ERC Starting Grants for nine UvA and AMC-UvA researchers

11 December 2014

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a Starting Grant to nine researchers from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and Amsterdam Medical Center (AMC-UvA).

A Starting Grant is a personal grant of 1.5 million euros which is meant to support talented researchers for a period of five years while they conduct research.

Accepted projects

Dr Miranda Cheng (Institute of Physics and Korteweg-de Vries Institute for Mathematics) -  Moonshine and String Theory

Cheng will explore the mysterious relationship between physical aspects of super string theory and some of the largest discrete symmetries in the field of mathematics. Known as ‘umbral moonshine’, this relationship was discovered by Cheng herself a few years ago and is considered by many as one of the most important recent breakthroughs in string theory. With her project, Cheng will seek mathematical proof for this discovered relationship and use it to gain a better insight into the underlying symmetries of super string theory.

Dr Eelke Heemskerk (Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research) - Corporate Network Governance: Power, Ownership and Control in Contemporary Global Capitalism

The global business community is strongly intertwined. Companies share managers and are one another’s owners. Heemskerk will be the first to map this network for tens of millions of companies worldwide, and will investigate it as a complex system. Together with a team of political economists and computer scientists, he will model and empirically test the generating mechanisms behind this network, thereby throwing light on the way international elites have, and retain, economic power. 

Prof. Natali Helberger (Institute for Information Law) - Profiling and Targeting News Readers: Implications for the Democratic Role of the Digital Media, User Rights and Public Information Policy

Within the digital media environment, user attention is scare and competition for ‘eyeballs’ is fierce. The personalisation of media content is seen by many as a solution; with the help of (Big) Data and clever algorithms, users receive news and adverts that are tailored to their individual interests and tastes. Personalisation, however, is also part of a more fundamental paradigm shift in the media’s role from public interest intermediary to personal information coach. In her project, Hellberger will answer critical questions about the consequences of this shift for individual media users, the public debate and the role of personalised media in a democratic society.  

Dr Riekelt Houtkooper (Laboratorium Genetische Metabole Ziekten, AMC-UvA) - Metabolic Flexibility: Breaking Down Food Effectively to Prolong Life

Houtkooper will investigate how genes and nutrition have a combined effect on ageing. It has been known for some time that genes and environmental factors such as nutrition influence the ageing process. But which genes make someone susceptible to the damaging effects of fatty foods? And how can the metabolism be stimulated in such a way that fats are broken down more efficiently?

Dr Daniel Mügge (Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research) - The Global Politics of Macroeconomic Measurement

Macroeconomic indicators play a chief role in economic governance and its political contestation. Measurements of growth, unemployment, inflation and public deficits tell us ‘how economies are doing’. In contrast to their air of objectivity, it is not at all obvious how these indicators should be defined and measured. Mugge explores the social, political and economic factors that determine the formulas which form the bedrock of macroeconomic indicators.  

Dr Louis Vermeulen (Centrum voor Experimentele Moleculaire Geneeskunde, AMC) - Molecular Subtype Specific Stem Cell Dynamics in Developing and Established Colorectal Cancers

Vermeulen investigates why colon tumours present themselves in such different ways and respond so differently to treatment. This heterogeneity can only partially be accounted for by the variation in genetic anomalies found within the tumours. Vermeulen will conduct his research on the assumption that a role is played by the type of intestinal cell from which the tumour has emerged.

Dr Anna Watts (Anton Pannekoek Institute) - CSI Neutron Star: The Physics and Forensics of Neutron Star Explosions

Watts and her group will focus on forensic physics to explain explosions on neutron stars. The matter within the core of neutron stars (the remnants of a massive star that has gone supernova) can reach up to ten times the density of normal atomic nuclei. Little is known about the physics of this phenomenon, but the theory promises a host of possibilities. Watts will measure the mass and pulse of neutron stars to determine the unknown composition.     

Dr Shimon Whiteson (Informatics Institute): Co-evolutionary Policy Search

In order to make intelligent systems like robots and search engines autonomous, we need algorithms that can automatically discover high performance control principles for such systems. In many instances, however, the evaluation of performance of potential control principles are complicated by the presence of rare events of which the effect on performance is difficult to measure. Whiteson and his team will develop new algorithms that exploit the principle of co-evolution with the aim of simultaneously optimising the control principles and way in which rare events are evaluated.

Dr Ingo Willuhn (NIN/Psychiatry, AMC-UvA): Coordination of Regional Dopamine Release in the Striatum during Habit Formation and Compulsive Behaviour

Willuhn will focus on a part of the brain known as the striatum, which has multiple functional domains. The limbic system, for example, is thought to be responsible for regulating the motivational aspects of actions, while the sensorimotor part is believed to be involved in automatisation (habit forming). Besides investigating how both domains communicate with each other, Willuhn will also focus on the question of  whether the compulsive execution of automatic actions (typical for obsessive-compulsive disorder and substance addiction) is related to the disruption of dopamine signals in the striatum.  

Published by  University of Amsterdam