Successful start of summer for twenty young Utrecht scientists

one of the grant-rewarded projects studies how the scent of sweat influences behaviour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Minghong

No fewer than 1115 scientists had applied for the coveted Veni grants, says the NWO, the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research. That means over 86 percent of applications were in vain.

Of the twenty grants for Utrecht scientists, eighteen went to UU researchers, one to the UMC Utrecht, and one to the Hubrecht Institute for developmental biology. Two other grants went to researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, which has strong collaborative ties to the UU.

It might well be the last time the NWO disappoints quite so many applicants, as the organisation is trying to limit the ‘application pressure’, and has come up with new rules.

Any Tom, Dick, or Harry
In the future, applicants will need an ‘embedding guarantee’: the promise from a university that the researchers will actually be able to get started on their projects at the university in case they receive the grant. NWO hopes universities won’t want to give the guarantee to any Tom, Dick, or Harry, which will – hopefully – lead to fewer applications, which will only come from those who truly stand a chance, and others won’t have to waste their time.

Until now, that wasn’t the case. With the motto ‘no harm, no foul’, theoretically, any scientists could send in an application. The winners could then take their grant to any university of their choice.

Bag of cash
“If someone’s at your door with a bag of cash, of course the university is going to say: please, come in. Someone like that will never be rejected,” said NWO chairman Stan Gielen last year. “But when the research is finished and it’s not something that’s already been embedded in the university itself, the researcher will just have to leave again. That leads to a lot of frustration.”

The chance at success should be around one in four, Gielen stated in the same interview, and not one in seven, as the average is now. (translation Indra Spronk)

The twenty Utrecht-based Veni grant winners in alphabetical order. The descriptions of their research come courtesy of the NWO.

Andrea Ascani - Geography
Cherries for sale in Europe: the implications of Chinese acquisitions of European companies

Chinese enterprises, often government-driven, are increasingly embarking on shopping spree for technology in European countries, raising concerns among authorities and the public opinion. This project investigates the implications of the Chinese ownership of European firms in terms of knowledge transfer and performance of European regional economies.

Bram Caers - Modern European languages and cultures
Subversive opinions in a time of censorship: contrastive memories of the shared past in Mechelen (1585-1621) and the case of a handwritten Orangist text collection

It is widely believed that after the Fall of Antwerp (1585), sympathisers of William of Orange fled north or kept to themselves. An ostentatiously orangist manuscript produced in the southern city of Mechelen testifies to the contrary and shows that alternative opinions continued to linger in the Southern Low Countries.

Florijn Dekkers -Hubrecht Institute
Visualizing breast cancer proliferation in 3D

Variation of different breast cancers limits therapy efficacy and underlies therapy resistance. Using advanced microscopy methods, we will visualize the growth and migration of fluorescent human breast tumors to better understand breast cancer pathology.

Jasper de Groot – Social, Health, & Organizational Psychology
“Fear-omones”: From molecules to behaviour

Outside of our awareness human body odors “communicate" social information from sender to receiver. Using a novel approach, the researchers will discover whether humans have a species-shared “animalistic” fear-omone communication capacity— extending from sender (molecules) to receiver (behavior)—to ultimately counteract possible undesirable communication.

Annet den Haan – Medieval and neo-Latin languages and cultures
A new take on the Bible: the conditions that shaped fifteenth-century biblical criticism

In Western culture today, we read the Bible not only as a holy book, but also as an object of critical study. I will study the conditions that shaped biblical criticism in the fifteenth century, when the Vatican became a new center of learning and texts became more easily available.

Tjalling de Haas – Physical Geography
Fatal growth: unravelling debris-flow erosion

Debris flows cause many fatalities and damage in mountainous areas. Debris flows may grow in size and hazardous potential by picking up material. The researchers will unravel the bed-erosion mechanisms by scale experiments and field measurements, enabling better hazard mitigation.

Gijs Heuts - Mathematics
Lie algebras and periodic spaces in homotopy theory

Homotopy theory studies deformations between geometric shapes, or “spaces”. Such a space can be split into parts corresponding to various frequencies, like a prism refracts a ray of light into different colours. This project uses new algebraic models to understand these monochromatic parts and how to put them back together.

