ERC Grants: Six new projects at LMU

9 Dec 2020

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded six of its Consolidator Grants to researchers at LMU.

LMU researchers Nicole Bolleyer, Ralf Jungmann, Jan Lipfert, Martin Saxer, Philipp Stockhammer and Ronny Vollandt have been awarded Consolidator Grants in the latest evaluation of research proposals submitted to the ERC. Bolleyer, Jungmann, Saxer and Stockhammer have now received two ERC grants each. The awards are worth up to 2 million euros over the course of 5 years. The ERC’s Consolidator Grants are intended to enable highly qualified academics to further extend their innovative research programs. The ERC’s decisions are based solely on the scientific stature of the applicant and the intrinsic quality of the proposed project.

The new ERC-funded projects:

In January 2021, political scientist Nicole Bolleyer will take up her new position as Chair of Comparative Political Science at LMU’s Geschwister Scholl Institute. Her research interests include the comparative study of civil society in Europe.

The so-called ‘Anti-NGO Law’, introduced by Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s Fidesz Party and passed by the Hungarian Parliament in 2017, compels non-governmental organizations to legally register the origins of donations received from abroad, and to refer to themselves in all publications as “organizations that are supported by foreign donors”. Nicole Bolleyer considers this law as a particularly striking example of how the activities of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Europe are being increasingly constrained. Simultaneously, this law forms part of a wider, although non-uniform trend. Almost all EU member states have passed legislation that – whether intentionally or not – restricts CSOs. These measures have been associated with central challenges that European democracies have been exposed to – to a greater or lesser degree – over the past two decades such as the fight against terrorism, the repercussions of the financial crisis of 2008, the rise of populist parties to power and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

In her project, entitled “The Shrinking Space for Civil Society in Europe” (CIVILSPACE), Nicole Bolleyer will examine the origins of this development by analyzing its drivers, and its consequences for society. One major goal is to account for the factors which have led EU member states to alter legal regulation applicable to CSOs such as trade unions, human-rights organizations, religious communities and pro-immigrant groups. Another objective of CIVILSPACE is to capture the impact of these legal changes on the social and political activities of these organizations. In doing so, Bolleyer’s project represents a continuation of her earlier work, which were made possible by the receipt of an ERC Starting Grant alongside other funding.

Nicole Bolleyer studied Political Sciences and German Language & Literature at Mannheim University and at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (USA), and obtained her PhD in 2007 at the European University Institute in Florence (Italy). She worked as an assistant professor at Mannheim University, and later on took up a post as Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter (UK). She was subsequently appointed as Associate Professor and became full Professor of Comparative Politics at Exeter in 2015.

Ralf Jungmann is Professor for Experimental Biophysics at LMU Munich and head of the research group “Molecular Imaging and Bionanotechnology” at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried.

One of the major aims of many therapeutics is targeting cell surface proteins to alter cellular behavior. Recently approved immunotherapeutic drugs trigger anti-tumor immunity by disrupting key cell surface proteins that guide immune cell interactions. Despite the cell surface representing a major site of drug action, its nanoscale organization remains poorly characterized. The main reason for this is largely due to technical limitations of fluorescence imaging approaches. Current techniques do not allow high-throughput measurements of the spatial localization and interaction of hundreds of proteins with true single-protein-resolution on cell surfaces. With the ERC Consolidator Grant “ReceptorPAINT – Imaging Receptomics as a tool for biomedical discovery”, Jungmann and his research team aim to develop novel imaging technologies based on DNA-PAINT microscopy to enable the visualization and quantification of all relevant cell surface proteins at single-protein-resolution.

