ERC Consolidator Grants for seven Utrecht-based researchers

This year, seven Utrecht researchers will receive an ERC Consolidator Grant. The European Union provides this subsidy of an average of 2 million euros to researchers who have made their mark in science. The Utrecht researchers who will receive a grant for their research are: Charissa de Bekker (Faculty of Science), Susanne Knittel, Ozan Ozavci (both Faculty of Humanities), Flor Avelino (Faculty of Geosciences), Jeroen de Ridder, Hugo Snippert and Pieter Vader (all three UMC Utrecht).

Projects and laureates

ZOMBIHAVIOUR. Leveraging the zombie-making strategies of Ophiocordyceps fungi to understand animal behaviour

This grant allows us to really think outside the box and do research across several biological disciplines to unravel the intricacies of zombie-making parasites.

In this project, biologist Dr. Charissa de Bekker explores the world of parasites that manipulate the behavior of their hosts, akin to the zombies depicted in popular culture. Despite their widespread occurrence, knowledge about the molecular mechanisms underlying these behavioral changes is limited. De Bekker focuses on a specific case involving so-called "zombie ants" who are infected by Ophiocordyceps fungi, which induce a phenomenon known as summit disease. These ants express altered behavior to facilitate the dispersal of fungal spores. The challenge lies in the fact that most of these parasites and their hosts are not typical subjects for scientific study, complicating the investigation of the molecular intricacies at play.

To overcome these challenges, De Bekker developed techniques for culturing the fungus and conducting behavioral studies on infected ants. This led to the identification of potential genetic and molecular factors contributing to the observed behavioral changes. However, to establish a causal relationship, De Bekker proposes to use molecular genetics tools to characterize the fungal products responsible for altered host behavior.

Furthermore, she plans to employ RNASeq and RNAi techniques to investigate the genetic pathways in infected ants. De Bekker anticipates that unraveling the molecular genetics of parasite-induced behavioral changes will not only advance our understanding of these manipulation strategies. It could also pave the way for innovative pest control methods and the development of fungus-derived drugs.

COOPERATION. Fighting Pandemics from Below. Global North-South Public Health Cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa, 1792-1942

We will reveal inter-imperial competition, economic inequities, and racial and Orientalist biases, and how cooperating countries overcame these barriers.

ERC-COOPERATION will recapture the lost archives and historical knowledge of international public health cooperation between the ‘global north’ and the ‘global south’. We will analyse its first and longest-lasting instances in history: the sanitary councils in the Middle East and North Africa. The councils’ European, American, and native co-founders invented new models for fighting pandemics through cooperation on the spot and stopping the diseases in their tracks. The team will examine to what extent they managed to overcome the familiar barriers to cooperation posed by inter-imperial competition in a multipolar world, economic inequities, protests against quarantine restrictions, and racial and Orientalist biases, among others.

Ecologies of Violence: Crimes against Nature in the Contemporary Cultural Imagination

With this project we will show how culture, and cultural memory, shape our understanding of the current environmental crisis.

The ongoing destruction of the natural world raises critical questions about responsibility. How do we remember the victims, both human and non-human? And who is to blame? Contemporary culture plays a crucial role in addressing these questions.

Stories about extinction, deforestation, pollution, and other forms of ecological violence are everywhere. The aim of this project is to understand how environmental degradation is being framed and remembered as violence in contemporary culture, and how representations of eco-violence articulate and reflect on questions of guilt and responsibility. Eco-violence has deep historical roots that tie it to other forms of violence, especially colonialism and genocide. Writers, artists, and filmmakers are finding new ways of representing large-scale environmental harm and in the process they reveal the historical, structural, and discursive links between crimes against humanity and crimes against nature.

POTRANSI. Power Dynamics in Transformative Social Innovation

By analysing power dynamics I strive to increase ‘power literacy’, not only amongst academics but also amongst the people working on social innovation.

Social innovations refer to changing social relations involving new ways of thinking, doing and organizing. Examples include decentralised energy production, the sharing economy, eco-communities, participatory democracy and many more. I argue that social innovations can be transformative to the extent that they challenge, alter and replace the dominant structures and power relations in the societal context. The example of decentralized energy is innovative, but it is only transformative if it can also alter the wider energy system, which is centralized and fossil-fuel based, and the underlying economic system of over-consumption and extractivism.

In this process, there is a clear paradox: In order for an innovations to have transformative impact they must spread across society and undergo some form of mainstreaming. In this process, they - by definition - lose some of their novelty, and run the risk of reproducing existing power relations or even making them worst. The unique contribution of this project is to approach this paradox from an explicit and unprecedented power perspective, asking the following questions: Who or what exactly is or exercising or undergoing power through social innovation? How are existing power relations transformed but also: how may they be reproduced, and what may be unintended power implications? And how can social innovations gain power while holding on to their transformative potential?

The project will answer these questions by developing a novel theoretical power framework and by using interviews, participant observation and document reviews to analyse social innovation initiatives and their translocal networks across three geographical contexts (United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Portugal). A more radical, innovative element is the Transformative Power Arena as an action research method to engage entrepreneurs, activists, policy-makers and citizens from the cases under study in the research process. The aim of all this, is to increase power literacy, to advance a more informed and critical debate about the role of power in social innovation and transformation and to place power at the center of debates that have for a long time avoided and ignored power.

ERC Consolidator Grants at UMC Utrecht

Read more about the UMC Utrecht laureates and research projects on the website.

  • Jeroen de Ridder - FoundationDX. Foundation models for molecular diagnostics - machine learning with biological ‘common sense’;
  • Hugo Snippert - Transformation. Understanding malignant transformation of precancerous lesions in human colon;
  • Pieter Vader - UNRAVEL. Unravelling extracellular vesicle heterogeneity to inspire improved therapeutic RNA delivery systems.