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The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded Consolidator Grants to neuroscientist Birte Forstmann, Eastern Europe researcher Artemy Kalinovsky, clinical hematologist Arnon Kater, behavourial scientist Shaul Shalvi, political scientist Joost van Spanje, mathematician Lenny Taelman and astronomer Anna Watts. The prestigious grants are awarded to individual researchers and amount to around 2 million euros per project.

Consolidator Grants are intended for researchers who obtained their PhDs 7 to 12 years ago. The grants enable the researchers to consolidate their position as independent researchers.

Birte Forstmann (Psychology Research Institute): Deep Brain: Decision Mechanisms in Deep Brain Networks

When making decisions, both the cerebral cortex and the subcortex – located deep within the brain – play important roles. Research into the networks that connect the small nuclei in the deep brain with cortical regions can provide key insights into our understanding of learning processes and decisions taken on the basis of memories and economic and perceptual information. There is still a gap in our knowledge about the structural and functional organisation of these processes in the brain. Forstmann wants to reduce this gap by studying the mechanisms by which different types of decisions are implemented in the deep brain networks. The cerebral cortex has already been mapped with great precision, but the subcortex is much less well understood. The subcortex contains hundreds of small grey matter nuclei, which together make up approximately a quarter of the brain’s volume, yet only about 7% of these nuclei are currently included in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) atlases. An important focus within Forstmann's research is therefore the mapping of the subcortex using structural MRI.

Artemy Kalinovsky (Amsterdam School for Regional, Transnational and European Studies): Building a Better Tomorrow: Development Knowledge and Practice in Central Asia and Beyond, 1970-2017

The landscape of Central Asia - Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan – is littered with physical remnants of the Soviet era: positive ones such as health centres and schools and negative ones such as dilapidated factories and polluted land. In addition, there are the political, intellectual and institutional Soviet inheritances. Kalinovsky's project focuses on economists, activists, specialists and government officials in Central Asia who joined national and international development organisations after the Soviet period. By studying these individuals and the legacies of their work, Kalinovsky intends to investigate how ideas and practices of economic development and welfare provision have been shaped and reformed at the local and international level. He will examine how international development transformed post-Soviet Central Asia, and also how encountering post-socialist states transformed the paradigms and practices of international development.

Arnon Kater (Haematology Department and Cancer Center Amsterdam, Amsterdam UMC): Boosting metabolism in T cells: a tool to improve T cell therapy for chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients

Chronic lymphatic leukaemia (CLL) is the most common leukaemia in the Western world. There exist drugs that are effective against the disease, but none that can cure it. Moreover, prolonged use of these drugs is associated with development of resistance, toxicity, and high economic cost. Allogeneic stem cell transplantation, which evokes a T cell mediated response, is potentially curative yet is associated with high graft-vs-host-related mortality. Therefore, an autologous T cell-based approach, e.g. chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-T), is a highly promising strategy. However, in contrast to the success of CAR-T cells in aggressive leukemia, their effect in CLL is limited owing to a largely unexplained acquired T cell dysfunction in this disease setting. T-cells are strongly dependent on the way they deal with energy management (metabolic processes) in order to perform their function. Kater and his colleagues recently discovered that the reduced function of T-cells in CLL is strongly related to disturbed energy management. Kater’s hypothesis is that intervention in the disturbed energy management of T-cells leads to greatly improved functioning of the immune cells. He will therefore focus on the systematic unravelling of the mechanism that leads to a disturbed energy management in T-cells in CLL.

Shaul Shalvi (Amsterdam School of Economics): Responsible sharing: Paving the path for transparent trust

Online platforms in our ‘sharing economy’ encourage people to ‘connect with others’ as Airbnb hosts, 'earn money when it suits them' as an Uber driver, and 'get paid for riding around your city' as a Deliveroo riders. The new collaborative economy offers many benefits to citizens, such as easy access to services and finding flexible employment. At the same time, it leads to ethical risks and challenges, by increasing ambiguity about whether one is an employee or self-employed, or whether a service is provided by a professional or a non-professional? Although knowledge about the collaborative economy is accumulating, little is still known about the psychological factors driving users’ behaviour. In particular, little knowledge exists on whether people consider those that are indirectly affected by their use, such as the neighbours of an apartment excessively rented out on platforms like Airbnb. Shalvi wants to gain a better understanding of how people use sharing platforms. Specifically, he is interested in understanding what makes users consider the consequences of sharing, and whether transparent sharing platforms promote responsible sharing.   

Joost van Spanje (Amsterdam School of Communication Research): New Parties on the News. How New(s) Media and New Parties Shape Attention and Electoral Support for Political Ideas

Openness to new political ideas plays an important part in democracies. New ideas are often put forward by new political parties. And new parties depend on the media in order to be able to communicate with the electorate. It is inevitable, therefore, that the media largely shape the public images of new parties. However, studies of new parties pay little attention to the part played by media. Vice versa, studies of media pay little attention to their role in shaping the images of new parties. While VOX in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the AfD in Germany have been hugely successful, we still don’t know: how and to what extent news media pay attention to new parties; which factors determine the coverage; how media coverage promotes the emergence of new parties; and how the use of social media promotes the emergence of new parties. Van Spanje wants to change this by developing and testing an Integrative Framework of Political Party Gatekeeping. In doing so, he will show how new parties are portrayed in the media and how this affects election results. Until October 2021, the project will run parallel to Van Spanje’s NWO Vidi-project.

Lenny Taelman (Korteweg-de Vries Institute for Mathematics): Zeta functions and Fourier-Mukai transforms

String theory is a theoretical attempt to reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics. While the jury is still out on whether string theory describes the natural world, some of the ideas behind it have led to surprising new insights into mathematics, especially in geometry. They have, for example, led to the discovery of unexpected, hidden symmetries in geometry. Since the ancient Greeks, number theorists have been studying integer solutions to polynomial equations. A famous example is the Fermat’s Last Theorem. Although such problems have long been studied using tools from geometry, there has not been much interaction with the mathematics arising from string theory and number theory. In this project, we will exploit hidden symmetries in geometry to solve problems in number theory.

Anna Watts (Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy): Advancing the Equation of state of Neutron Stars

Neutron stars are made of nuclear matter under extremely high-density conditions, far higher than we can explore in laboratories on Earth. Indeed, they may be the only place in the universe where we can find stable states of strange quark matter. To figure out what lies inside neutron stars, astronomers need to measure their mass and radius. This is extremely challenging, however, since although they contain at least as much mass as our sun, neutron stars are only as big as the city of Amsterdam. In addition, even the closest ones are many light years away from Earth. Working under the aegis of the AEONS project, Watts will develop and refine a new technique for measuring mass and radius that exploits relativistic effects on X-rays emitted from hot spots on the neutron star’s surface: 'Pulse Profile Modeling'. Using data from NASA's Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) and looking ahead to the next generation of X-ray space telescopes, AEONS will seek to revolutionise our understanding of ultradense nuclear matter.

Read the ERC press release here