Six young scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) will receive Starting Grants from the European Research Council (ERC). The prestigious awards have been granted to two projects in cardiology and neurosciences, which are key research areas of the TUM School of Medicine , to a physics project related to a special form of plasma, and one on the structure of chromosomes. In addition, a physics project has been selected for a Proof of Concept Grant.
Every year the ERC awards grants in various categories. Starting Grants are intended for talented early-career scientists, and include funding of up to €1.5 million. Proof of Concept grants are provided to scientists who wish to investigate whether their ERC research projects have the potential to yield marketable innovations – an aspect of great interest to TUM, as an entrepreneurial university. With the latest awards, TUM has now received a total of 79 ERC grants.
Adjunct Teaching Professor Dr. Valentin Riedl
Where in the brain are our memories situated? Various theories see the hippocampus as the gateway for new memories, which are then gradually integrated into far-reaching networks in the cerebral cortex. In humans, however, these memory pathways have never been directly demonstrated. Adjunct Teaching Professor Dr. Valentin Riedl believes that our brain, when at rest, combines new memories with earlier memory contents in the default mode network (DMN). For reasons not yet understood, energy consumption by the DMN is especially high in a state of rest.
With the ERC grant, Dr. Riedl will investigate exactly what is happening in the DMN when we process memories. That is possible with new analytical procedures that he has developed for an innovative PET/MRT device. This combination of imaging processes permits the simultaneous visualization of neurological networks and their energy consumption. With this method, Dr. Riedl wants to observe how new memory contents gradually “wander” into regions with established memories. In a further step, he plans to investigate whether the non-invasive stimulation of the DMN regions of the brain with magnetic fields can influence the processing of memories. This represents a possible approach to the treatment of illnesses in which this process is disrupted.
Valentin Riedl earned his doctorate in medicine and in systemic neurosciences. He heads the research group „Neuroenergetics of human brain function“ in the Department of Neuroradiology at TUM's university hospital Rechts der Isar. The team is also involved in the TUM-Neuroimaging Center (TUM-NIC) beteiligt.
Dr. Simon Jacob
Dr. Simon Jacob's main area of interest the so-called working memory. In simple terms, this part of our memory serves as interim storage. It is only with our working memory that we are able to complete tasks despite distractions. It is not yet known which areas of the brain are involved in the working memory and in which ways. The conclusions of past studies have varied, depending on whether researchers have worked with humans or animals. It is unclear whether this is due to different measurement techniques or fundamental differences in brain functions. In his ERC-funded project, Dr. Simon Jacob will work with both humans and mice to answer this question. The human test subjects and the animals will perform comparable tasks that will make demands on the working memory. Their brain activity will also be recorded with comparable measurement techniques that permit the visualization of individual nerve cells. The results could make an important contribution to the understanding of an indispensable brain function.
Dr. Rabea Hinkel
Dr. Rabea Hinkel does research into the effects of diabetes on small blood vessels around the cardiac muscle. In her earlier work she was able to show that an elevated blood sugar level leads to increasing losses of these small coronary vessels. As this process advances, the risk of a heart attack increases. In her ERC-funded project, Rabea Hinkel plans to explore the results of her previous research in greater depth. She will study new molecular approaches for drugs that stabilize the small coronary vessels and allow them to regenerate. She will also clarify whether the stabilized capillaries permit a long-term improvement in the cardiac muscle function in diabetes patients.
Dr. Hendrik Sager
Atherosclerosis is a condition where plaques build up on the walls of blood vessels. When ruptures occur in these plaques, blood clots can form. The clot blocks the blood vessel and may cause a heart attack, for example. Dr. Hendrik Sager will study how stress affects atherosclerosis in his ERC-funded project. Sager believes that stress heightens the inflammatory response in the plaques, causing them to grow and become unstable. He wants to conduct fundamental research into these processes and use the results to develop new treatments. The project will bring together scientists conducting fundamental and clinical research in cardiology, immunology and psychosomatic medicine.
Dr. Hendrik Sager has headed the working group Cardiovascular Inflammation at the German Heart Centre Munich. Before that he conducted research at the Massachusetts General Hospital, the teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Dr. Ante Bilandzic
The aggregate state studied by Dr. Ante Bilandzic existed in nature only for a very short time: for a fraction of a millisecond after the Big Bang. Quark-gluon plasma is a state of matter in which so much energy is present that even the elementary particles quarks and gluons can move relatively freely. Quark-gluon plasma can now be artificially produced, for example in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest particle accelerator, at CERN in Geneva. That is where Ante Bilandzic will collect the data for his ERC-funded project. Since upgrades to the LHC were carried out in the winter of 2014/15, it has been possible to produce quark-gluon plasma at even higher energy levels. Bilandzic is an expert in the analysis of the enormous quantities of data produced in these experiments and is hoping to use new methods he has developed to study the detailed properties of the quark-gluon plasma and in particular its flow behavior.
Dr. Ante Bilandzic has been a research associate with the Dense and Strange Hadronic Matter research group headed by Prof. Laura Fabbietti since 2015. He has been analyzing data collected at CERN for about 10 years.
Dr. Johannes Stigler
Chromosomes change their structure over the course of the cell division cycle. They have the familiar X shape mainly just before and during cell division. In the interphase, between successive divisions, they take on other shapes. This has far-reaching consequences: The structure of a chromosome is one of the factors determining which parts of the hereditary material become active or interact. It is known that certain proteins are responsible for chromosomes taking on certain shapes. We do not yet know what exactly happens in these processes. This is the starting point for Dr. Johannes Stigler's ERC project. He plans to use microscopy-based techniques to study how chromosomes "get in shape". The procedure is so precise that Stigler can observe the behavior of individual molecules.
Dr. Johannes Stigler is a research associate at the Chair for Molecular Biophysics.
Prof. Dr. Johannes Barth
Physicist Prof. Johannes Barth has been selected for a Proof of Concept Grant. He laid the foundation for his current project, SoftBeam, with the ERC Advanced Grant he received in 2009.
For SoftBeam, the team working with Prof. Barth and Dr. Hartmut Schlichting developed a method for controlling highly sensitive molecules in a vacuum. Such procedures open up new possibilities for manufacturing nanomaterials or for analyzing materials through mass spectroscopy. In both applications, important molecules and biological building blocks are available only in a dissolved state, but must be handled under vacuum conditions. There is still no universally applicable device for this task. Conventional methods can affect the integrity, and thus the functionality, of molecules that are sensitive to changes in temperature or the extraction of water. In their method, the scientists are using a controlled, intense, extremely pure and precisely targeted ion beam that can be generated from any soluble substance. With this development, they plan to close a gap in the nanotechnology and analytical chemistry markets.
Johannes Barth has been Professor of Molecular Nanoscience & Chemical Physics of Interfaces at TUM since 2006, and is currenty the dean of his department.