Six ERC Starting Grants for LMU

3 Sept 2020

Six early-career researchers have won ERC Starting Grants in conjunction with LMU.

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Six early-career researchers representing a wide range of disciplines have received Starting Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) with LMU as host institution. Each of these grants is worth approximately 1.5 million euros. Submissions are evaluated solely on the basis of the applicant’s previous scientific record and the quality of the proposed project.Among the three awardees already based at LMU is Professor Lena Daumann, Department of Chemistry, Dr. Fabian Grusdt, Faculty of Physics (Chair of Theoretical Nanophysics, Professor Ulrich Schollwöck), and Dr. med. Konstantin Stark, Medizinische Fakultät (Medizinische Klinik und Poliklinik I, Direktor Professor Steffen Massberg).

Professor Lena Burbulla (now at Northwestern University in Chicago) and Dr. Christian Weber (Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, Dresden) have also received ERC Starting Grants in association with LMU, as has Dr. Tomer Czaczkes (Regensburg University). However, Tomer Czaczkes will not carry out his project at LMU.

The awardees and their projects:

Professor Lena Burbulla is a Research Assistant Professor of Neurology at Northwestern University in Chicago, USA. Her research interests focus on the role of oxidative stress in neurodegenerative disorders, particularly Parkinson’s disease.

Over 200,000 people in Germany suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive movement disorder that is characterized by the specific loss of nerve cells that synthesize the neurotransmitter dopamine. The absence of dopamine results in an involuntary tremor and sluggish execution of voluntary movements. Starting from skin biopsy samples obtained from Parkinson patients, Lena Burbulla and her colleagues generated induced pluripotent stem cells and differentiated them into dopamine-producing nerve cells in culture. She went on to show that oxidative stress in patient neurons initiates a pathological cascade of events that primarily affects the functions of mitochondria (the “energy powerhouses” of the cell) and lysosomes (the waste disposal and recycling system of the cell). Over time, oxidized versions of dopamine accumulate further exacerbating this toxic cascade.

In her ERC project entitled “Unraveling the Mystery of Preferential Degeneration of Midbrain Neurons in Neurodegenerative Diseases” (acronym: oxDOPAMINE), Burbulla will attempt to determine why cells in the midbrain in humans are particularly prone to accumulate oxidized dopamine, and hence susceptible to degeneration. Her working hypothesis is that defective dopamine metabolism at the synapses (which transmit nerve impulses), in association with a perturbation of iron metabolism, plays a critical role in this vicious circle. To explore this idea further, she also intends to investigate other, rarer neurodegenerative disorders in which defects in iron metabolism are involved.

Lena Burbulla studied Biology at LMU and earned her PhD at Tübingen University. She then worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, and in the Departments of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, where she is currently working as Assistant Professor. She was recently awarded a Heisenberg Grant funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and will soon join the SyNergy Cluster of Excellence at LMU, where her ERC project will be carried out.

Professor Lena Daumann is a Professor of Bioinorganic Chemistry and Coordination Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at LMU. She is particularly interested in the roles of rare earth elements in biological systems, more specifically those of the lanthanides.

Lanthanides (Ln) have become technologically indispensable raw materials in recent decades, and there is great demand for efficient and sustainable strategies for the recycling of these metals. Her ERC project on “Innovative Bioinspired Strategies Towards Selective Lanthanide Complexation and Separation: From Bacterial Chelators to Applications” (acronym: LANTHANOPHOR) was inspired by the discovery that certain bacteria are capable of efficiently mobilizing lanthanides. The molecular mechanisms that enable these bacteria to accumulate lanthanides are as yet largely unexplored. However, it was recently shown that they possess specialized multidentate ligands – lanthanophores – that bind specifically to lanthanides. Daumann’s goal is to characterize these compounds, and utilize the insights obtained to develop rapid, sustainable and environmentally benign technologies for the selective recovery and recycling of lanthanides.Lena Daumann studied Chemistry at Heidelberg University, graduating in 2009. She did her doctoral research at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, obtaining her PhD in Bioinorganic Chemistry in 2013. Following subsequent postdoctoral stints at the University of California in Berkeley and at the University of Heidelberg, she was appointed to her present position in the Faculty of Chemistry und Pharmacy at LMU in 2016.

