Three ERC Starting Grants for Utrecht University researchers

Laureates each receive 1.5 million euros to start their own research project

Three researchers at Utrecht University have been awarded an ERC Starting Grant of 1.5 million euros. The grant is awarded by the European Research Council to promising scientists, to help ambitious researchers launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their best ideas. The Utrecht laureates include Valentina Di Stasio, Edwin van Leeuwen, and Michelle van Vliet.

ERC Starting Grant laureates

Valentina Di Stasio
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
Project: What Makes People Targets: A Multi-Actor Study of How Ethnic Discrimination is Perceived, Tackled and Avoided

I am thrilled at the prospect of setting up my own research team and contribute to our understanding of how discrimination is recognized

“We regret to inform you that…” is a message that many job seekers receive, especially those belonging to a ethnic minority groep. Ethnic discrimination in European labour markets is not only pronounced, persistent and pervasive, but also hard to recognize: it is the result of decisions often taken behind closed doors and on the basis of limited information.

In her ERC project, Di Stasio will take a multi-actor perspective to understand the relational process through which discrimination claims are either seen as valid, or rather contested and possibly even silenced. Combining insights from sociology, social psychology, sociolegal and organizational studies, She will analyse the conditions under which members of disadvantaged groups are recognized as victims of discrimination, in the workplace and in the courtroom. She will also improve on current approaches that measure discrimination as a single event and track, in real time and longitudinally, the job search strategies that members of ethnic minorities adopt to avoid becoming targets.

Dr. Edwin van Leeuwen
Faculty of Science
Project: The evolutionary origins of human culture: a primatological perspective

By looking closely at our ape relatives, we can learn a lot about the origins of human behaviour”

Culture is all around us. Defined by the inheritance of behavioural phenotypes through social learning, culture is considered as one of the most pervasive and influential characteristics of the human species. However, we lack knowledge about the origins of human culture. Studying non-human primates enables us to identify the evolutionary origins of human culture and the extent of its human uniqueness. Until now, it has largely been assumed that the social and cumulative components of human culture are derived phenomena that emerged after the phylogenetic split with the ape lineages. However, this claim may reflect a lack of adequate methodologies and research attention, leaving primate social culture underestimated.

This project will study our closest living relatives to investigate the extent to which animals’ lives may be governed by cultural processes alike. Combining novel techniques to investigate primate culture (deep learning) with innovative behavioural experiments in great apes, this project will advance our understanding of the origins of culture and challenge current perspectives about its human uniqueness.

Dr. Michelle van Vliet
Faculty of Geosciences
Project: B-WEX (Balancing clean Water and Energy provision under changing climate and eXtremes)

With this grant we will greatly deepen our understanding of the water-energy system feedbacks and cascading mechanisms

Providing clean water and energy simultaneously to a growing global population and under a changing climate is a major challenge. The demand for the two and their systemic interdependencies are particularly strong during droughts and heatwaves. Despite the recent growth in water-energy nexus studies, there is little fundamental understanding of the cascading effects and feedbacks between water and energy systems during extreme weather events.

Because existing global model approaches mainly focus on whole-system optimisation and are based on coarse spatiotemporal water and energy system representations, we lack understanding on how water-energy system processes cascade in time and space under a changing climate and extremes. Yet such understanding is urgently needed so that we can balance clean water and energy provision in our changing world in which climate shocks are increasing.

In the B-WEX project Michelle van Vliet and her team will develop spatially explicit pathways that reveal how the provision of clean water and energy can be balanced under various water management and energy transition developments, including the feedbacks and cascading mechanisms under present to future droughts and heatwaves in regions worldwide.

The team of researchers will develop a novel global framework, which will be the first to integrate high spatiotemporal resolution models of hydrology, water quality, water use and energy systems to estimate how water and energy system processes cascade in time and space. Together with key actors, they will also develop quantitative water management and energy transition (climate action) pathways, which will then be combined with their new framework, enabling them to estimate trade-offs between water and energy systems during present to future droughts and heatwaves.

“With this grant we will greatly deepen our understanding of the water-energy system feedbacks and cascading mechanisms”, said Van Vliet. “It will will provide water-energy transition pathways that are robust under increasing climate extremes.”

397 early-career researchers have been awarded an European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant. Three laureates are affiliated with Utrecht University. Other laureates include researchers at the Hubrecht Institute and UMC Utrecht.