23 February 2018

Six Vici grants for Utrecht researchers

Six researchers from Utrecht University have each received a Vici grant of €1.5 million from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

The Vici grant is one of the largest grants for individual scientists in the Netherlands and is aimed at senior researchers. The grant enables them to develop their own innovative line of research and build up their own research group.

Douwe van Hinsbergen
Vici ontvanger Douwe van Hinsbergen staande voor een kaart
Douwe van Hinsbergen

Geoscientist Douwe van Hinsbergen will use the €1.5 million from his Vici grant to conduct research on the plate tectonic chain reaction collision that occurred some 50 million years ago. Van Hinsbergen will reconstruct the process that caused this chain reaction collision and how it spread across the world.

The outermost layer of Earth consists of the Earth’s crust, which together with fixed pieces of mantle is made up of different, slowly moving tectonic plates. Some 50 million years ago, nearly all of the tectonic plates shifted course, triggering the growth of formations such as the Andes and the Himalayas.

‘These regional events occurred throughout the entire world within a few million years, which suggests that a tectonic chain reaction took place,’ Van Hinsbergen says. ‘My Vici grant will allow me to investigate how and where the chain reaction began and how it spread across the rest of the world.’ This knowledge is key to understanding major natural disasters.

Ronald Pierik
portret van Ronald Pierik
Ronald Pierik

Ronald Pierik is the Dutch pioneer of research into how plants adapt their growth in order to absorb as much light as possible and thus avoid shade. His discoveries include the fact that plants set off a ‘shade alarm’ when the tips of their leaves come into contact with one another. With his Vici grant, Pierik will integrate these and other discoveries made over the past few years into a comprehensive model. This will provide insights needed to grow more crops on each square metre of agricultural land.

In recent years, Pierik has already unravelled how plants perceive shade at the molecular level and react to this stimulus in various situations. With the help of the Vici grant, he will also seek to clarify mechanisms that have not yet been identified, such as the plant’s reaction through root growth. He then aims to integrate this entire network of molecular mechanisms for reacting to shade into a single computer model. ‘My goal is to understand plants’ reactions to light well enough that we can accurately predict the effects of certain adaptations to these reactions on plant growth under highly dense conditions,’ Pierik explains.

Enrico Mastrobattista
Dr. Enrico Mastrobattista

Enrico Mastrobattista is an expert on research into packaging DNA and proteins into nanoparticles for targeted delivery to diseased cells in the body. With his Vici grant, he aims to utilise his expertise to develop a therapy for diseases caused by genetic defects. To this end, he will look for nanoparticles that can deliver the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 system to precisely the right cells in a patient’s body in order to repair the genetic defect.

The CRISPR technique makes it easier to cut and paste DNA segments, but problems do tend to arise in the process. For example, the body tries to break down the CRISPR/Cas9 system as quickly as possible, and it is difficult to deliver the system precisely to the nucleus of diseased cells. Many people also seem to already have antibodies against the Cas9 protein. Furthermore, in addition to cutting DNA in the desired location, the system often cuts DNA in unintended places as well. Mastrobattista will use his Vici grant to refine his strategy for tackling these problems.

Rosalie Iemhoff
Rosalie Iemhoff zittend op grasveld
Rosalie Iemhoff

Rosalie Iemhoff will use her Vici grant to conduct research into the optimal description of logic. ‘There are many forms of reasoning: mathematical, legal, epistemic, rational, to name a few. These forms of reasoning can be modelled using logics and proof systems. Each logic can in turn be described in countless ways, but not every description is equally good. The optimal description is determined by the way in which the logic is used: in some situations efficiency is important, whereas in another context, for instance, expressiveness may be required. Finding such an optimal description is important because the usefulness of logic as a formalisation of reasoning depends on it. In this project, methods will be developed to find these optimal descriptions.’

Maarten Kole
Maarten Kole poserend voor regenboogschildering
Maarten Kole

Maarten Kole, Professor by Special Appointment of biophysics of complex cellular systems at the Faculty of Science, has also received a Vici grant. The billions of cells in our brain are able to process information extremely quickly and efficiently thanks to the insulating characteristics of myelin – a fatty substance in our nervous system. Maarten Kole will be studying whether neuron processes work with myelin like coax cables at the nano-scale. The results should provide insights into the fundamental mechanisms of speed and precision in information processing and demyelinating diseases.

Serge Dumoulin
Serge Dumoulin

Serge Dumoulin has received a Vici grant to conduct research into the dynamics of the human brain over the next five years. Dumoulin is a professor of Perception, Cognition and Neuroscience at both Utrecht University and VU Amsterdam. He is also scientific director of the Spinoza Centre for Neuroimaging, where he will carry out his Vici research. Dumoulin states that our brains need to be dynamic to cope with a changing environment and changing tasks. ‘At the same time, they must also be stable to ensure that brain functions are maintained throughout our lives. We will explore a core brain function, then construct a theoretical framework for human brain dynamics.’
Last year an article by Dumoulin and his colleagues was published in the leading journal Nature Human Behaviour.