Four new ERC grants at LMU

11 Jan 2022

Four talented early-career researchers have each obtained a starting grant together with LMU from the European Research Council (ERC).

  • The successful projects came from the fields of astrophysics, evolutionary biology, pharmaceutical chemistry, and geography.
  • Generously funded, the starting grants are among the most prestigious research grants in Europe.

Four talented early-career scientists from various disciplines have each obtained a starting grant together with LMU for their research. Awarded by the European Research Council (ERC), the project grant is worth approximately 1.5 million euros in each case. Winners are chosen based on the scientific excellence of the applicants and of the proposed project. The research grant is among the most prestigious awards of its kind in Europe.

The successful scientists in this round are already working at LMU: Dr. Joanna Drążkowska, Faculty of Physics, Dr. Sebastian Höhna, Faculty of Geosciences, Prof. Daniel Merk, Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy, and Dr. Liang Emlyn Yang, Faculty of Geosciences.

Overview of the new projects:

Astrophysicist Dr. Joanna Drążkowska works as a postdoctoral researcher at LMU’s University Observatory. Her research helps improve our fundamental understanding of planet formation.

Joanna Drążkowskas ERC project PLANETOIDS (“Formation of planetary building blocks throughout time and space”) aims at constructing innovative numerical models of the early stages of planet formation when the dust grows to pebbles and eventually becomes gravitationally bound in building blocks of planets called planetesimals. Global models are scarce for this important phase of planet formation. PLANETOIDS proposes to go beyond the state of the art by combining the most advanced models of circumstellar disk formation and structure, dust evolution, planetesimal formation, and planetesimal growth in one comprehensive framework. From her models, the astrophysicist hopes to obtain decisive results that shed light on the origin of our solar system and the diversity of exoplanets.

Dr. Sebastian Höhna heads an Emmy Noether research group at the GeoBio-Center at LMU. One focus of his work is on the development of new statistical models and software for investigating the phylogenetic history of living organisms.

Biodiversity is modeled by the process of speciation and extinction. There is clear evidence from both living and extinct species that biodiversity is extremely variable through time and among species. However, we still do not know what factors drive speciation and extinction rates on a macroevolutionary level (that is, beyond species boundaries). In his MacDrive project, Sebastian Höhna proposes to combine statistical, computational, neontological – i.e. relating to species living today – and paleobiological approaches to study macroevolutionary dynamics. Höhna plans to develop new statistical models to estimate time-varying and lineage-specific speciation and extinction rates. With his project, Höhna wants to contribute to a better understanding of the effects of the current biodiversity crisis.

Prof. Daniel Merk is Chair of Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry at LMU. His main research areas are the targeted modulation of transcription factors using small molecules and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) for molecular design.

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis are severe health burdens for patients. No treatment strategy has yet been developed that can halt or reverse the progress of neurodegeneration. New therapeutic approaches are needed more than ever, but they are hindered by the lack of suitable, pharmacologically validated targets. It is exactly this gap that Merk aims to close with the ERC project NeuRoPROBE. He is focusing on two transcription factors (TLX and Nurr1), but tools to pharmacologically control their activity are lacking. The pharmaceutical chemist proposes to develop such tools. For the molecular design of these molecules he plans to use artificial intelligence to accelerate the development process. He will then apply the new tools in on-a-chip models of neurodegeneration to control the activity of TLX and Nurr1 and further validate their modulation in neurodegeneration.

Dr. Liang Emlyn Yang is a scientist and lecturer at the Human-Environment Relations research and teaching unit in the Department of Geography at LMU.

Existing studies on how societies deal with the issue of flooding overwhelmingly concentrate on risk, exposure, vulnerability, damage, loss. Yet the populations living at coasts, river deltas, flood plains, and hilly valleys have not only survived, but actually prospered. Despite many of such examples, there has been a dearth of systematic studies undertaken on them. Liang Emlyn Yang wants to close this research gap and analyze this form of societal resilience to flood hazards with a historical perspective. In his ERC project SToRes (Spatial-Temporal Dynamics of Flood Resilience), he proposes an innovative resilience thinking (instead of risk thinking) in flood studies. As a primary case study, he will look at the historical Tea Horse Road area, a mountainous region of the Southeast Tibetan Plateau. Beyond the case study, the findings from the empirical study and the quantitative models will be transferred to other problem regions such as the Mekong Delta, thereby making an up-to-the-minute contribution to research into human-environment relations.

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