Ten Utrecht-based researchers receive Vici grant
The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has granted Vici grants to ten researchers of Utrecht University and the UMC Utrecht. They will each receive 1.5 million euros.
The Vici grant is a personal grant for outstanding, senior researchers who have successfully demonstrated the ability to develop their own innovative lines of research. Vici researchers are among the top ten percent in their research field. They have also proven their ability to coach young researchers. Vici laureates are allowed to put together their own research centre. This round, Utrecht is particularly well represented: of the 33 Vici’s that are granted throughout the Netherlands, 10 were granted to Utrecht based researchers.
BugControl: protection of natural stone by bacteria
Prof. Veerle Cnudde is Professor of Earth Sciences, with a specialisation in X-ray microscopy. In her Vici project, Cnudde will set up a line of research to scrutinise natural stone. Natural stone, present in our landscape and in our buildings is constantly subject to various forms of weathering. Moisture is usually the main mediating agent here. In this Vici project, Cnudde and her team will influence the role of moisture inside rocks by utilizing microbial activity in a positive manner.
Within this interdisciplinary research project, a new method will be developed to will visualise, understand and influence the dynamic processes within the stone
Cnudde can't wait to start her Vici project, especially because they are going to develop new methods that will give a boost to her research field. "Within this interdisciplinary research project, a new method will be developed in which microbial activity is used to conserve the rocks in our architectural heritage. For this purpose, in addition to traditional research methods, we will also make use of the possibilities of innovative imaging techniques using X-rays. In this way, we will visualise, understand and influence the dynamic processes within the stone," says Cnudde.
Learning prosody before and after birth
Prof. Dr. Aoju Chen is Professor of Language Development. Children and language development are always central to her research, including in her Vici project. An unborn child begins to hear sounds as early as 27 weeks of pregnancy. Although speech heard in the womb is muffled, prosody (e.g. intonation, rhythm) comes through the womb intact. This project will be the first to investigate how children learn the prosody of their mother tongue during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first three years of life.
The research in my application is not only important but also urgent. It has to be done now
Chen enthusiastically says she is "very happy" with the Vici grant, but she also stresses the urgency for her research. "The research in my application is not only important but also urgent. It has to be done now. Because knowledge of 'how children learn prosody so early' can lead us to the mechanisms at the very heart of language development. This knowledge is also urgently needed to provide preterm newborns with care that facilitates language development, and to improve language and social ability of children with autism or at risk of autism. This research brings humanities and medical science closer together to tackle new challenging questions.
Improving self-regulated learning
Prof. dr. Tamara van Gog is professor of Educational Sciences and is ‘overjoyed’ to be able to start her project with her Vici grant. She will investigate how students can improve their studying. To be effective self-regulated learners, students need to be able to accurately assess what they do and do not know, and use that to decide on an appropriate next study activity. This is notoriously difficult. In this Vici project, Van Gog and her team will use innovative techniques to investigate why that is, and will test how we can help students make better choices. They will focus specifically on self-regulated learning of problem-solving tasks in STEM-domains (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).
The COVID crisis has made it painfully clear how incredibly difficult it is for students to regulate their own learning process
Van Gog notes the sense of urgency she feels when thinking about her research. “Nowadays I hardly need to explain the importance of the central question in this project anymore”, Van Gog explains. “The COVID crisis has made it painfully clear over the course of the past year how incredibly important and how incredibly difficult it is for students to regulate their own learning process. So there is an urgent need to identify effective methods for improving self-regulated learning: What works (and what doesn’t), why, and for whom? This is not only a highly challenging research question, but the outcomes are also very relevant for educational practice”.
Responsible use of neurotechnology for a safer society
Prof. Dr. Gerben Meynen is professor of Forensic psychiatry at the department of Law, Economics and Governence and is one of the proud receivers of a Vici grant. With his grant, he will research responsible use of so-called neurotechnology. Crime comes with enormous societal costs. Neurotechnology could help reduce recidivism and make society safer. But these techniques – in which the brains of offenders may even be changed – entail considerable risks, for instance for a person's bodily integrity. How can they be applied responsibly?
The unique approach of this project is that the meaning of neurotechnology for criminal law is examined from the combined perspective of law and ethics
Meynen was thrilled when NWO reached out to tell him his project got a Vici grant. His research has an interdisciplinary nature, something he holds in high regard. “The unique approach of this project is that the meaning of neurotechnology for criminal law is examined from the combined perspective of law and ethics”, Meynen notes.
The most archaic ocean in our universe
Dr. Umut Gursoy is assistant professor Theoretical Physics. Full of refreshed energy, he will start his Vici project looking into String Theory .String theory suggests that waves in an ocean of quarks and gluons—the fundamental building blocks of atomic nuclei—are related to ripples on a black-hole horizon. Gursoy and his team will use this connection to describe how energy and charge flowed in our universe microseconds after the Big Bang.
The Vici grant allows me to explore uncharted territories with a refreshed energy, excitement and joy!
