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  1. ERC Projects | Ben Feringa - Nano-motors that open giga-opportunities

    Ben Feringa
    2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
    Advanced Grants 2008 and 2015

    Ben Feringa is a Professor in Organic Chemistry at the University of Groningen and the pioneer of rotary molecular motors, the smallest machines in the world of the size of individual molecules.

    In 2016, Prof. Feringa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on synthetic chemistry, leading to the design and synthesis of novel molecules and nanomaterials, with machine-like functions. These molecular nanomachines can respond to stimuli from their environment, be employed in the self-assembly of nanostructures or regulate DNA transcription, with potential applications in the medical field and targeted treatments.

    From a very early age I had this interest in nature, in asking questions, how and why. I wanted to discover, and to know everything. As a small boy I grew up in a farmers' family. I was in the fields a lot with my father. And we discussed how from a tiny seed a beautiful crop could grow. Or how the water flows or how the clouds in the sky are formed. And we were discussing all this beauty of Mother Nature. My father was a very encouraging and stimulating figure for me.
    When I studied chemistry here at the University of Groeningen, I had an American professor, Professor Hans Wynberg, who was a really inspiring mentor. I still remember when I made my first new molecule. I got very excited and he encouraged me a lot, saying: “Ben, this molecule has never been made by anybody in the world.”
    What we discovered is the world's first molecular rotary motor, a tiny motor of one nanometer, or one billionth of a metre in size, which can rotate like a propeller. And then we designed a four-wheel nanocar, a kind of molecular car with four wheels which are rotary motors.
    It's a bit like science-fiction of course what the potential of all these things could be. Ultimately, maybe in fifty years from now, tiny robots which get injected into your blood veins could go for a defected cell, maybe a tumour, and repair it.
    Receiving the Nobel Prize came as a big surprise. The highest award that a scientist can get - it's like a dream. But it also changes your life in the sense that, for instance this morning, I biked to the lab and a lady biking next to me said: “Ah, congratulations! You are the Nobel laureate, we are so proud of you!”
    I was in the privileged situation that we got the ERC grant to support our research. And I cannot emphasise enough how important the ERC scheme has been in the past ten years to support science in Europe. You need to get that kind of funding for challenging projects, where you can't immediately tell what their application will be next year, but that will open up entirely new opportunities both for society and industry in the years to come.
    I spend a lot of time on research with my team, but you should not forget that I'm also teaching. And I think we cannot encourage young people enough to go into education, to go into research, to go into building our future.

    Photography: Kacper Pempel
    Interview: Adam Easton

  2. ERC Projects | Jeremy O'Brien: Quantum computing, the new paradigmeremy

    Jeremy O'Brien
    Director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics, University of Bristol
    Starting Grant 2009 and Consolidator Grant 2014

    Jeremy O’Brien is Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering at the University of Bristol. His current work focuses on bringing quantum computing into reality, with the potential to transform healthcare, energy, finance and the internet. Professor O’Brien is pursuing a photonic approach to manufacturing a large-scale universal quantum computer, exploiting the extraordinary silicon fabrication capability developed by the silicon chip industry.

    I like to start each day running through the woods just outside of Bristol, and I find that the clean air and the exercise clears my mind, which then invariably turns to quantum computing, which is the subject that I pursue in my lab at the university. As I look at the countryside around me, I think about some of the applications for quantum computing that could help preserve that countryside and our life within it. One of the urgent problems that the world faces is CO2 in the atmosphere, and designing a catalyst that could efficiently extract CO2 from the atmosphere is a top problem that a quantum computer would be able to help with.

    In 1994, when I was a second-year undergraduate student, “New Scientist” had a cover feature on quantum computing. It described the possibility for a quantum computer to bring about a new revolution akin to the agricultural, industrial, or digital revolutions. So, I was pretty well hooked from that point on.

    A quantum computer is a device that is a fundamentally new paradigm for computation. We might have a problem like factoring, where it takes a conventional computer billions of years to spit out an answer, and it takes a quantum computer minutes. Making a quantum computer is an immense challenge because we need of order a million quantum bits, or q-bits as we call them, the equivalent of transistors in a conventional computer. Quantum computing promises to touch on pretty
    well every aspect of our lives, society and economy. Ranging from the design of new materials, new pharmaceuticals to new clean energy devices.

    I think the ERC is the world’s premiere organisation for funding frontier research. And the funding of that frontier research is absolutely critical. It is that exact frontier research that gave us the transistor, that led to the computer, that
    enabled the digital revolution that we’re still in the midst of today. The computer revolution is still very much to unfold, and I think within a decade we’re going to start to see the world transformed by the benefits of quantum computing.