René Koekkoek - Modern and contemporary history
Repairing historical injustice. Legal, intellectual, and political origins, c. 1650-1830

Repairing historical injustice is often seen as a product of a specific post-war historical consciousness, human rights idealism, and decolonisation. But this phenomenon has a longer, poorly-understood history stretching back to the period 1650-1830. This project examines the foundations and historical alternatives of coming to terms with an unjust past.

Tillmann Miltzow - Science Faculty
Understanding Algorithmic Performance Gaps

Many algorithmic problems, like the travelling salesman problem, can be solved to optimality in practice. Other computational problems, like Motion Planning or Sensor Networks, cannot be solved exactly even for small examples. We will explain this performance gap.

Sanne Moorman – Department of Psychology
How songbirds learn to sing – and what it reveals about human speech acquisition

Infants and songbirds learn their vocalisations (speech and song, respectively) by imitating sounds of their conspecifics. They develop their own vocalisations through practice. This research addresses how the brain can use auditory memory to instruct practice of vocalisations.

Álvaro del Pino- Department of Mathematics
The topology of bracket–generating distributions

Many physical systems can be modelled by a particle that moves satisfying certain constraints. Mathematicians encode these constraints in an object called a tangent distribution. The aim of this project is to classify distributions and understand their global properties using techniques from differential topology and geometry.

Danai Riga – Translational Neuroscience
Keep calm and pay attention: a view from the inside

Excessive stress disrupts our ability to pay attention to things that matter, and makes us take impulsive decisions that we might regret. This research will identify mechanisms in the brain that, upon exposure to stress, ensure optimal attentiveness and good control of our impulses.

Janric van Rookhuijzen  - Archeology
The Parthenon’s narratives of antagonism

The Parthenon in Athens is often recognized as a symbol of Western civilization. But stories of enmity, featuring Persian and Turks as destroyers, support this symbolism. This project aims at tracing the role of such stories in a reviewed architectural history of the Parthenon.

Kerstin Schneeberger – Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals
From organoids to organs – Tissue engineering the liver

Due to shortage of donor organs, approximately 20 percent of patients with end-stage liver disease die every year while being on a waiting list for a liver transplant. The researcher will investigate how stem cells of the patient can be used to create functional miniature livers that can be applied for organ transplantations.

Lorena Sosa  – International and European Law
Addressing violence against trans and intersex persons in human rights

Trans and intersex persons face severe harassment and violence in all regions of the world. However, the human rights frameworks on gender-based violence, which focus on women, pay limited attention to such cases. This research explores these norms, explains their shortcomings and proposes ways in which these can be improved.

Pooyan Tamimi Arab – Religion studies and theology
Pictures that divide: Islam, visual culture, and diversity in the Netherlands

Commotions surrounding pictures are central to global debates about Islam and diversity. This ethnographic study investigates the role of contested pictures – images of the prophet Muhammad, posters of kissing Muslim women, and offensive visual culture – in the public debate on religious difference in the Netherlands.

Daan van Uhm - Criminology
The diversification of organized crime into the illegal trade in natural resources

The proposed research will develop an innovative approach to understand how and why transnational criminal organizations diversify into the illegal trade in natural resources by analysing the link between environmental crime and other serious crimes.

Irene Valenzuela  - Science Faculty
Quantum Gravity constraints on the observable universe

A consistent description of Gravity at Quantum level is only possible if certain universal constraints are satisfied. Using String Theory, the researcher will analyse these contraints and the implications for the physics we observe nowadays in particle colliders and cosmology.

Hanneke Willemen - UMCU, Laboratory for Translational Immunology
Mitochondria: a target for novel painkillers?

Chronic pain affects 20 percent of the population and existing medication is often ineffective to provide pain relief. It is unknown which pain resolving pathways fail in patients with chronic pain. This project aims to determine the contribution of the powerhouses of a cell (mitochondria) in the development of chronic pain.

Shuntaro Yamagishi – Mathematical Institute
Finding solutions to Diophantine equations using modern number theory

Prime numbers and the theory of Diophantine equations have been topics of interest to mathematicians since the ancient Greeks. The researcher will use modern number theory to study these topics related to finding solutions to certain Diophantine equations.


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