ERC at 10: What 23 researchers have done with European Research Council funding

20 Mar 2017

As the ERC celebrates 10 years, we hear from those who’ve earned a slice of €12bn in funding. Image: Alejo Miranda/Shutterstock

As the European Research Council celebrates its 10-year anniversary, researchers reveal what more than €12bn of ERC funding has supported.

In its 10 years of existence, the European Research Council (ERC) has awarded more than €12bn in research grants.

Celebrations to mark the ERC’s first decade began on 13 March and will culminate in a grand celebration in Brussels on 21 March.

To mark the occasion, Science Foundation Ireland asked a number of European Research Council awardees what an ERC grant has meant for their research.

Elaine Fox

Prof Elaine Fox used her ERC award to set up a research centre at the University of Oxford called the Oxford Centre for Emotion and Affective Neuroscience (OCEAN). The main project underway at OCEAN started with her ERC Advanced Investigator award in late 2013, titled ‘CogBIAS Project: Windows into the Mechanisms Underlying Emotional Vulnerability and Resilience’.

“We have already completed several studies and have demonstrated that selective and systematic biases in how adolescents and adults process information from their environment can have a profound impact on reactions to both threatening situations as well as to reward,” said Fox, who published a theoretical model of this process in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

“The next step in the CogBIAS project is to systematically examine genetic data from a large cohort of adolescents – whom we are following from the age of about 12 years until about 17 years – as well as cohorts of adults, to try and establish ‘polygenic sensitivity scores’. The idea is to investigate whether certain sets of genes in combination with specific forms of selective cognitive biases can help us to predict who will thrive and who will flourish in various life situations.”

Fox says that her ERC award has allowed her to develop this highly interdisplinary and high-risk project on the complexity of human resilience.

Stephen Hogan

Dr Stephen Hogan was one of four University College London (UCL) staff awarded ERC Consolidator awards in January 2016. His €2m grant enables him to perform laboratory-based experiments to investigate the role that atoms and molecules in highly excited quantum states play in the physics and chemistry of the upper atmosphere of the Earth.

“In this work I exploit a unique set of chip-based devices, which we have developed in my laboratory, to prepare cold-trapped gases of these atoms and molecules in carefully selected excited states for studies of collisions and decay processes on timescales that have only recently become possible,” he said.

Valerie O’Donnell

Wicklow native Prof Valerie O’Donnell was awarded €3m in 2013 for her research into lipid biochemistry and cardiovascular disease.

“I am studying the diversity of lipids (fats) in circulating mammalian cells – for example, platelets. These are blood cells that are essential for clotting and innate immunity,” said the co-director of the Systems Immunity Research Institute at Cardiff University.

Prof Valerie O’Donnell, European Research Council grant awardee

Prof Valerie O’Donnell

“We recently estimated that around 5,500 individual lipids are present in platelets and, using informatics approaches developed in this project, we mapped how these change in healthy humans when activated to clot and following ingestion of aspirin. The new methods are allowing us to uncover many additional lipids in blood cells, and we now are starting to examine the roles of some of these in vascular inflammation, a critical process underlying our major killer diseases that include atherosclerosis, diabetes and dementia.”

Kevin O’Rourke

In 2010, Prof Kevin O’Rourke of Trinity College Dublin was awarded a €1.4m grant enabling him to research the inter-relationships between trade, trade policy and the Great Depression.

“My ERC award allowed me to collect huge amounts of detailed commodity-level data on interwar trade, as well as a large range of other interwar data. I am using these data to study the impact of 1930s protectionist policies, and other questions related to the Great Depression,” he said.

O’Rourke is still living in Dublin, but has been appointed Chichele professor of economic history at All Souls College, Oxford.

Katherine Curran

UCL lecturer Dr Katherine Curran received an ERC Starting Grant for the interdisciplinary project, ‘COMPLEX: The Degradation of Complex Modern Polymeric Objects in Heritage Collections: A System Dynamics Approach’, which kicks off in April and will help museums, art galleries and archives preserve the plastic objects in their collections for future generations.

“Plastic objects are currently at risk due to their instability and a need for new knowledge in this area. My project will develop a new way of modelling and understanding the degradation of plastic objects in collections by combining system dynamics with polymer chemistry,” said Curran.

Neil O’Connell

A Trinity College graduate from Shannon, Co Clare, Prof Neil O’Connell is now based at University of Bristol conducting ERC-funded research in mathematics.

“With my ERC award, I can pursue an ambitious research programme, which aims to understand certain complex random structures and their symmetries. These structures arise in many branches of mathematics and physics, and real-world examples include crystals, bacterial colonies and communications networks,” said O’Connell.

“The ERC grant provides excellent support, enabling me to devote significant time to the research, to assemble a team of researchers and students, to participate in international collaborations and to organise focused scientific workshops.”

Cathryn Costello

Tralee’s own Prof Cathryn Costello researches refugee protection and international refugee law at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford’s Department of International Development. Her newly awarded research project starts this month with two principal aims.

