European Research Council (ERC) grants worth more than €16.3 million have been awarded to eight University of Oxford researchers for a range of cutting-edge projects.
The highly-competitive awards, given to Europe’s most innovative, high-impact academics, have been won by researchers from across the university’s four divisions - representing the highest number of consolidator grants awarded in the UK. These coveted prizes are awarded by the ERC to researchers with between seven and 12 years’ post-doctoral experience, ‘all selected solely based on excellence’, according to Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth.
Professor Patrick Grant, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Oxford said: "These ERC awards are a strong endorsement of the quality and adventure of the research proposed by early and mid-career researchers across the University, in diverse subjects including demography, history, zoology, biology and chemistry."
ERC President Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, commented, "This funding not only empowers bright minds from across Europe to pursue their most ambitious ideas at a critical stage of their careers, but also helps train the youngest generation of researchers as members of their ERC teams. To prepare for the challenges of tomorrow, Europe must stick to the vision of investing in frontier research, which has proved time and again its crucial added value."
According to today’s ERC announcement, awards have been made to 327 researchers from European Union member states and associated countries from Iceland to Israel. There were more than 2,400 applications - and just 13% of applicants were awarded grants. Institutions in the UK and Germany won the most awards – 50 projects per country. Women won 37% of grants – the most since they have been awarded. The majority of awards (144) went to researchers in physical sciences and engineering.
Oxford’s eight winners, each awarded research funding of some €2 million, are:
Professor Andrew Baldwin, Chemistry, thanked the ERC for its funding. He said, "We believe that cells are acting like synthetic organic chemists, and effectively switching between solvents to conduct different reactions at different times during the cell cycle. If this is correct, then this is a large departure from the wider view that molecules inside cells are dissolved either in water or in membranes."
Dr Alfredo Castello, Biochemistry. A specialist in researching the role of RNA-binding proteins in virus infection, Dr Castello’s work has uncovered dozens of RBPs, which are crucial for viruses. Millions of people die each year from RNA viruses. It is critical to understand the interactions that viruses establish with the host cell.
Professor Jennifer Dowd, Sociology, said, "I'm so thrilled to have the opportunity to carry out this ERC Consolidator project. As a demographer, nothing is more fundamental than mortality trends and for decades [until now] we've been accustomed to steady improvements."
The overall goal of the project is to understand how long we are living, and why. Recently life expectancy in the US has declined for three consecutive years, the longest decline since between 1915 and 1918, a time both world war and pandemic influenza raged across the globe. Mortality stalls are happening in some but not all European countries as well. What's not clear is WHY, in this day and age of high economic development and technological and medical advances, are we seeing stalls and even reversals in life expectancy.
Dr John-Paul Ghobrial, History, said, "I am very grateful....These European awards make it possible to study the past in exciting ways, and Oxford is a fantastic place for this sort of collaborative research that connects postholders, students, and early career researchers."
This award is for a project called ‘Moving Stories: Sectarianisms in the Global Middle East’. It combines the study of mobile sectarianisms with the use of neglected family archives and papers of Middle Eastern migrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Professor Aris Katzourakis, Zoology, said, "I am absolutely thrilled to be awarded an ERC consolidator grant.... The scale of the project that an award would enable... me to use paleovirology to answer fundamental questions that will have wide societal implications."
This project will tackle crucial questions regarding the evolutionary biology of viruses and their interactions with their hosts, and develop paleovirology from a recently established discipline to one that regularly solves fundamental problems in biology.
Understanding outbreaks resulting from viral cross-species transmission has been of significant interest for some time. These are not new, and we have been expecting a significant global pandemic like the one that led to COVID-19 for some time. Successful viral cross-species transmissions have occurred regularly in nature, and this project will reveal the evolutionary processes that govern transmissions between different viruses and hosts over time.
Dr Francesco Licausi, Plant Sciences, said, "I am overjoyed by the possibility to establish a new group in Oxford...and I am immensely grateful to all those who supported me with this."
The funding will be used to apply the synthetic biology framework to study oxygen biology across eukaryotes, with a focus on plant cells. In particular, Dr Licausi plans to generate hybrid molecular devices that will allow the scientific community to better understand, and possibly exploit, oxygen sensing and the response to hypoxia.
Professor Susan Perkin, Chemistry, said, "I am honoured to have been given this opportunity by the ERC and excited to be setting out on this voyage together with my team." The ELECTROLYTE project will study electrolytic materials ranging from battery electrolytes to the interior of halophilic organisms, to uncover the fundamental physical principles determining their collective properties and interactions.
Professor Andrea Vedaldi, Engineering Science, is professor of computer vision and machine learning. His research is into the methods of understanding images and videos without manual supervision and he has worked on getting machines to understand images in detail.