To achieve this, the scientists plan to increase spatial resolution, develop DNA-based protein binders against all cell surface proteins, and devise multiplexing capabilities to resolve them with single-protein-resolution over large fields of view. The researchers will then use these new capabilities to map the nanoscale organization of hundreds of key immunomodulatory surface proteins and their corresponding ligands on key interacting pairs of immune cells relevant to current immunotherapy approaches. Jungmann wants to test the central hypothesis that surface protein architecture and patterning on immune and tumor cells dictates the outcome of their interactions. The techniques could yield fundamental insights into the molecular architecture of immune cell interactions and enable the future development of more refined “pattern”-based immunotherapeutics.

Ralf Jungmann studied physics at Saarland University and the University of California in Santa Barbara and received his doctorate at the Technical University of Munich. He then worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, USA. In 2014 he moved to Munich to head the Emmy Noether research group “Molecular Imaging and Bionanotechnology” at the MPI of Biochemistry and the Faculty of Physic of the LMU. Since 2016, Ralf Jungmann has been Professor of Experimental Physics at LMU.

Jan Lipfert is Professor of Experimental Physics at LMU Munich. He is interested in the function, dynamics and interactions of biological macromolecules, with a particular focus on how their structures and functions are altered under the influence of external forces.

Mechanical forces play critical roles in the regulation of many essential biological processes. For example, the signaling pathways that control primary hemostasis and the initiation of blood coagulation are activated by changes of the flow pattern in the blood stream. Such changes alter the conformations of the blood glycoprotein von Willebrand factor, which in turn exposes cryptic binding sites and triggers downstream events that activate hemostasis. Perturbations of mechanoregulation can result in disorders including cancers and heart attacks. The processes that control responses to forces at the level of the mechanosensitive proteins are poorly understood, partly because the forces involved are very small, and therefore difficult to measure.

Jan Lipfert‘s ERC project ProForce (“Mechano-Regulation of Proteins at Low Forces: Paving the Way for Therapeutic Interventions”) is designed to provide a solution to this problem. He will develop massively parallel magnetic tweezers, which are able to exert and precisely quantify miniscule forces (<0.1 picoNewtons) and therefore provide ideal tools for the measurement of the mechanical forces to which single proteins are exposed. Lipfert plans to use such an instrument to study mechanoregulation in biological systems in detail, and to develop pharmaceutical strategies for correcting disease states caused by abnormal responses of mechanosensitive proteins to ambient forces. The project will focus on three model proteins that respond to very weak mechanical forces, and are involved in blood coagulation, cell proliferation and carcinogenesis, respectively.

Jan Lipfert studied Physics and Economics at Heidelberg University. He went on to obtain Master’s degrees at Uppsala University and the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, respectively, and earned his PhD at Stanford University in 2008. After a stint as a postdoc at the Technical University in Delft, he was appointed to his present position as Professor of Experimental Physics with a focus on Biophysics at the LMU Munich in 2013.

Yartsagunbu is a rare and much sought-after fungus found in Tibet and Nepal, which is literally worth its weight in gold. In the areas in which it occurs, schools close in the spring, and whole communities head for the mountains to gather the valuable mushroom. Similarly, in Siberia‘s thawing permafrost, collectors of another sort look for the tusks of a species of mammoth that died out thousands of years ago – and in good years, hundreds of tons of ivory have been recovered. At first sight, these activities might appear to be rather exotic pastimes. But for ethnologist Martin Saxer, they are typical examples of foraging. Foraging is an age-old practice of global significance, and an economic strategy that booms on the margins of modern capitalism. It serves as a basic means of survival, as a type of subsistence economy and as a microbusiness, often impinging on the outer reaches of commercial law. Examples of foraging can be found all over the world. The spectrum encompasses the “Amazon nomads”, who travel the length and breadth of the US in search of the remaining assets of bankrupt businesses and then sell them on the Internet, as well as the myriad recycling businesses of prospectors who depend on Africa’s waste dumps, abandoned mines in Amazonia, or dumpster diving in Germany’s urban and suburban areas.

