. Building on these findings, MULTIMOYA will carry out advanced multi-omics analyses on Moyamoya patient-derived cells to investigate the link between RNF213, infection, immunity and arterial occlusion. In this way, MULTIMOYA will provide unprecedented insight into fundamental processes that link cellular immunity with vascular disease and lead to novel treatment strategies for 16 million people carrying founder mutations in RNF213.

Michal Heller: High-TheQ

A paradigmatic example of a nonequilibrium phenomenon is pouring cold water into a cup full of hot tea to make it have a drinkable temperature. As time passes by, the beverage is going to settle at an intermediate temperature, roughly constant throughout the whole volume. In this sense, such equilibrium configurations dynamically attract nonequilibrium states, such as a cold-hot mixture we started with. There is much more to equilibration than preparing beverages of desired properties. In particular, the question of if equilibration proceeds and, if yes, how it occurs is at the forefront of high energy phenomena probed on Earth in accelerator experiments. Collisions of atomic nuclei at RHIC and LHC excite matter into regimes otherwise existing only in the early universe. At such high energies, matter have very different properties than what we are used to on Earth. In particular, protons and neutrons which constitute atomic nuclei melt and form a primordial liquid.

Our only way to recreate such conditions on Earth is intrinsically nonequilibrium. The processes originating from nuclear collisions at high energies are much more violent than mixing beverages with each other. Nevertheless, cutting edge developments from the past decade showed that novel attractor behaviors occurring before equilibrium might appear there. However, because of the overall complexity of the problem, these theoretical predictions were made in the presence of strong simplifying assumptions. The aim of High-TheQ is to check the existence of these novel nonequilibrium attractors in more realistic theoretical models and understand their relations with each other. Providing unified understanding of high energy attractors will lead to new ideas for their experimental detection, also outside the realm of nuclear collisions.

Diego Miralles: HEAT

Heatwaves and droughts are becoming synchronized. In our warmer world, soils dry faster, heating up the air even further. These compound dry–hot events propagate like a wildfire: the drying upwind can trigger heat stress episodes on populations located hundreds of kilometers downwind. What are the physical mechanisms that drive these compound events and cause heat stress episodes on societies? Can we forecast these episodes weeks-to-months in advance using recent technological progress? Can intelligent land management attenuate the intensity and frequency of future events?

In HEAT, Diego Miralles and his team will aim to answer these questions. This will be achieved through a combination of satellite data, physics-driven atmospheric models, artificial intelligence, and state-of-the-art climate model simulations. Altogether, HEAT will enhance preparedness and resilience against extreme hot and dry events by providing accurate seasonal forecasts, novel mechanistic understanding, and land management strategies to mitigate future events and their impact on societies.

Cosmin Cercel: EMERGE

EMERGE studies the history of emergency legislation during the last century in Europe. Traditionally, emergency has been understood as a mechanism that has only temporary and limited effects on legal systems: once the crisis recedes, fundamental rights and constitutional process are restored. The project’s core claim is that that emergency has long-lasting effects subsisting the crisis. They affect our understanding of human rights, the rule of law principle and constitutional practices. Studying the contexts, actors and the laws of emergency in 5 countries across Europe since 1914, EMERGE will offer a legal historical explanation of how the experience of emergency has shaped constitutional and political cultures across Europe in the past century.

ERC Consolidator Grants 

“ERC Consolidator grants support researchers at a crucial time of their careers, strengthening their independence, reinforcing their teams and helping them establish themselves as leaders in their fields. And this backing above all gives them a chance to pursue their scientific dreams”, said President of the European Research Council Prof. Maria Leptin.

The grants will be invested in scientific projects spanning all disciplines of research from engineering to life sciences to humanities. The laureates of this grant competition proposed to carry out their projects at universities and research centres in 18 EU Member States, plus other countries associated with Horizon Europe. This call attracted 2,222 applicants, while the proposals were reviewed by panels of renowned researchers from around the world. The grants will create around 1950 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and other staff at the host institutions.

Discover all Consolidator Grants

Your ERC project at Ghent University?

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept Grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between their pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation. The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council, whereof VIB-UGent professor Dirk Inzé is a member. Since 1 November 2021, Maria Leptin is the President of the ERC. The overall ERC budget from 2021 to 2027 is more than €16 billion, as part of the Horizon Europe programme, under the responsibility of the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel.

Researchers within and outside of Ghent University who wish to apply for an ERC Grant with our university as host institution, can contact the EU Team for advice and support.