Left to right: Christopher Reynolds, Cecilia Mascolo, Alfonso Martinez Arias

Five researchers at the University of Cambridge have won advanced grants from the European Research Council (ERC), Europe’s premier research funding body. 

The ERC gives these bright minds the possibility to follow their most creative ideas and to play a decisive role in the advancement of all domains of knowledge

Carlos Moedas

Two hundred and twenty-two senior scientists from across Europe were awarded grants in today’s announcement, representing a total of €540 million in research funding. The UK has 47 grantees in this year’s funding round, the most of any ERC participating country.

ERC grants are awarded through open competition to projects headed by starting and established researchers, irrespective of their origins, who are working or moving to work in Europe. The sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence.

ERC Advanced Grants are designed to support excellent scientists in any field with a recognised track record of research achievements in the last ten years.

Professor Clare Grey from the Department of Chemistry, and a Fellow of Pembroke College, leads a project focused on the development of longer lasting, higher energy density and cheaper rechargeable batteries, one of society’s major technological challenges. Batteries are currently the limiting components in the shift from gasoline-powered to electric vehicles.

Using a variety of experimental techniques, including dynamic nuclear polarisation NMR spectroscopy, Grey and her team will explore a variety of different battery chemistries, including more traditional lithium-ion and newer solid state and redox-flow batteries, with a particular focus on understanding the interfaces and interphases that form in these systems. The interdisciplinary project combines analytical and physical chemistry, materials characterisation, electrochemistry and electronic structures of materials, interfaces and nanoparticles. The final result will be a significantly improved understanding of the structures of new types of batteries and how they evolve during the charge-discharge cycle, coupled with strategies for designing improved battery structures.

Professor Cecilia Mascolo from the Department of Computer Science and Technology, and a Fellow of Jesus College, will lead a project focused on the use of mobile devices for medical diagnostics. Mascolo and her team will study how the microphone in mobile and wearable devices may be used to diagnose and monitor various health conditions since sounds from the human body can be indicators of disease or the onsets of disease.

While audio sensing in a mobile context is inexpensive to deploy and can reach people who may not have access to or be able to afford other diagnostic tests, it does come with challenges which threaten its use in clinical context: namely its power-hungry nature and the sensitivity of the data it collects. Mascolo’s ERC funding will support the development of a systematic framework to link sounds to disease diagnosis while addressing power consumption and privacy concerns by maximising the use of local hardware resources with power optimisation and accuracy.

Professor Christopher Reynolds from the Institute of Astronomy, and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, leads a project focused on the feedback from supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies. These supermassive black holes have a profound influence on the evolution of galaxies and galaxy groups/clusters, but fundamental questions remain.

To help address these questions, Reynolds and his team are studying the highly luminous central regions of galaxies around the black hole, known as active galactic nuclei (AGN). Reynolds’ ERC funding will support a set of projects to explore the multi-scale physics of AGN feedback. A new theoretical understanding of AGN feedback as a function of mass, environment, and cosmic time will be essential for interpreting the torrent of data from current and future observatories, and understanding some of the most powerful phenomena in the universe.

Professor Alfonso Martinez Arias from the Department of Genetics will lead a project focused on understanding the early stages of mammalian embryogenesis. The development of an embryo requires the spatially structured emergence of tissues and organs, a process which relies on the early establishment of a coordinate system that acts as a template for the organism. Exactly how this process occurs is an open question and one which is difficult to investigate experimentally, particularly in mammals.

Using gastruloids, a stem cell-based experimental system they have developed, Martinez Arias and his team will probe into the functional relationships between the mechanical activities of multicellular ensembles and the dynamics that control the organisation and shape of the mammalian body plan: the arrangement of tissue and organs with reference to a global coordinate system.

Finally, Professor Austin Smith from the Wellcome - MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and the Department of Biochemistry will lead a project on the plasticity of the pluripotent stem cell network. Pluripotent stem cells have the potential to become any of the cells and tissues in the body, but the evolutionary origins of this phenomenon are unclear.

Using a cross-disciplinary approach, Smith and his team hope to uncover the core biological programme moulded by evolution into different forms. The team are investigating the molecular logic governing early development, lineage plasticity, pluripotent identity and stem cell self-renewal. 

The President of the European Research Council (ERC), Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, said: “Since 2007, the European Research Council has attracted and financed some of the most audacious research proposals, and independent evaluations show that this approach has paid off. With this call, another 222 researchers from all over Europe and beyond will pursue their best ideas and are in an excellent position to trigger breakthroughs and major scientific advances.”

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: “The ERC Advanced Grants back outstanding researchers throughout Europe. Their pioneering work has the potential to make a difference in people’s everyday life and deliver solutions to some of our most urgent challenges. The ERC gives these bright minds the possibility to follow their most creative ideas and to play a decisive role in the advancement of all domains of knowledge.”

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.