Fifteen Utrecht-based researchers receive Vidi grant worth 800,000 euros

Researchers each receive 800.000 Euros to develop innovative line of research

The Dutch Research Council has awarded fifteen experienced, Utrecht-based researchers a Vidi grant worth 800,000 euros. The grant enables them to develop their own innovative line of research and set up their own research group in the coming five years. 

With the grant, the laureates will do research on a variety of subjects including how interactions between plants can help fight climate change, and how lettercraft was used in medieval societies. Eight of the Utrecht-based laureates are researchers at the Faculty of Science, two at the Faculty of Humanities, two at the Faculty of Social Sciences, one at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, one at UMC Utrecht and one at the Hubrecht Institute.

Dr. Kathryn Barry, Faculty of Science: How positive interactions between plants can help fight climate change

This Vidi grant enables me to collaboratively work with people already on the ground restoring Dutch grasslands.

Grasslands are a cornerstone ecosystem in Western Europe yet are being lost globally at an alarming rate. Climate change requires urgent solutions that restore the resilience of these grasslands. Kathryn Barry proposes that restoring positive interactions between plant species in grasslands will increase their potential to adapt to and mitigate future climate change in the Netherlands. She plans to make this nature-based climate solution a reality by uncovering the positive plant actors and examining the consequences of seeding them into former farms. Barry: “Furthermore, this Vidi grant enables us to collaboratively work with people already on the ground restoring Dutch grasslands.” 

Dr. Agathe Chaigne, Faculty of Science: How and why do cells split in two?

I want to dismantle the molecular mechanisms of bridge formation and dismantlement and its effects on cell specialisation.

When an animal develops, cells divide to increase the size of the organism. The textbook description of cell division ends with two cells completely separated from each other. However, Agathe Chaigne discovered that stem cells remain connected via a small tube, called a bridge, filled with proteins. The dismantlement of bridges is crucial to cell fate. Yet, she doesn’t know much yet about what bridges do and how they are maintained or destroyed. Chaigne: “With this project, I will elucidate the molecular mechanisms controlling bridge formation and dismantlement and how the switch between bridge maintenance and destruction controls cell fate transitions.” 

Dr. Ivan Kryven, Faculty of Science: Network calculus

The new theory that I am going to develop, will be of great importance to scientists wanting to understand how networks evolve in time.

Calculus is a powerful tool in mathematics, allowing scientists to write and solve equations with functions as unknowns. Ivan Kryven will, with his colleagues, develop a theory that for the first time will allow the usage of calculus for networks too. “The theory will be of great importance to scientists wanting to understand how networks evolve in time.” 

Dr. Till Miltzow, Faculty of Science: Solving continuous problems with guarantees

I will develop methods that can solve at least medium sized real world instances.

Miltzow and his group will study so‐called ER‐complete problems: algorithmic problems that are continuous and whose parts interact in a highly complex and non‐linear fashion. This makes those algorithmic problems much more challenging than so-called NP‐complete problems. The algorithmic landscape on ER‐complete problems is split into practical methods without guarantees on the run time and theoretical methods without any reasonable chance of solving real life instances. Miltzow: “We will develop methods that have run‐time guarantees and can solve at least medium sized real world instances.” The research will contribute to the understanding of algorithmic problems that work with continuous numbers. Since ancient times, we use the concept of continuous numbers, which can describe things with infinite granularity. Yet, we are unable to make computations with infinite granularity. Miltzow’s project will restudy this fundamental discrepancy from a new angle. 

Dr. Marta Pieropan, Faculty of Science: Fano varieties - rational points and beyond

These are exciting times for arithmetic geometry

How many grid cells t in a circle? How fast does this number grow when we increase the circle radius? What if we require that the cells lie in a certain pattern? What if we replace the circle by a different shape? Marta Pieropan will develop a new framework to solve problems of this type that arise in the geometric setting of counting rational points (the grid) of bounded height (the shape) on Fano varieties (the pattern). Pieropan: “With this project I will investigate solutions with additional special properties and how this affects their geometric counterpart. These are exciting times for arithmetic geometry.” 

Dr. Wioletta Ruszel, Faculty of Science: Equilibrium shapes from nonlocal interactions

I want to know how certain macroscopic geometrical shapes arise when specifying some nonlocal interaction between microscopic components

The understanding of surface structures of crystals plays a central role in many fields including physics, chemistry and material science. Some interatomic forces in crystals can be approximated by an interacting particle system. Many interesting physical systems have nonlocal interactions decaying polynomially including van der Waals, Coulomb and dipolar forces. In her research, Wioletta Ruszel aims at developing a mathematical microscopic theory for equilibrium shapes from nonlocal interactions. Ruszel: “Hopefully my findings will contribute to understand how certain macroscopic geometrical shapes arise when specifying some nonlocal interaction between microscopic components.”

Dr. Frederik Verweij, Faculty of Science: The internal dialogue - how our organs communicate via tiny nano-bubbles

I am going to tap the communication routes of nano-bubbles, in order to understand what goes wrong in diseases such as cancer.

