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Three Starting Grants for VU Amsterdam

22 November 2022
Biological psychologist Elsje van Bergen, Ecologist Vasilis Kokkoris and photonics researcher Matz Liebel of VU Amsterdam received a Starting Grant of at least 1.5 million euros from the European Research Council (ERC).

Growing up among bright books and generous genes
Elsje van Bergen will use the Starting Grant to conduct research into the interplay of genes and environment in educational achievement.
A significant risk factor for poor health and low income in adulthood is poor educational achievement in childhood. Poor educational achievement is influenced by numerous social, neighbourhood, classroom, family, psychological, and biological characteristics. A cycle of disadvantage arises by the fact that poor educational outcomes frequently run in families. This may be the result of inherited vulnerabilities (nature), unfavourable environments (nurture), or a combination of the two. Van Bergen will increase our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the cycle of educational disadvantage. “Insight into why parents and children resemble one another will suggest ways to break this cycle. It will help policymakers target causal mechanisms so that all kids can learn and flourish”, says van Bergen.

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Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi
Vasilis Kokkoris will with the Starting Grant conduct research into a mystery in the evolutionary biology of a specific fungal species, namely the arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi.
80% of all land plants engage in symbiotic relationships with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Multiple fungi simultaneously connect to the roots of multiple plants, forming so-called underground common mycorrhizal networks in which carbon and nutrients are exchanged. With his research, Kokkoris will challenge the prevailing dogma that these fungi are strictly asexual and that connecting individuals always provides benefits. Moreover, his research may open new avenues to increase the agricultural benefits of these fungi - for which they are often exploited by increasing crop yield and by protecting crops from soilborne pathogens - based on their nuclear organisation.

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Phototransient Infrared Holography (PIRO)
Photonics researcher Matz Liebel (currently affiliated with ICFO -The Institute of Photonic Sciences) will use the Starting Grant to develop a Phototransient Infrared Holography (PIRO).
Liebel will develop a phototransient microscope (PIROscope): an innovative biomedical imaging platform that will provide chemically resolved images of biological materials such as cells, bacteria or tissue. He hopes to visualize molecular details of breast cancer tissue at high resolution and the metabolic activity of bacteria following antibiotics treatment.

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ERC Starting Grants
The ERC awards the Starting Grants to fund emerging academic talent for five years to pursue  pioneering projects. A total of 408 outstanding young scientists across Europe have been awarded an ERC Starting Grant. For more information, see the ERC's press release.