    Photography: Kacper Pempel
    Interview: Adam Easton

  3. ERC Projects | Cédric Villani: Fostering talent, fostering excellence

    Cédric Villani
    Mathematician, Professor at the University of Lyon
    Director of the Institute Henri Poincaré (CNRS/UPMC)

    Since 2009, Prof. Villani, a renowned French mathematician, is the director of the Institut Henri Poincaré (Paris). Expert in analysis, Villani's research focuses on the evolution of partial differential equations and mathematical physics.

    Prof. Villani has been awarded several prestigious prizes. In 2010, he received the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize in mathematics, for his work on the kinetic theory of gases and plasmas. Acting as a spokesperson for the community of mathematicians, Villani has become an engaged public figure beyond the world of science, regularly present in media and key political circles.
    Prof. Villani is one of the seven members of the High Level Group of Scientific Advisors of the European Commission Scientific Advice Mechanism

    My dress code is a three-piece suit, pocket watch, cravatte, cufflinks, and always a spider on the lapel. Beautiful, diverse animals with all kinds of fascinating behaviours: the web, the mating behaviour – fascinating.
    When I was twenty years old I felt the urge to find my style. It may have been due to the great amount of romantic music that I was listening to in those days in France. Maybe it has a touch of Franz Liszt? I don’t know, frankly.
    Communicating is very important for me. Actually, both my parents were teachers and I consider myself a teacher maybe more than a researcher. Nowadays it's […] important that specialists talk to non-specialists and teach them about the kind of things that they do. So that everybody can feel part of the adventure of specialised research. Science is one of the great things that make societies progress and if people, citizens have the impression that only specialists take care of science and keep it for themselves, then they will feel rejected.

    I like to compare the mathematician to the detective. Busy with finding the truth. There’s something great with Colombo, one of my favourite TV series: Colombo first guesses who’s the guilty person and then uses logical reasoning to capture him or her. That’s what we do in mathematics. We use our intuition, most often to guess what the result will be and then we use logic to prove it. You know, it’s known now, and historians agree, that without the work done by mathematicians, the Polish mathematicians, and then by Alan Turing's group in the UK, it would have been impossible to organize the Normandy operation in 1944. The war would have lasted probably two years longer, who knows what would have happened.
    Ground-breaking science research is the forefront of any technological revolution, but also of any conceptual revolution. Think of the ground-breaking frontier work, which was done at the beginning of the twentieth century, the time of quantum mechanics. Now all of our electronic equipment would not exist without that.

    The European Research Council has been doing a fantastic job over the past years to foster scientific talent wherever it is in Europe and to foster the progress of excellence throughout Europe.

    Photography: Kacper Pempel
    Interview: Adam Easton

  4. ERC Projects | Thorsten Quandt: Promises and pitfalls of digital gaming

    Thorsten Quandt
    Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Münster
    Starting Grant 2009

    Thorsten Quandt is the Professor of Online Communication at the University of Münster, Germany. He is currently the Managing Director of the Department of Communication in Münster. From 2009-2012, he was the Chair of Online Communication and Interactive Media at the University of Hohenheim. He has a particular interest in digital games, interactive media and online journalism. His research project funded by the ERC shed light on the social foundations of online gaming.

    I grew up in the Black Forest, in the south of Germany. It was the seventies and the early eighties, so music was very important to us. Later on I learnt to play guitar, played in a few bands. And I was also playing games. Video games were already important at that time, so we were playing Pacman, Space Invaders and that stuff.
    I was always interested in research about games, because I thought games were not represented well in research. There was this very sensationalist piece of research that was looking at all the negative effects games might have, the aggressive content and how it might trigger violence in real life and whether it’s as horrible as taking real drugs. I found that very wrong because it did not represent my experience.
    We observed people playing games in the lab and also in real-life conditions. The main findings were that it’s a normal part of the lives of people. There are certain groups of gamers that have problems with gaming. They really play excessively and their life is turning into a mess. But gaming is just one part of that. It's a very complex pattern that you have in the lives of these people. There are some other influences like the parents, the education, and the environment.
    Nowadays I'm doing research on virtual reality and augmented reality. We look at options, how we can improve the lives of patients in hospitals, for example people that are paralysed. We're looking at the idea of whether you can give them VR devices so that you can put them in a different environment. They can sit at the beach and probably also walk around. When they're paralysed, you give them the option to actually feel their body, give them the impression that they can walk again. That might improve their condition.
    To be frank, at some point in my life I thought about becoming a musician. And there is a connection between music and my work. What I enjoy most about music is to build melodies, to produce music. With empirical research I also enjoy inventing things, coming up with solutions for research questions. It's really a creative process.

