Four new ERC-funded projects

9 Dec 2019

The European Research Council has awarded four of its prestigious highly endowed Consolidator Grants to researchers at LMU.

Proposals submitted under the auspices of LMU by Julia Budka, Corrado Cimarelli, Ali Ertürk and Bärbel Stecher won four of the Consolidator Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) in its latest funding round. Julia Budka had previously received one of the coveted Starting Grants funded by the same agency. Consolidator Grants are worth up to 2 million euros over a period of 5 years, and are intended to enable highly talented researchers to further build on their innovative lines of inquiry. All of the ERC’s funding decisions are based solely on the candidate’s research record and the scientific merit of the proposed project.

The four new projects:

Archaeologist Julia Budka , Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Art History at LMU, studies the effects of intercultural contacts along the course of the Nile Valley in Ancient Egypt and the Sudan. Her particular interest focuses on the processes that shaped flourishing urban centers on the banks of the Middle Nile Valley during the second millennium BC inhabited by both Egyptian immigrants and the local Nubian population. In her ERC project, entitled “DiverseNile (Cultural Diversity in the Middle Nile Valley: Reconstructing Biographies in the Periphery of Urban Centres in Northern Sudan During the Bronze Age)”, she moves beyond the bustling city centres to look at the cultural diversity of this region from a broader perspective. This time the focus lies on the archaeologically neglected peripheries of urban settlements in the Middle Nile Valley. Her approach is largely guided by the hypothesis that cultural diversity should be easier to recognize and analyse in the periphery of statebuilt foundations. More specifically, she hopes to reconstruct the biographies of individuals who lived in a defined contact zone that formed an interface between various different groups in the Middle Bronze Age between 1650 and 1200 BCE. The goal is to question established categorizations, such as ‘Egyptian’ and ‘Nubian’, in order to obtain a more dynamic – and realistic ­– understanding of cultural interactions which better reflects modern views of intercultural relationships as complex cultural entanglements.

Julia Budka studied Egyptology at Vienna University, and obtained her PhD with a thesis on the necropolis of Asasif. She subsequently held positions at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Vienna University and the Austrian Academy of Sciences before taking up her present position at LMU in 2015. In 2012, while she was still in Vienna, she won an ERC Starting Grant for a project entitled “AcrossBorders”, which she continued to work after moving to LMU. That project ended in 2018.

For more Information on Julia Budka’s research:° New Kingdom Egypt: The goldsmith’s tomb

Volcanologist Corrado Cimarelli is a Junior Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at LMU, where he studies volcanic lightning or, more particularly, the process that underlies the electrification of volcanic ash. Pliny the Younger described this phenomenon in his report on the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, which destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. But researchers still struggle to understand in detail how electrical discharges are generated during explosive eruptions. In his ERC project “VOLTA”, Cimarelli will study how particles in ash plumes become electrically charged and how electrification affects the distribution of volcanic ash in the atmosphere, and identify the chemical reactions catalysed by the process in the environment. Cimarelli will construct a comprehensive 4D model of this type of ash plume, thus providing a new tool for the monitoring of volcanic activity. Such a model can also be used to study the conditions that prevailed on the very early Earth, and would therefore illuminate issues relating to the origin of life.

Corrado Cimarelli studied Geology at the University of Rome, and obtained his PhD in volcanology there also. In December 2009, he came to LMU as a Marie Curie Research Fellow to join the group led by Professor Donald Dingwell. In 2013, he was appointed to a Junior Professorship. Since 2017 he and his research group have been working on a DFG-funded project entitled “Investigating the Conditions Required for the Generation of Lightning During Volcanic Eruptions”. Also in 2017, he was appointed Associate Professor of Volcanology by the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR).

For more information on Corrado Cimarelli’s research:° Volcanic reactions: Shedding light on plumes

° Volcanology: Vocanic lightning recreated in the lab

Molecular biologist Ali Ertürk has developed a novel imaging technique with which to study the complex network of nerve cells in the brain, and the chronic alterations precipitated by damage due to physical trauma, strokes or natural aging processes. The methodology has already led to a number of new insights. One of these is his discovery of what are now called skull-meninges connections (SMCs), which physically link the marrow of the bones that form the roof of the skull (the skullcap or ‘calvaria’) with the meninges (the membranes that cover the underlying neural cells). These connections enable immune cells to migrate into the brain, which suggests that they could play a role in diverse brain disorders that are associated with neuroinflammation. With his ERC project CALVARIA (Translational Aspects of the Discovery of Skull-Meninges Connections) Ertürk wants to find ways to suppress chronic neuroinflammation, which is a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases including dementias. The fact that the skullcap is more accessible than the neural tissues of the brain itself might provide novel routes for the targeted introduction of drugs – such as anti-inflammatory agents, for instance – into the brain. Moreover, it is conceivable that the calvaria could provide easier and earlier access to biomarkers that reveal the presence and progression of pathological conditions in the brain. However, the structures and properties of the cells that make up the SMCs and the calvaria are still largely unknown, and the same holds for their possible contributions to neuropathology. The purpose of Ertürk’s ERC Project is to shed further light on these issues.

Ali Ertürk studied Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology at Bilkent University in Ankara (Turkey) and did his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in Martinsried. Following a stint as a postdoc with Genentech in San Francisco, he returned to Munich as a leader of a research group in the Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research at the LMU Medical Center in 2014. In 2017 he was named as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Rochester University in New York State, and was recently appointed as Head of the Institute for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (ITERM) at the Helmholtz Zentrum München.

For more Information on Ali Ertürk’s research:° Bioimaging: Imaging nerve-cell interactions

° Bioimaging: A clear view of the nervous system

Microbiologist Bärbel Stecher , Professor of Medical Microbiology and Hospital Epidemiology at LMU‘s Max von Pettenkofer Institute, studies the microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract. – The gut ecosystem encompasses a rich community of microorganisms, whose activities have a major impact on human health. Its members comprise a highly diverse collection of bacteria. Together, they form metabolic networks which help to digest our food, as well as producing a wide range of bioactive metabolites and suppressing infections. In addition, mutational events and horizontal gene transfer enable the bacterial lineages that populate the gastrointestinal tract to adapt rapidly to changing conditions. However, little is known about these evolutionary processes and their significance both for these microbial communities itself and their relationships with their human hosts. This is largely due to the lack of appropriate model systems in which to investigate these issues in detail. Stecher’s ERC project “EvoGutHealth” is designed to remedy this situation. She works with defined systems made up of bacterial model species, which facilitates the analysis of how a microbial community takes shape in the host environment. This approach also makes it possible to study how adaptive processes enable collective metabolic pathways to evolve, which ultimately result in global microbiome functions, such as mechanisms that prevent the establishment of enteric pathogens.

Bärbel Stecher studied Microbiology, Genetics and Immunology at LMU and obtained her doctorate at the ETH in Zürich. Following spells as a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton (Ontario) and the ETH, she joined the Max von Pettenkofer Institute at LMU in 2010 to lead a research group on Microbiota and Infections. She was appointed to her present position in 2011.

For more information on Bärbel Stecher’s research:° Infection biology: Gut microbe helps thwart Salmonella

° Bacterial infections: Minimum dose with maximum effect