“With my ERC award, I will re-examine refugee protection through a lens of mobility and migration, and bring scholarship on refugee law into conversation with the practices of the refugee regime,” Costello explained.

“The project examines the three key aspects of refugee law – access to protection, refugee status determination, and refugee rights. It will examine law and practice in the EU, and in Turkey, Lebanon, Kenya and South Africa.”

Roisin Owens

Prof Roisin Owens has scored a hat trick of ERC awards with a 2011 Starting Grant, a 2014 Proof of Concept Grant and a Consolidator Grant awarded in December 2016. Working out of the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Saint-Étienne, Owens says her grants “enable research on the effects of the microbiome on the gut-brain axis by developing an in vitro model”.

“Although minimalist, this approach will allow us to understand basic interactions important for human health to avoid diseases as wide and varied as colorectal cancer and autism spectrum disorder.”

John Dalton

With his ERC award, Prof John Dalton at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) hopes to develop new vaccine strategies to combat parasitic diseases of animals and humans.

“The project involves both innovative and discovery approaches in the search for novel vaccine molecules, and a translational element that will first bring these findings into a useful veterinary medicine application for the end-users, farmers and consumers,” said Dalton.

‘The breakthrough of this project will be the opening of a new route towards the control of many other major pathogens of both animals and humans’

“The breakthrough of this project will be the opening of a new route towards the control of many other major pathogens of both animals and humans.”

Eileen Furlong

Wicklow woman Dr Eileen Furlong runs her own genome biology lab at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany. “Using my advanced ERC award [for] CisRegVar, my group combined our expertise in genomics, developmental biology and genome regulation with population genetics,” she said.

“Embryonic development is incredibly robust. Despite segregating mutations and fluctuating environments, a fertilised egg has the remarkable capacity to form a precisely patterned embryo. How such robustness is imparted within developmental processes has been a topic of debate for over 50 years.”

In two very recent publications (Nature and Nature Genetics), it was revealed that CisRegVar discovered two mechanisms that buffer developmental regulation from potentially deleterious genetic variants.

John Laffey

Hailing from Galway, Dr John Laffey now serves as anaesthesiologist-in-chief at St Michael’s Hospital in the University of Toronto, Canada, where he also conducts research into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

“With my ERC award, my laboratory has been able to demonstrate the therapeutic potential of gene and stem cell-based therapies for acute respiratory distress syndrome, a devastating syndrome that has a 40pc mortality and for which there is no therapy.

“Our work has elucidated important mechanisms by which mesenchymal stem/stromal cells can reduce inflammation, enhance resolution and repair in the injured lung, while maintaining immune competence. These and subsequent studies by our group have led to the funding of a clinical trial of mesenchymal stem/stromal cells for patients with ARDS.”

Angelos Michaelides

Prof Angelos Michaelides is one of a handful of multiple ERC winners on this list. The researcher from Moville, Co Donegal, has put both awards to use studying how the world functions at the molecular scale, helping to understand how molecules bond to surfaces, how water freezes and the forces that hold DNA together.

“In our current project, my team is developing and applying computer simulation techniques to better understand the most important substance of all: water.”

Michaelides’ interest in modelling came during his undergraduate days at QUB. He now conducts his research as professor in theoretical chemistry at UCL.

Dónal O’Carroll

Professor of stem cell biology at University of Edinburgh, Prof Dónal O’Carroll also serves as associate director of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine in the Scottish city. With his ERC award, he and his team study the male germ line – that is, the cell lineage that gives rise to the sperm.

“We have identified molecular pathways that protect the genetic integrity of the germ cells from genomic parasites known as transposons, ensuring high-quality sperm production. We have isolated, in mice, a novel population of spermatogonial stem cells that are critical for the regenerative capacity of the testis,” he said.

“This ERC-funded work contributes to the basic understanding of spermatogenesis with important clinical translation potential.”

Clionadh Raleigh

Limerick’s Prof Clionadh Raleigh is another multi-awardee. Her latest came in January this year: an ERC Consolidator Grant for the project ‘VERSUS: Violence, Elites and Resilience in States Under Stress’, which will start up later this year.

‘With my ERC award, I have generated new areas of study in conflict geography and subnational variation in political violence across African states’

“With my ERC award, I have generated new areas of study in conflict geography and subnational variation in political violence across African states,” said the University of Sussex professor of political geography.

“With better understanding of African conflict, violent agents, contexts and mechanisms for violence, improved policy and programme responses can limit the effects and consequences of violent competition.”

Raleigh also has another ERC grant project beginning in September 2017, focusing on political elites and violence throughout the developing world.

Louise Connell

Armed with a BSc from Dublin City University (DCU) and a PhD from University College Dublin, Dr Louise Connell is now based at the UK’s Lancaster University. In January 2016, she was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant worth €2m.

“With my ERC award, I will investigate the role that language plays in complex cognition,” she explained.