Umut Gursoy mainly felt a wave of joy when he received the phone call from NWO. “The Vici grant will be a strong boost for my research letting me explore uncharted territories with a refreshed energy, excitement and joy!”, Gursoy enthusiastically notes.
Cascades of abrupt climate transitions
Dr. Anna von der Heydt is assistant professor Meteorology and Physical Oceanography. With her Vici grant, Von der Heydt aims to research abrupt climate transition. An abrupt shutdown of the warm Gulfstream could induce abrupt transitions elsewhere, such as an intensification of El Nino and an accelerated permafrost thawing. The research team will quantify the risk of such cascading behavior and the expected climate response, to identify dangerous climatic change under global warming.
In order to reach the goals of the Paris climate agreement a reliable risk assessment of abrupt climate change under the current global warming is urgently needed
Von der Heydt is happy that her research can contribute to a more sustainable future. “In order to reach the goals of the Paris climate agreement”, Von der Heydt explains, “a reliable risk assessment of abrupt climate change under the current global warming is urgently needed. For that, we need to know more about the interactions between climate subsystems, which I am very happy to contribute to with my Vici project”.
Green logic: deciphering plant decision making in the search for nutrients
Prof. dr. Kirsten ten Tusscher is professor Biodynamics. She will use her Vici fund to look into something that has gained popularity over the last decade, particularly in our livingrooms: plants. Plants expand their root system in a continuous search for nutrients. Scientists investigate how plants “decide” where to invest in root growth. Using experiments and models, Ten Tusscher and her team will decipher how plants integrate information on soil nutrient presence, plant nutrient requirements, and energy available for growth to arrive at these growth decisions.
I want to find out how plants 'calculate' which decisions they can make best based on their environmental conditions
Ten Tusscher is looking forward to start her Vici-project. "With my Vici I want to find out how plants 'calculate' which decisions they can make best based on their environmental conditions, in terms of where they invest in growth," Ten Tusscher enthusiastically explains.
Biomaterials for 3D-printing of narrow kidney tubules
Prof. Dr. Ir. Tina Vermonden is professor in Farmaceutical Sciences. Vermonden and her team will use the Vici project to develop 3D-printed narrow kidney tubules. Kidneys consist of tiny tubules that remove waste products via the urine. In this Vici project, materials will be developed to make kidney tubules with the same diameter as in the body. Therefore, 3D-printing technology will be applied using materials that can shrink to the desired dimensions.
This Vici will allow me to really study the relationship between form and function of complex tissues
When Vermonden received the news that she was receiving a Vici, she was extremely proud. "This Vici will allow me to develop new biomaterials for 3D bioprinting, where we can really study the relationship between form and function of complex tissues," Vermonden explains.
Stop being naïve about naïve T-cells
Dr. Femke van Wijk (UMC Utrecht) works in the field of Immunology and infections. She is eager to start with her Vici project, as it will uncover some blind spots not seen before. Her project will focus ons so-called ‘T-cells’. Naïve T-cells form the basis for virtually all adaptive immune responses. Naïve T-cells have long been regarded as quiescent, homogeneous cells, just waiting to be activated. Recent evidence challenges this view. By sensing the local environment and early imprinting, naïve T-cells may conceal a sophisticated system determining potency, fitness, and (dys)regulation of T-cell responses.
I cannot wait to reveal this blind spot in immunology!
In this project, Van Wijk and her team will investigate the diversity, and functional capabilities of naïve T-cells, as well as their role in chronic inflammation, aging, and stem cell transplantation. Looking below the seemingly calm surface of naive T-cells will reveal aspects that can guide strategies for optimizing vaccination, immune recovery, healthy aging, and T-cell-based therapies. When asked how Van Wijk felt when she heard the news, she enthusiastically stated: “I cannot wait to reveal this blind spot in immunology!”.
Seismology of the brain
Dr. ir. Jaco Zwanenburg (UMC Utrecht) is specialized in MRI techniques and brain anatomy. With his Vici project, Zwanenburg aims to look into an otherwise underexposed topic: the mechanics of the brain. Zwanenburg will specifically focus on the relation between a heartbeat and the brain. Heartbeat and respiration not only supply our brains with oxygen, they also cause pulsatile tissue motion, which drives brain waste clearance. Zwanenburg and his team will develop new MRI methods to accurately map this motion and the associated deformation of the brain tissue. The MRI measurements will be combined with advanced computer models in order to use this brain motion as source of information regarding tissue properties (such as stiffness), blood vessels and waste clearance.
I want to look at the brain the way Newton looked at the apple: as if it were lifeless matter
Zwanenburg is looking forward to researching a subject that is close to his heart. "I want to look at the brain the way Newton looked at the apple: as if it were lifeless matter", says Zwanenburg. “Even in that extreme reduction where all the biochemistry, electrophysiology and immunology are left out of the picture, and you only look at the mechanical interaction between brain, blood and liquor, the brain is still extremely complex and all sorts of things happen that we can learn a lot from”.