Dr. Fabian Grusdt is a quantum physicist and a DFG-funded Project Leader in the Laboratory of Theoretical Nanophysics at LMU, which is headed by Ulrich Schollwöck. Grusdt’s own research focuses on strongly correlated quantum systems, which can be studied using quantum simulation techniques. Grusdt explores the complex physical behavior exhibited by these systems, whose underlying microscopic origins are as yet poorly understood. High-temperature superconductivity is probably the best-known example of such enigmatic behavior. Just as investigations of atoms and their internal structures enabled the diverse properties of materials to be explained, Grusdt’s ERC project “Simulating Ultracold Correlated Quantum Matter: New Microscopic Paradigms” (acronym: SimUcQuam) sets out to elucidate the behavior of strongly interacting quantum systems by studying their subatomic constituents. He will collaborate closely with experimental physicists at LMU, who are using quantum simulators and novel characterization methods to uncover the internal structures of the microscopic components of strongly correlated matter. Instead of exploiting features such as absorption lines, which enabled the basic make-up of atoms to be determined, Grusdt will search for signatures that are characteristic of systems involving strongly interacting electrons.Fabian Grusdt studied Physics and obtained his doctorate in 2016 at the Technical University in Kaiserslautern (Graduate School of Excellence MAINZ). Having spent three years as a postdoc in the Physics Department at Harvard University, and a further year at the Technical University of Munich, he started work on his Habilitation at LMU at the beginning of this year.

Dr. Konstantin Stark is the leader of a research group in Medical Clinic I (Cardiology) on LMU’s Grosshadern Campus. He and his team study the role of inflammation in the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease. In particular sterile inflammation, in which inflammatory reactions fail to resolve and become chronic, is known to be involved in disorders such as thrombosis and atherosclerosis, but current therapeutic approaches do not adequately address it.

In his ERC project on “Thrombotic Memory – Linking a Break in Tolerance to Platelets to Rethrombosis” (acronym: T-MEMORE), Stark will test the hypothesis that thrombosis triggers an immune response to activated platelets, which in turn leads to chronic inflammation that promotes future thrombotic episodes. This would explain why patients who have already suffered a thrombotic event are at high risk of recurrent thrombosis. To reduce this risk, the current standard of care involves the use of anticoagulants, which must be carefully monitored. Stark‘s project will examine whether local clot formation results in a systemic immunological memory effect, which is ultimately responsible for recurrent localized blood coagulation. To detect and elucidate this putative memory effect, Stark will make use of innovative in-vivo imaging techniques to visualize cellular interactions in the bone marrow, the spleen, and the liver. In addition, he intends to use clinically relevant experimental models to explore the potential of targeted strategies for the inhibition of thrombus formation, aiming to develop personalized therapies that reliably prevent the recurrence of intravascular thrombi.

Konstantin Stark studied Medicine at the Technical University of Munich, obtaining his doctoral degree there in 2012. He then joined the staff of the Department of Cardiology in Medical Clinic I on LMU’s Grosshadern Campus, and has headed a research group devoted to the elucidation of “Mechanisms of Sterile Inflammation in Cardiovascular Diseases“ since 2019.

Dr. Christoph Weber currently leads a research group at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, where he studies the physicochemical mechanisms that are involved in the spatial and temporal organization of living cells. In particular, his research is focused on the biological role of phase transitions such as phase separation and aggregation. In his ERC project, entitled “Selection and Regulation of Compartments by Fuel-driven Phase Separation” (acronym: FuelledLife), he aims to develop a theory that can explain how phase separations in living cells can give rise to distinct compartments, in which evolutionary processes such as the selection and replication of biomolecules can take place. Such a theory would enable us to understand how phase separation of protein condensates can regulate biochemical processes in multicellular organisms today. In addition, such a theory will elucidate the role of phase separation at the origin of life. In particular, it could reveal how primordial cells may have reproduced and why modern organisms make use of a restricted set of intracellular compartments.Christoph Weber studied Physics at LMU and earned his PhD there in 2013. During his postdoc, he worked at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, before moving to Harvard University. In 2018 he returned to the Max Planck Institute in Dresden as leader of his own research group that studies ‘the mesoscopic physics of life’. He is also affiliated with the Center for Systems Biology.

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