Four ERC Consolidator Grants for KU Leuven researchers

© KU Leuven - Rob Stevens
© KU Leuven - Rob Stevens

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded its Consolidator Grants. Four KU Leuven researchers are among this year’s recipients: bioscience engineer Rob Ameloot, theologist Christina Kreinecker, pediatric nephrologist Elena Levtchenko, and astronomer Jon Sundqvist.

ERC Consolidator Grants provide funding for excellent researchers with 7 to 12 years of post-PhD experience. The grants are awarded for a five-year period and may be worth up to € 2 million.

Rob Ameloot: selective sensors for volatile molecules

BOF associate professor at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, head of one of the cMACS labs and founding member of LIMNI

You had already received an ERC Starting Grant and two Proof of Concept Grants. How does it feel to get a Consolidator Grant as well now?

"It is still special to receive such a grant. It gives you security for a longer period of time, allowing you to plan further into the future. That is first and foremost important for the researchers in the group. This grant is also a relief because submitting such a project application should not be underestimated in terms of the time and freshness of mind you need. Due to the recent birth of our little daughter, I won’t have as much time available any more." 

Do you have any tips for other applicants?

"As a young researcher, don’t wait too long and try your luck at various panels. In my opinion, Belgian researchers exercise a little too much self-censorship; many good ideas are not submitted. And don’t be disheartened if you don’t succeed the first time. For example, I first applied for a Consolidator Grant to another panel, but I immediately had a bad feeling after the interview. This year’s reform brought in a new panel that was a perfect fit for this project and the goal we have in mind." 

What is the project about?

"This project is so interesting because it focuses both on fundamental insights and their implementation in practical applications. We want to develop new sensors to detect volatile organic compounds. These sensors are made of porous materials that can measure and distinguish between different molecules. Current miniature sensors are, for instance, sensitive but not selective. We strive for an optimal set of materials and their integration with microelectronics. This will enable a new generation of sensors that are small, sensitive and sufficiently selective to detect and distinguish between different molecules. If successful, many applications are possible: measuring air quality, checking food freshness and even diagnosing through a breath test. Many diseases (such as COVID-19) cause a slightly different composition of the patient’s breath. Unfortunately, everyone’s ’breathing profile’ differs, even if they’re in good health, so it’s not enough to just take a breath test at the doctor’s office. You would have to measure frequently to create such a profile, for example by incorporating a sensor into a portable device or smartphone. We hope to take a big step in that direction through this project. Bringing together and integrating materials and microelectronics is also a key objective of the recently founded KU Leuven Institute for Microand Nanoscale Integration ( LIMNI ). Through LIMNI, we want to bring together ideas and challenges with various research groups and provide a gateway to the expertise at KU Leuven for external parties."

Read more about the project Follow Rob Ameloot’s lab on Twitter

Christina M. Kreinecker New multilingual insights into the formation and transmission of New Testament texts

BOF Professor at the Research Unit Biblical Studies, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven

Did the news of the grant come as a surprise?

Of course, it came as a complete surprise, although I had hoped for it. One cannot expect to receive such a competitive grant. So much work has gone into the application, and while one may feel that one has worked really, really hard for this, so have all the other applicants.
Once I knew that I would apply, a very intense process started because my ideas grabbed me and did not let go anymore, day or night. The possibilities for blue sky thinking that come with an ERC grant are exciting and I am ever so delighted that the project was approved and that I can now start to put a team together to investigate bilingual manuscripts and their potential for understanding the New Testament tradition at large.

What is the project about?

The BICROSS project aims at introducing a new pioneering multilingual approach to the study of the New Testament. We will investigate all bilingual New Testament manuscripts from the 4th to the 14th century and the invention of print. We will study their physical appearance and their texts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian and Arabic. Bilingual manuscripts are physical evidence of contact between the various languages of the New Testament and its translations. Yet the question remains: have they influenced each other across the various languages and if so, can we trace it?

The New Testament manuscript tradition is the most complex that we have and undertaking a full multilingual analysis is extremely challenging. To start with, a comprehensive list of all bilingual manuscripts still does not exist. To analyse the bilingual texts and their potential cross-influence, the project will apply cutting-edge technology and develop a unique platform for analysing multilingual texts.

One of the many challenges for the comparative cross-language textual analyses is the fact that we have to compare texts written in languages from different language families, Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic ones. And of course there are very specific problems within my discipline that still need to be solved, such as that of the so-called Western Text.

