Wed, 01/12/2022 - 13:34
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The European Research Council (ERC) has just announced a new round of winners of the Starting Grants (2021). Projects are carried out by eight researchers from the Polish research centres. They have previously won NCN grants.

Since 2007, the ERC has awarded 27 Starting Grants to researchers affiliated with Polish institutions. Eight more have just joined the ranks of this prestigious group in what was a record edition for Poland.

Dr hab. Michał Tomza from the University of Warsaw, winner of the NCN Award for 2020, as well as four NCN grants, including UWERTURA, targeted at researchers planning to apply for ERC funds, will carry out a project entitled “Ultracold polyatomic molecules for controlled chemistry and precision physics”. “The purpose of this project is to understand and apply the growing complexity of ultracold polyatomic molecules to the study of the foundations of chemistry and physics. We will propose new molecules, new methods to produce and control them, as well as their new applications in controlled chemistry and precision spectroscopy. The project will open cold chemistry to new quantum effects and bring unprecedented complexity intro ultracold physics, providing new insights into the physical underpinnings of chemistry and the basic laws of nature”, the scientist explains.

Winners of this round include Dr Dorota Skowron and Dr Paweł Nowakowski. Dr Skowron is an astrophysicist; she has previously won a SONATA grant. The goal of her project is to design a new method for detecting extrasolar planetary systems. “The methods we currently rely on are limited in range, which means that the majority of exoplanets discovered thus far are found in our vicinity. If we want to get a complete picture of how planets are formed, we need to look for them in different environments, including remote regions of our galaxy, and if possible, also other galaxies. The method I am planning to develop is meant to allow us to discover such remote planetary systems”, she explains.

Dr Paweł Nowakowski specialises in ancient history and the epigraphy of late antiquity. He is a winner of NCN’s PRELUDIUM and SONATA grants. The ERC decided to fund his project entitled “Masters of the stone: The stonecutters' workshops and the rise of the late antique epigraphical cultures (third-fifth century AD)”.

Dr hab. Kinga Kamieniarz-Gdula, a biologist from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań will carry out a project devoted to “Alternative gene ends: the crosstalk of RNA cleavage and transcription termination”. “Most human genes have several alternative ends. An alternative gene end usually modulates gene function, but in some cases, it can alter it in extreme ways. For example, a gene that prevents cancer may begin to stimulate its growth. My project is designed to find out what determines which gene end is used under specific circumstances”, the researcher says. Last year, Dr hab. Kinga Kamieniarz-Gdula won an EMBO Installation Grant. She is also a winner of NCN’s SONATA grant.

Dr Karolina Ćwiek-Rogalska will carry out research on “Recycling the German Ghosts. Resettlement Cultures in Poland, Czechia and Slovakia after 1945”. She specialises in cultural studies and Czech studies and works at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. She has previously completed a MINIATURA project and recently won an OPUS grant. Dr Ćwiek-Rogalska is planning to look into the role of bureaucracy and documentation in shaping social and political life in Pomerania and Northern Czechia in the first decades post-WWII and examine how they processed, erased and recycled their German past. The same areas of Poland and Czechoslovakia are also the focus of her StG ERC grant. “I am asking myself what we may discover if we conceive of the material vestiges left behind by the regions’ dispossessed inhabitants as ghosts, which will allow us to bring to light overlooked aspects of the past and understand experiences other than our own. I will focus on the way in which new settlers experienced the objects left behind by previous residents: German speakers who had once lived in Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia. The language and ways of thinking associated with the world of ghosts will help us capture an important aspect of the resettlement experience, which has until now eluded other forms of description or has been simply side-lined in research”, she explains.

ERC grants will also go to two researchers from the Jagiellonian University. Dr Krzysztof Szade will carry out a project entitled “What does your blood remember? The memory of haematopoietic stem cells”. Dr Szade is a winner of PRELUDIUM and HARMONIA grants, as well as the MOZART call for Polish-Austrian research projects, which was organised by the NCN in tandem with the Austrian Science Fund – FWF.

LUMIFIELD, a project headed by Dr hab. Szymon Chorąży, will look for next-generation molecular materials, whose optical properties, including photoluminescence and circularly polarised luminescence, can be switched on and off by a number of physical stimuli, such as magnetic fields, electric fields and electromagnetic radiation (light). “The goal of the project is to obtain advanced switches that rely on luminescent response and several external stimuli, which makes them prime candidates for building high-density optical memories. The expected switchability will be induced by introducing several optical, magnetic and electric properties within a single, homogeneous material built from carefully selected molecular components. I will design and obtain chiral metal-based luminophores and then functionalise them by selecting additional building blocks, such as lanthanide ions or polar organic cations”, he explains.

Another Starting Grant was awarded to Dr Piotr Dworczak’s project “Inequality-aware Market Design”, affiliated at the Foundation of Admirers and Mavens of Economics (FAME). The economist is a contractor in the OPUS project.

From NCN to ERC

Faculty of Physics of UW, photo by M. KaźmierczakFaculty of Physics of UW, photo by M. Kaźmierczak “Without the support of NCN grants, I would never be able to carry out research in Poland. I wouldn’t have been able to secure an ERC grant for a Polish research centre”, says Dr hab. Michał Tomza.

Dr Dorota Skowron confesses that her experience as an NCN grant coordinator and research team leader has had a very positive impact on her CV, which is an important element in the proposal review process at the ERC. Dr hab. Kinga Kamieniarz-Gdula also says that the SONATA grant contributed to her success; it helped her win the StG in two ways. “First, the formula of the NCN call was very similar to that of the ERC, which made it much easier to write the proposal. I’d simply done it before. Second, the fact that I was a principal investigator and PhD thesis supervisor under an NCN grant reassured the panel and the reviewers that I was an independent researcher and competent team leader, mature enough to take on the challenge of an ERC grant”, she says. This sentiment is echoed by Dr hab. Szymon Chorąży, who has previously won three NCN grants. “The first of these allowed me to start out on my own research career; the following two helped me develop my methodology, gain experience in conducting independent research, learn team management and achieve valuable results. Without these grants, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with the research topic that I will now investigate under the ERC grant”.

An initial failure can also act as an impulse to try again. This was the case of Dr Karolina Ćwiek-Rogalska, whose SONATA proposal was turned down at the second stage. “Long, diligent and inspiring reviews that highlighted the potential of the project idea encouraged me to apply for an ERC grant. I remember how, after reading them, I thought that this was exactly the project I wanted to work on, and I am very grateful to all the anonymous reviewers of that early proposal”, she says.

Starting Grants are open to researchers who have earned their PhD 2 to 7 years earlier. The projects may take up to 5 years to complete and the maximum possible funding equals EUR 1.5 million. The ERC supports innovative ideas in all disciplines of science. In this round of the StG call, more than 4000 proposals were submitted. Out of these, funding was awarded to 397 projects from 22 EU member states and associated countries. The greatest number of projects will be affiliated with German (72), French (53), British (46) and Dutch (44) institutions. As emphasised in the ERC press release, women represent 43% of all winners in this round, the best result in the history of the call.

A list of all successful StG ERC 2021 projects

A list of Polish winners of previous ERC calls can be found on the website of the Polish National Contact Point (KPK)