    Photography: Kacper Pempel
    Interview: Adam Easton

  5. ERC Projects | Valeria Nicolosi: Two-dimensional materials for a multi-dimensional future

    Valeria Nicolosi
    Professor of Nanomaterials & Advanced Microscopy at Trinity College Dublin
    Starting Grant 2011 and Consolidator Grant 2015

    Prof. Nicolosi received a BSc with honours in Chemistry from the University of Catania, Italy, and Ph.D. in Physics from Trinity College Dublin. Today she is Professor of Nanomaterials & Advanced Microscopy at the School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin, and principal investigator at the Centres for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) and for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering (AMBER). Her interdisciplinary research focuses on low-dimensional nanomaterials, including graphene. She received three top-up ERC Proof of Concept grants to commercialise her findings.

    I've always been a curious child. I was the one who was dismantling the toaster, the VCR, driving my mum crazy. I just wanted to see how things were made, how things worked. I remember my very first chemistry class. That was amazing. It was really opening my eyes. I said: “Wow, I want to become a chemist! This is incredible! This is going to teach me how things are really made.”

    My research is focused on solutions for energy storage. To solve a very, very big challenge we are all facing today, which is how to store energy efficiently and better.

    I work with some very special materials. They're really magical, because they possess unique properties. One material is graphene. This material is actually only one atom thick. It's 300 times stronger than steel and it can conduct electricity better than copper.

    We make batteries out of these materials. We can even make batteries using inkjet printers. The same inkjet printers that you would have in your office that we have slightly modified. We can print them on anything, even on food-packaging. The batteries that we make are lasting much, much longer. We have increased the lifetime of a battery about 5000 times. This type of technology of course will be applicable to a wide range of energy storage. It will allow us to store energy from the wind, from the sun, from the sea, from waves, as well as powering up our laptops and our smartphones more efficiently.

    I love cooking, I love baking, I love decorating cakes. Cooking is another expression of being a chemist. I just love experimenting in the kitchen! I read recipes and then personalise them, make them mine. So that is perhaps an element of bringing work home, I love doing that.

    The wonderful thing that I like about my job is that every single day is different from the one before. It's the most creative job you can possibly think of. I really have the chance to turn an idea into reality. And this is what really makes me passionate about my job.

    Photography: Kacper Pempel
    Interview: Adam Easton

  6. ERC Projects | Magdalena Król: Riding a Trojan horse against cancer

    Magdalena Król
    Professor at Warsaw University of Life Sciences
    Starting Grant 2016

    Magdalena Król is Professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW) in Poland. She specialises in cancer research. Since 2006 Professor Król and her team have been investigating canine mammary cancer with particular focus on cancer metastasis and tumour microenvironment. Now she develops innovative cell-based method of drug delivery to solid tumours. Her discoveries about interactions between immune cells and cancer cells may one day revolutionise the treatment of cancer.

    I grew up with dogs and I became a breeder. I had Bouviers des Flandres - I bred many champions, European champions, a vice-world champion, and because of that I decided to become a vet. When I worked in veterinary clinics, I saw so many cancer cases in dogs. And then I got interested in mammary cancer, which is three times more often diagnosed [in dogs] than in humans. I started to do research in that field.

    In the EU every 30 seconds one person dies of cancer. And the problem is that, currently, only one to two percent of administered anti-cancer drugs reach the tumour. The rest goes to other organs, causing side effects. There are some particular places inside the tumour mass that the chemotherapy cannot reach.

    I discovered a mechanism in which the immune cells transfer special proteins that have a box-like structure, in which we can put various anti-cancer drugs. So immune cells transport these protein boxes to cancer cells, and they act like a Trojan horse, because they naturally go to the tumour mass and they transfer the drug to cancer cells, killing the tumour. They also reach the unreachable sides of the tumour. In my research I want to find out why immune cells transfer these protein boxes to cancer cells, because it can open a new door for immunology.

    My preliminary results show that more or less thirty percent of these cells are able to reach the tumour. Which is quite impressive compared to normal chemotherapy. We can use a significantly smaller dose of anti-cancer drugs using this method of drug delivery than normal, and therefore we can decrease the side-effects of the chemotherapy.

    I'm too modest to say that my method could revolutionise cancer treatment, but I hope so.

    The ERC grant is very prestigious, it's the first time someone from my university received this grant. Getting the ERC grant also gave me the opportunity to attract some good researchers from Western Europe to come to Poland and to do research here. And to build a really good team.

    Photography: Kacper Pempel
    Interview: Adam Easton