My project will tackle these challenges with a unique multilingual perspective to find new explanations and solutions. The results of the BICROSS project will provide new insights into the formation and transmission of New Testament texts. They will influence our understanding of historical, cultural and linguistic exchange in the East and West.

Read more about the project

Elena Levtchenko wants to save donor kidneys with stem cells from baby urine

Full professor at the Department of Development and Regeneration

Congratulations! Did you expect this news?

"I am still on cloud nine. It was my first attempt, so statistically, I had a very slight chance of obtaining a grant. The interview went well, but that is no guarantee, of course. So I wasn’t expecting it at all."

What is your project about? 

"Together with my team, I want to make more donor kidneys suitable for transplantation. After all, there is a huge shortage: more than 10,000 people are on the Eurotransplant waiting list for a kidney. Each year, only 25% of them can get one. At the same time, hundreds of donor kidneys are rejected for transplantation. We want to do something about that with the help of stem cells."

"A while ago, we discovered that the urine of premature babies is a good source of kidney stem cells. These stem cells are only found in the urine of babies who are less than 36 weeks old, as their kidneys are still developing. We have devised a technique to extract stem cells from urine and make them proliferate in a test tube. These cells can then be injected into the artery of rejected donor kidneys, causing them to function better and even regenerate. That is exceptional because adult kidneys usually don’t recover well: damage is often irreversible."

"In our new project, we want to find out how the stem cells can have this kind of effect. To do this, we will conduct a series of complex experiments in which each cell will be given a unique barcode so that we can monitor all the cells after they have been injected into a donor kidney. We will also culture cells for therapeutic purposes. To be clear: we are talking about injecting stem cells into rejected kidneys, not into patients. We want to test the effect of the stem cells on kidneys in the perfusion machine that UZ Leuven already uses to preserve organs for transplantation. Our pilot experiment already yielded some promising results. We now hope to gather the necessary data for a clinical study." 

Read more about the project

Jon Sundqvist: Superstars in 3D

BOF associate professor at the Faculty of Science

Congratulations! How did you react to the news?

With happiness. Although I had a good feeling after the interview, you never really expect to actually get the grant. You hope for it of course but I am well aware of both the competition and the low success rate, which basically means the most likely outcome is that you don’t get it in the end.

What is the project about?

The project SUPERSTARS-3D will focus on constructing 3D models of the most massive stars in our Universe. These stars can be 100 times more massive than our Sun, but even more importantly shine a million times brighter. Just to compare, although we can (hopefully) see photons from our Sun on a daily basis when these photons hit us we cannot really feel that they actually also push on us. By contrast, for these very luminous stars, such radiation forces are so strong that they lead to complex atmospheric structures as well as powerful vertical winds that blow off huge amounts of matter from the stellar surface. These starlight-driven wind-outflows are very important for the life-cycles of massive stars, as they essentially determine when and how these stars ultimately die in giant supernova explosions and also how massive the black holes they leave behind them after they die are.

Up till now, only 1D models have been available to interpret the light emerging from massive stars, but we already know that these models are not really able to capture the complexity of these stars’ atmospheres and winds. Therefore, 3D simulations are needed. The stars are typically too far away to directly resolve their surface, so we mostly investigate them using observations of their spectra in the ultra-violet, visible, infra-red, and so forth. The SUPERSTARS-3D project will focus on developing advanced computer models which predict both the dynamical 3D structure of these stars and their spectral features. Next, our simulations will be compared with the starlight we observe with our telescopes, adapting our models to match the observations. In this way, we can then learn a great deal not only about the massive stars themselves but also about their life-cycles and ultimate fates as supernovae and black holes.

Read more about the project   Follow the Institute of Astronomy on Twitter

The ABC of ERC

The European Research Council (ERC) funds ground-breaking and innovative projects by Europe’s finest researchers through five types of grant:

Starting Grants

  • up to ¤1.5 million for 5 years
  • for promising early-career researchers with 2 to 7 years of post-PhD experience
  • Consolidator Grants

  • up to ¤2 million for 5 years
  • for excellent researchers with 7 to 12 years of post-PhD experience
  • Advanced Grants

  • up to ¤2.5 million for 5 years
  • for established researchers with a considerable academic track record
  • Proof of Concept

  • ¤150,000
  • for ERC grant holders to bring their research ideas closer to market
  • Synergy Grants

  • up to ¤10 million for 6 years

  • Katrien Bollen, Emmanuel Rottey, Nena Testelmans, Miriel Vandeperre