Almost every cell in our body releases nanometer-sized extracellular vesicles (EVs) that are essential for communication with other cells, located nearby or even at distant locations in our body. Yet, owing to their miniscule size, much of how these EVs behave in real life remains enigmatic. Verweij: “in order to shed new light on this communication, we will tap into this communication pathway using novel microscopy approaches and transparent fish, to better understand the biology of EVs, and how they function in the healthy and diseased gut, in particular during cancer metastasis.” 

Dr. Daan Weits, Faculty of Science: Why plant stem cells do not like oxygen

Increased plant growth and improved submergence tolerance are needed to safeguard the food production for a growing world population

Heavy rainfall and flooding cause low oxygen levels in plants leading to crop losses. Curiously, the plant’s stem cells, which produce leaves and flowers, function permanently at very low oxygen levels. Low oxygen concentrations is even necessary for optimal plant development. To investigate why this is the case, Daan Weits will develop new biosensors that can detect low oxygen concentrations in plant tissue, and they will investigate if the oxygen concentration regulates the development of new leaves. Weits: This new knowledge can be used to increase plant growth or improve submergence tolerance of crops. That is needed to safeguard the food production for a growing world population.” 

Dr. Robert Flierman, Faculty of Humanities: Lettercraft and epistolary performance in early medieval Europe 

A single letter could reach a whole community, as long as it was delivered in the right way

How did medieval societies use the letter and who were among its users? This project approaches the medieval letter as a performative medium that was read out aloud, translated and circulated in public. It explores how the letter was able to establish lines of communication between diverse social groups and across political boundaries and language-barriers, making it an essential tool for conflict-resolution and consensus-building in a world with rudimentary infrastructure and limited public order. “As long as it was properly performed, a single letter could persuade an entire community", says researcher Robert Flierman. 

Dr. Dorothea Gädeke, Faculty of Humanities: Theorizing Freedom from Below 

Can we understand freedom without having experienced unfreedom?

Most theories of freedom focus on the state of being free. But can we fully understand what freedom means without the experience of unfreedom? This project will investigate how the way in which we think about freedom changes when rethinking freedom from the perspective of people who struggled to become free. 

Dr. Lisette Hornstra, Faculty of Social Sciences: Differential teaching practices as reinforcer of ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in academic adjustment 

Education is not the "great equaliser" it is meant to be.

Education is not the great equalizer it intends to be. There are increasing educational inequalities between students with different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Many students who start their educational career in primary education in a disadvantaged position are not able to catch up. This project aims to examine how primary school teachers through their everyday interactions with students reinforce these differences in the long term or how they can reduce them. "To do this, we are going to follow sixty different classes in upper primary education for several years," says Lisette Hornstra. "By mapping out the daily interactions between teachers and their students, we will examine how all of that relates to educational outcomes such as motivation, engagement and school performance." 

Dr. Caroline Junge, Faculty of Social Sciences: Towards a better prediction of language skills: integrating brain, child, and parental characteristics in the first 1,001 days 

With this research, we can better help children with language deficiencies.

Not everyone develops comparable language skills. The first 1,001 days from conception onwards prove critical for language skills and brain development alike. Unknown is whether these two developmental processes are related. The YOUth cohort study follows over 2000 children’s brain development starting in pregnancy. This Vidi project assesses their full language profiles when the same children are 3‐6 years old. Next, the researchers will link language skills to children’s prenatal brain development and the emergence of social brain networks in infancy. They will also take into account child‐ and parental characteristics. This will improve interventions for children in need of speech and language therapy. 

Prof. dr. Eva Knies, Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance: People management: too much of a good thing? 

We want to investigate especially the 'shadow side' of people management with an interdisciplinary research team.

Work pressure, high burn-out rates, and labour shortages are highly topical health and education sector issues that put quality of public service provision under pressure. People management by managers is often presented as a solution for these important societal issues. However, might it also be part of the problem? Can well-intended people management have unintended negative effects for employee performance and well-being? This project systematically studies this dark side of people management in these sectors, provides insights into the optimal level of support for employees, and develops relevant tools to prevent the dark side from occurring. 

"With an interdisciplinary research team, we mainly want to investigate the 'shadow side' of people management," says Eva Knies. Which factors and mechanisms now ensure that good intentions can still have negative effects. Because these sometimes cause staff in care and education to push the boundaries too far, develop burnouts and drop out. And that is what we want to prevent. 

Dr. Andreas Spaan, UMC Utrecht: Inborn errors of immunity in humans suffering from severe staphylococcal infections 

This project investigates whether hereditary defects in the immune system of formerly healthy but now seriously ill people explain their susceptibility to infections with Staphylococcus aureus.

Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium that causes superficial infections in most humans. Some previously healthy individuals, however, develop a life-threatening disease upon infection. What explains the tremendous interindividual variability between humans in the severity of their infection? This project will investigate if the severe infections in previously healthy but critically ill patients can be explained by inborn errors of their immunity to Staphylococcus aureus. 

Dr. Juan Garaycoechea, Hubrecht Institute: When metabolism attacks DNA 

I want to describe how bodily substances can be identified, how they change DNA and how this leads to disease.

DNA carries the instructions to life but is also constantly damaged, causing mutations and disease. Sunlight and cigarette smoke are common damaging agents, but DNA is also attacked by chemicals produced by our own cells. This proposal will uncover what these chemicals are, how they change DNA and how this contributes to disease.