“By using techniques from psychology, linguistics and computer science, I can examine how words enhance the ability of the human mind to form and manipulate elaborate mental representations. Ultimately, I seek to understand whether language is necessary for the kind of complex cognitive abilities that humans take for granted, and whether language could have influenced how these abilities evolved.”

Kenneth Benoit

Prof Kenneth Benoit’s quantitative text analysis of Leave and Remain campaigning on social media caught the attention of the UK press following last year’s Brexit vote. Originally from South Carolina, US, Benoit is currently professor of quantitative social research methods at the London School of Economics. He previously held positions at Trinity College Dublin and much of his research over the years has been supported through Irish institutions such as the Royal Irish Academy and Irish Research Council.

In 2011, he received an ERC Starting Investigator Grant to the tune of €1.4m for the project: ‘QUANTESS: Quantitative Analysis of Text for the Social Sciences’.

‘With my ERC award, I have pushed the frontiers of methodologies and applications in the quantitative and automated analysis of textual data’

“With my ERC award, I have pushed the frontiers of methodologies and applications in the quantitative and automated analysis of textual data, including the development and publication of a software package for R, named quanteda (for the ‘quantitative analysis of textual data’), that is under active development and has been downloaded more than 40,000 times,” said Benoit.

Wesley Browne

Originally from Sligo, DCU alumnus Prof Wesley Browne describes himself as a professor in chemistry by day, but also evenings and weekends. Currently situated at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Browne also secured ERC funding in 2011 and, last November, The Royal Netherlands Chemical Society named him Academic Chemistry Teacher of the Year 2016.

“With my ERC award, I have pushed the frontier of our understanding of homogeneous oxidation catalysts through a multidisciplinary team of talented young scientists with a strong interaction with industry and international colleagues,” said Browne.

Aoife Daly

With €1.5m in funding, the research conducted by Dr Aoife Daly at the University of Copenhagen is concerned with timber as a construction material, as a commodity and as a resource in short supply, as well as an indicator for a trade contract between regions in Northern Europe.

“With my ERC award, I am using a range of scientific techniques to analyse historic timber. Analysis of shipwrecks are allowing me to discover how growing maritime powers in northern Europe attained and exploited timber resources, vital to the ship-building industry. The science reveals where the timber for these historic ships grew, and the archaeological and historical analysis shows the complexity of the international market for this essential bulk resource.”

Ian Campbell

Dr Ian Campbell at QUB was awarded a €1.3m ERC Starting Grant for the research project ‘War and the Supernatural in Early Modern Europe’ in October 2015.

“With my ERC award, I can lead a team of superb early-career historians to re-examine the relationship between faith and warfare in 16th and 17th-century Europe,” said Campbell, who leads a team of two research fellows and one graduate student on this four-and-a-half-year project.

David Conlon

Originally from Lanesboro in County Longford, Prof David Conlon earned himself a PhD from Cambridge University and now researches mathematics at Oxford.

“With my ERC award, I can continue to explore the appearance of pseudo-randomness in mathematics,” he said.

“It is a remarkable fact that random-like behaviour hides in even the simplest mathematical structures. For example, the Riemann hypothesis – arguably the most famous problem in mathematics – can be paraphrased as saying that the primes are spread in a random-like way through the natural numbers. My ERC-funded research focuses on exploring such phenomena.”

Niamh Nowlan

Dr Niamh Nowlan, Imperial College London, is investigating the role that movements before birth (foetal movements) play in the development of bones and joints.

“When a baby does not move enough in the womb, they are at increased risk of skeletal abnormalities such as hip dysplasia, which leads to unstable or dislocated hip joints,” she said. “Our research is looking into why and how hip dysplasia is caused by reduced foetal movements, and whether we can develop prenatal treatments to promote normal bone and joint development.”

Alan Sanfey

In 2012, cognitive neuroscientist Prof Alan Sanfey was awarded a €1.5m ERC Starting Grant for an upcoming project combining methods of behavioural experiments, functional neuro-imaging, and formal economic models. This research continues at his base in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in the Netherlands.

“With my ERC award, I have developed detailed models of how people make decisions about their interactions with others. These models provide insights into both the psychological and brain processes that underlie our social decision-making,” he said.

‘This project explores questions of how we decide what is or is not fair, and what we do to those who treat us unfairly’

“This project explores questions of how we decide what is or is not fair, and what we do to those who treat us unfairly. It also looks at how we choose to trust another person, and when we decide to either repay this trust or not.”

Aron Walsh

Prof Aron Walsh’s academic journey has taken him from Trinity College to University of Bath and, now, Imperial College London, where he researches materials for efficient solar energy.

Walsh was awarded a €1m ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grant in 2011. “With my ERC award, I built a multidisciplinary and international research group in computational materials discovery. We have been developing tools to search for new compounds with low cost and high performance for applications including clean energy conversion and storage,” he said.

“Our research has helped to accelerate the development of organic-inorganic halide perovskite solar cells, which are the breakthrough solar energy materials of the 21st century.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.