UCL academics awarded European Research Council Starting Grants

Clockwise from top left: Dr Chunyu Ann Duan; Dr Paola Pinilla; Dr Suphanit PiyapClockwise from top left: Dr Chunyu Ann Duan; Dr Paola Pinilla; Dr Suphanit Piyapromdee; Dr Dan Honig; Dr Philip Coen; Dr Vilaiwan Fernandes.

Seven UCL researchers have received prestigious EU funding for the next five years, investigating subjects ranging from how our brains develop to how planets form and the social context of decision making.

The European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants aim to help excellent younger scientists to launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their most promising ideas.

The recipients, who have received approximately 1.5 million euros (£1.3 million) each, are:

Dr Philip (Pip) Coen (UCL Cell & Developmental Biology). His project will use recent advances in optogenetic and electrophysiology tools to investigate how the brain combines auditory and visual signals in mice. In particular, how neural circuits use correlations in these signals, both in space and time, to more accurately interpret the external environment-or create confounding illusions like the ventriloquist effect.

Dr Chunyu Ann Duan (Sainsbury Wellcome Centre at UCL). Neuroscience research has traditionally focused on how single animals make choices in a well-controlled environment, but real-life decisions are rarely made by a single agent in isolation. Instead, decisions reflect dynamic interactions between multiple decision makers. Dr Duan’s project seeks to understand how animals can change their behaviour based on their prediction of what other animals are going to do, using new technology that has made it feasible to monitor the behaviour and neural activity of multiple animals simultaneously.

Dr Vilaiwan Fernandes (UCL Cell & Developmental Biology). During brain development, different cell types are born in different brain regions and must eventually connect with each other across vast distances to form functional circuits.  Dr Fernandes’ work asks how different developmental processes are coordinated across cell types and brain regions to build functional circuitry using the well-characterised and tractable Drosophila (fruit fly) visual system.

Dr Guanjie He (UCL Chemical Engineering). Current electrochemical energy storage devices rely heavily on Li-ion batteries, which have inherent performance, safety, availability, and cost limitations. Rechargeable aqueous Zn-ion batteries have remarkable potential as next-generation devices as they promise lower costs, an abundant supply of raw materials, and can be fabricated more easily and safely. The aim of Dr He’s project is to generate new materials and understand the mechanism for rechargeable aqueous Zn-ion batteries.

Dr Dan Honig (UCL Political Science). This project begins with the premise that t’he way we normally conceive of state capacity - as the stuff governments can do or make or deliver to citizens - is incomplete, missing the role citizens themselves play in achieving public welfare outcomes (e.g. c’itizens must agree to take vaccines to reduce disease transmission ) . Using the lens of relational contracts to understand the relationship between citizens and particular bureaucrats and agencies, this project will explore whether, when, and how day-to-day interactions between citizens and public servants constitute state capacity and impact the state’s ability to improve public welfare.

Dr Paola Pinilla (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory). Since 1995, when the first planet outside our Solar System was discovered, astronomers have confirmed more than 5,000 exoplanets. But it remains unclear how planets form and what is the origin of their diversity. Dr Pinilla’s project, GEPOD ("Global Evolution of Planet-fOrming Disks"), will provide an observational and theoretical view of the global evolution of the birth-site of planets at the time they are forming.  Her group will address major open questions about the influence of the initial conditions, stellar properties, and the dynamical evolution of planet-forming disks on the final properties of exoplanets. 

Dr Suphanit Piyapromdee (UCL Economics). Skills mismatch - the discrepancy between a worker’s abilities and job skills requirements - is ubiquitous and associated with long-lasting wage penalties. Dr Piyapromdee’s project will look at different causes of skills mismatch and how to mitigate the adverse consequences on workers. One strand will focus on skills mismatch at the onset of workers’ careers ( looking at micro level factors including information and psychological constraints ); a second strand will focus on aggregate factors at the macro level, such as changes in the distribution of job offers.

Professor Geraint Rees, UCL Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation & Global Engagement), said: "Congratulations to my outstanding colleagues who have received a major boost to their research from a highly competitive and prestigious programme. The range of awards highlights the breadth and contribution of UCL research to so many areas of global importance. I look forward to seeing the impact of their research across the whole of Europe and beyond."

The UCL academics were among 408 researchers across Europe awarded a total of ¤636 million (£552 million) by the ERC as part of the Horizon Europe programme. The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for research.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: "We are proud that we are empowering younger researchers to follow their curiosity. These new ERC laureates bring a remarkable wealth of scientific ideas, they will certainly further our knowledge and some already have practical applications in sight. I wish them all the best of luck with their explorations."

Professor Maria Leptin, President of the ERC, said: "It is a pleasure to see this new group of bright minds at the start of their careers, set to take their research to new heights. I cannot emphasise enough that Europe as a whole - both at national and at EU level - has to continue to back and empower its promising talent. We must encourage young researchers who are led by sheer curiosity to go after their most ambitious scientific ideas. Investing in them and their frontier research is investing in our future."