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ERC Grants awarded to five UG scientists

10 January 2022

Five University of Groningen researchers have been awarded an ERC Starting Grant: Tessa Quax, Tamer Nawar, Iva Pesa , Brian Hare and Harish Vedantham (the latter two on behalf of ASTRON). The European Research Council (ERC) awards these personal grants of EUR 1.5 million to excellent researchers in order to stimulate groundbre aking research in Europe.

Dr Ajay Kottapalli

Ajay Kottapalli (Faculty of Science and Engineering)

Summary of the funded proposal by Ajay Kottapalli, titled Investigation of biological seal whiskers to create artificial whisker sensors for underwater robots (SEALSENSE)

Marine animals employ diverse and fascinating flow sensing phenomena by exploiting the ambient complex fluid mechanics to track prey and escape from predators. While dolphins and toothed-whales use echolocation, and fishes use their lateral-lines to attain ambiental awareness, seals rely on their whiskers to follow hydrodynamic fish trails and thereby are able to track fishes as far as 180m away.  Harbor seal whiskers feature a unique undulatory geometry along their length, which are proven to effectively reduce vortex-induced vibrations, thereby improving the signal-to-noise ratio of the mechanosensory whisker arrays. Through a multi-disciplinary approach combining micro/nanoelectromechanical systems (MEMS/NEMS) sensor development, live animal recordings, and experimental fluid mechanics, this project aims to explain the fundamental sensing phenomena that renders the seal whiskers an ultrahigh sensitivity towards tracking fish trails. 

In particular, how the seal effectively utilizes the spatial distribution of the whisker array on its muzzle to conduct multipoint flow measurements to track and locate its prey is unknown and of great significance. We propose to study the morphological, mechanical, and material properties of whiskers to explain the exquisite sensing capabilities of seals, and further use this understanding to develop biomimetic flow sensors for underwater robot navigation. Miniaturized and self-powered, micro/nano electromechanical systems (MEMS/NEMS) strain and flow sensors will be developed for experimental animal studies, and to develop artificial 3D printed MEMS whisker sensors and muzzles for experimental fluid-structure interaction studies. An artificial seal muzzle with mechanosensory MEMS whiskers will be applied on underwater robots to create artificial vision and energy-efficient maneuvering through fish-like schooling. 

The ERC starting grant will allow an opportunity to address these scientific questions through creating the opportunity to build a team of 2 PhD students and 1 Postdoc. 


Tessa Quax (Faculty of Science and Engineering)

Archaeal Virology: unravelling the mechanisms of interviral warfare (ARCVIR)

Archaea are ubiquitous microorganisms that are found in numerous surroundings ranging from extreme environments to the ocean and the human gut and skin. Marine archaea have a huge impact on biogeochemical cycles and the climate, while archaea in the gut influence the human microbiome and health. Archaea can be infected by unusual viruses that are structurally very diverse and have unique infection mechanisms. As viruses are the major predator of archaea, they shape archaeal communities.

This project will visualize the mechanisms that viruses use to fight each other to gain access to host cells. This knowledge of viral mechanisms can, for example, be applied to control archaeal populations to increase human gut health or to reduce the production of the harmful greenhouse gas methane by gut archaea of ruminants. The outcome will be of lasting impact in the field of microbial virology, and application of this knowledge will enable innovations that stimulate human health, fight global warming and fuel biotechnology.


Tamer Nawar (Faculty of Philosophy)

Philosophical conceptions of truth in ancient and medieval philosophy

This project will offer the first focused and systematic examination of philosophical conceptions of truth in ancient and medieval philosophy. It will examine the origins, motivations, and challenges faced by conceptions of truth in this period and how these challenges led to the development of alternative theories of truth.


Iva Pesa (Faculty of Arts)

AFREXTRACT Environmental histories of resource extraction in Africa: Understanding cultural and political responses to environmental transformation

Resource extraction has caused devastating effects all over the world. AFREXTRACT looks at three emblematic localities of large-scale industrial resource extraction in sub-Saharan Africa, namely oil drilling in Nigeria, copper mining in Zambia and gold mining in South Africa. Through a comparative environmental history approach, the project asks why the environmental changes caused by mining and oil drilling elicited such varied responses in these three localities. Using literature and song and paying particular attention to forms of popular political mobilisation, the project sheds light on the lived experiences of environmental transformation in Africa.

Two ASTRON-staff members who are closely linked to the Kapteyn Institute of the UG also received an ERC Starting Grant: Brian Hare and Harish Vedantham.


Brian Hare

Brian Hare will lead the project LIFT (Lightning corona Imaging From a radio Telescope), which will make use of the LOFAR radio telescope to create unprecedented images of lightning that are precise and detailed enough to allow for direct comparison with state-of-the-art lightning models.

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Harish Vedantham

Harish Vedantham has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant to detect space weather events and magnetic fields around exoplanets for the first time. Space weather is caused by a star ejecting huge masses of plasma and high-energy particles that can be detrimental to planetary atmospheres.

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More about ERC

ERC supports talented young researchers in setting up a research team and starting an independent research project. An ERC grant enables these researchers to start bold, groundbreaking research and thus open up new avenues in their field of study.

Last modified:10 March 2022 4.38 p.m.
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