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Four Lund researchers receive ERC Starting Grants

Daria Davitti, Colin Olito, Filip Lenrick and Milda Pucetaite
Daria Davitti, Colin Olito, Filip Lenrick and Milda Pucetaite

Four researchers from Lund University in Sweden have received an ERC Starting Grant. The researchers and their respective fields are Filip Lenrick (industrial production), Colin Olito (evolutionary ecology), Milda Pucetaite (microbiological ecology) and Daria Davitti, (international law). The last-named is the first researcher at a department of law in Sweden to receive an ERC Grant.

The ERC Starting Grant is intended for early-career researchers and the only selection criterion is scientific excellence. After undergoing peer reviews and facing a very high level of competition, the researchers and their projects have been ranked highest in Europe. This year almost 2,700 researchers applied for the grant.

In total, 400 researchers in Europe share EUR 628 million, which corresponds to an approval rate of about 14.8 per cent. The researchers receive EUR 1.5 million each over a five-year period.

Daria Davitti, associate professor of international law, on the project “Refugee Finance: Histories, Frameworks, Practices”

Can you tell us about your project??

“The project will examine financial instruments that are used to finance humanitarian efforts in refugee situations. Usually, humanitarian organisations have relied on development or humanitarian support. But due to global cutbacks in aid, new avenues are now being explored.”

Is it possible to invest in refugee protection? 

“The idea behind refugee finance is that you can invest in financial instruments called social impact bonds, which support refugee projects, and receive returns if the projects succeed. However, it is complex, and the project will examine this complexity.”

What do you hope the project will achieve?

“The aim is to understand how these financial instruments work in practice and how this can change the legal understanding of international protection as well as the focus and goals of humanitarian organisations.” 

What practical uses could the results have?

“Financial instruments are becoming increasingly popular but are not yet properly understood or questioned. Up to now they have been discussed mostly by investment banks and financial institutions. It is important to investigate this now, before the instruments become so entrenched that they cannot be evaluated critically. It therefore has the potential to affect policy.”

What does this ERC grant mean for you?

“The ERC Starting Grant is very prestigious and gives me the resources and the interdisciplinary team I need to thoroughly explore this complicated and important subject. We bring in a range of perspectives such as history, finance and law. This is particularly pleasing because it is the first time an ERC Starting Grant has been awarded to a department of law in Sweden.”

Colin Olito, researcher in evolutionary ecology, on the project “Many paths to separate sexes: the genomics of sex-determination in the Hawaiian Wikstroemia”

Can you tell us a little about your project?

”Life on Earth has undergone several major evolutionary transitions, but perhaps none as striking as the emergence of separate sexes. The aim of this project is to try to understand the genomic changes that form the basis for these transitions by studying a fascinating group of plants within the genus Wikstroemia (named after the Swedish botanist Johan Emanuel Wikström), which has developed on Hawaii. They have developed separate sexes from hermaphroditism several times in parallel when they have spread through the Hawaii archipelago – and each time they have done it, they seem to have developed a new genetic mechanism to determine who develops into a male or a female.” 

“In other words, they have developed new sex-specific genes and thereby new sex chromosomes every time. Imagine if people in Sweden and the UK had completely different sex chromosomes even though genetically they are almost identical in every other way! Another part of the project provides an opportunity to use state-of-the-art genomic and experimental techniques in order to increase the gender expression of flowering plants – a part of the project with important applications in both basic research and agriculture.”

What do you hope to achieve?

“I hope that this project will lead to a comprehensive and detailed understanding of how many different ways new sex chromosomes have developed among the Hawaiian Wikstroemia plants. It will be, I believe, an inspiring example of how flexible the genome can be, that at any given point in time there are many potential paths for species to undergo major evolutionary transitions, such as the emergence of separate sexes via new sex-specific chromosomes.”

What does the grant mean for you?

“It is a fantastic opportunity that gives me the power to drive our questions and knowledge further than before. This ERC Starting Grant gives me the possibility to financially support the colleagues and students involved in the project.”

Filip Lenrick, researcher in industrial production, on the project “Bulk-like Joints by Gas Actuated Bonding”

Can you tell us a little about your project and your field of research?

“My research focuses on the area of materials science and method development for industrial conditions. It often concerns using academic tools, such as microscopes or models, on questions formulated in industry. Sometimes it concerns utilising expertise or equipment that companies possess to get closer to an answer for academic questions.”

“The ERC project will focus on welding and the new methods that can be used to weld advanced alloys such as complex steels. As I have a background in microfabrication technology – the technology used for manufacturing semiconductors and nanocomponents ­– I will examine whether it is possible to carry out welding with the equipment at LundNanoLab. It is the same equipment that is commonly used for producing light-emitting diodes, transistors and solar cells.”

What do you hope the project will achieve?

”The aim of the project is to develop a method that will be able to weld the advanced alloys needed for the next generation of energy systems, such as solid oxide fuel cells or solar thermal power plants. These applications give rise to an extremely harsh environment for the materials used in the equipment. There are major forces at high temperatures in a corrosive environment and all at the same time. There is thus a need for highly advanced alloys in order for the equipment to work. The problem is that these alloys are generally difficult or impossible to weld. I want to find an answer by developing a new way to weld.”

What does this ERC grant mean for you?

“It means an awful lot. Thus far, I have been restricted to experiments on a very small scale. These experiments have been successful, which is why the ERC panel approved my application, but up to now it has been impossible to know if the experiments could be scaled up for practical use. With funds from the ERC, I can now purchase equipment to examine these experimental methods on a larger scale. This will demonstrate whether the methods will also work outside the laboratory.”

Milda Pucetaite, researcher in microbiological ecology, on the project “Tracing single-cell scale chemical signaling between interacting soil fungi"

Can you tell us a little about your project?

”Fungi play a crucial role in the soil by breaking down and recycling dead matter and providing nutrients to trees and other organisms living in the soil. Without them, our world would not function. Studying fungi is challenging because of their small size and the opacity of soil. Understanding their struggle for survival is vital.”.

“In this project (INTERSPEC), I will use advanced microspectroscopy and transparent soil chips to study single-cell fungi. These chips reveal fungi cells for microscopic analysis. I will also use surface-enhanced microspectroscopy to detect chemical information about the fungi’s survival tactics even at low concentrations. This method clarifies their functions.”

What do you hope to achieve?

“This project is mostly concerned with method development. I hope in time to offer the community of ecologists that study microbes in the soil a ground-breaking new tool for studying chemistry and ecosystem functions in the microbes’ metabolism in more realistic environments. I also want to clarify how the fungi’s intraspecific interactions under varying nutrient conditions affect the composition and function of their excreted chemical compounds, and how this in turn affects the breakdown of organic material by fungi.”

What does the grant mean for you?

”It gives me the opportunity to form a research team that will work together on developing a new spectroscopy method and answering specific research questions as well as driving research on fungi in the soil. I feel very pleased, but also humble, at the prospect of doing this. In time, it will also help me to establish a new research specialisation that will contribute to more advanced microspectroscopy tools for studying soil microbial chemistry at the single-cell level.”