Martin Saxer’s new ERC project Foraging at the Edge of Capitalism (FORAGING) is designed to systematically investigate this phenomenon. The aim is to develop a broader theoretical understanding of the workings of these systems, and of their environmental implications in a period marked by climate change and widespread loss of biodiversity – or what Saxer refers to as a “political ecology of foraging in the Anthropocene”.

Martin Saxer studied Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Zürich. He obtained his PhD at the University of Oxford, and carried out postdoctoral research there and at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore. In 2013 he was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship by the EU, and joined the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at LMU. In 2015, he received a 5-year ERC Starting Grant for a project entitled “Remoteness and Connectivity: Highland Asia in the World”.

Philipp Stockhammer, Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at LMU, is an expert on the intercultural interactions between prehistoric Europe and Western Asia in the period between 3000 and 500 BCE, and his research focuses on the Eastern Mediterranean. In his new ERC project, entitled “Mycenaean Social Belonging from an Integrative Bioarchaeological Perspective” (acronym: MySocialBeIng), he plans to study archaeological finds excavated from Bronze Age cemeteries in Greece. Graves dating to this period were generally used for recurrent burials and therefore contain the remains of many people. He and his team intend to examine a sample of 500 individuals buried in various regions of Mycenaean Greece using a range of archaeological and archaeogenetic methods to assess their biological relationships, isotope analyses to learn more about their eating habits and their mobility, and radiocarbon-dating of the material. The goal of the project is to the elucidate the nature of the social bonds and the types of social belonging that are implied by patterns of collective burial – and to determine the roles of biological relationships and/or factors such as mobility, status, gender and age in the practice. This multidisciplinary approach promises to provide an entirely new picture of the social structure of Mycenaean Greece.

Philipp Stockhammer studied Prehistory and Protohistory, Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at the Universities of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Brussels and Tübingen, and obtained his PhD in 2008 in Heidelberg. He completed his Habilitation at the University of Basel in 2013 with a thesis entitled “Material Entanglements – The Local Integration of Foreign Pottery in the Eastern Mediterranean During the Late Bronze Age”. In 2016, he moved from Heidelberg to the Institute of Pre- and Protohistoric Archaeology and Archaeology of the Roman Provinces at LMU, bringing an ERC Starting Grant for a project called “FoodTransforms” with him. In December 2016, Stockhammer became Co-Director of the Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

Ronny Vollandt holds a Professorship in Jewish Studies at LMU. His research interests center on the history of Jewish communities in the Islamic world from the Early Middle Ages to modern times, with a particular focus on the literary works written in Arabic by members of these societies. The term ‘Jewish literature’ automatically evokes works written in Hebrew, Aramaic or Yiddish. The fact, however, that Jewish communities in regions which were under Islamic rule, also produced a diverse and extensive body of Jewish literature in Arabic, is not widely known. From our present perspective, the use of Arabic as a medium for Jewish literature seems incongruous, given the status Arabic as the language of the Koran and the Muslim world, and very little research had been devoted to the topic prior to the mid-1980s. Indeed, Vollandt‘s ERC project MAJLIS (The Transformation of Jewish Literature in Arabic in the Islamicate World) will be based on hitherto inaccessible sourse and will constitute the first systematic survey of this literature ever attempted. Its aim is to assemble a digital handbook, in which the Jewish authors of this literary corpus and their works will be cataloged and made accessible to all. Not only will MAJLIS save this long neglected literature for posterity, it will also serve as an example of how scholarly investigations can help to preserve the traditions of endangered religious communities and other minorities around the world.

Ronny Vollandt (Photo: Manu Theobald) studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned a Master’s degree in Jewish Civilization in 2007. He did his doctoral work in Semitic Philology at Cambridge University, obtaining his PhD there in 2011. He then became a staff member of the Research Unit on the Intellectual History of the Islamicate World at the Free University of Berlin, where he worked on the rich and complex history of translations of the Bible into Arabic. He was appointed Professor of Jewish Studies in the Institute of Near and Middle Eastern Studies at LMU in 2015.