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Supporting Research Excellence

ICTP scientists win prestigious European Research Council grants

ICTP scientists Ali Hassanali (left) and Joan Elias Miró
ICTP scientists Ali Hassanali (left) and Joan Elias Miró

17/03/2022

Two ICTP scientists have won prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants that will provide substantial support for their frontier research. Ali Hassanali, of ICTP's Condensed Matter and Statistical Physics section, has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant for mid-career scientists, while Joan Elias Miró, a physicist in the High Energy, Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics section, has received an ERC Starting Grant for early career scientists. Both types of grants are given to outstanding researchers whose scientific track records show great promise.

The funding--up to €2 million per Consolidator Grant and €1.5 million for Starter Grants, plus in some cases additional money for start-up costs--is provided for up to five years and mostly covers the employment of researchers and other staff to consolidate the grantees' teams.  ERC grants are highly competitive: only 12% of grant proposals are approved.

"I congratulate Ali and Joan on their success in securing these competitive grants," said ICTP Director Atish Dabholkar, adding, "It is a very well-deserved recognition from the European Research Council of their scientific accomplishments, and will surely encourage them towards greater heights in their research.  ICTP is proud of these achievements and the high scientific profile of these young faculty members continuing  in the fine traditions of the Centre."

A Focus on Fluorescence

Physics, chemistry, biology: Interdisciplinary investigation is key to the work of Ali Hassanali, who uses computational models and theory to understand the physical chemistry of aqueous systems. His ERC grant, called Hydrogen Bond Networks as Optical Probes, or HyBOP, focusses on fluorescence in biological materials, challenging the conventional wisdom about how light interacts with biological matter.

Fluorescence in organic matter has long been associated with only one specific class of chemicals, but Hassanali's recent work suggests the possibility of other sources. "The crux of my project is to really challenge the common chemical wisdom and put forth a new framework," says Hassanali, "demonstrating that fluorescence can occur in a much broader range of situations, specifically in hydrogen bond networks. This opens up the potential for designing new probes of water-mediated forces."

That fluorescence could be hugely useful if it could be put to work. "Hydrogen bond networks form one of the most common interactions in chemical and biological systems," says Hassanali. The main aims of HyBOP include understanding how to create fluorescent hydrogen-bond networks in biological materials, as well as how to manipulate electrons and nuclei in water into fluorescent hydrogen bond networks. "If one could use those networks as a probe, you could study a lot of different phenomena in a non-invasive way, including in medical settings."

"Understanding how light interacts with electrons in biological matter requires advanced atomistic simulation techniques, as well as modern tools in data science and machine learning," explains Hassanali. Many types of expertise will be needed to investigate the newly uncovered phenomenon of fluorescing hydrogen-bond networks, and the investigation will include collaborations with experts within the CMSP group, the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (SISSA) and leading experimentalists in the field. "It's great to see my work on aqueous systems, begun during my PhD, all come together within the context of this ERC grant."

Exploring Beyond the Standard Model

Joan Elias Miró investigates physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, in particular to understand, from a theoretical point of view, how matter and forces possibly behave when the energies at play are high enough to trespass into uncharted territories.

His ERC grant will fund a five-year project that will tackle questions concerning the Standard Model and still-unexplored extensions of the theory. Titled "Exotic High Energy Phenomenology", or X-HEP, his project aims to explore models that describe physics at the frontiers of high energy, that is, the phenomena that occur at the limits in which current particle collider experiments are carried.

Even though the Standard Model is a solid theoretical framework that has led to important discoveries, such as that of the Higgs boson, it still gives rise to a number of unanswered questions. For example, it does not include the experimentally observed Dark Matter in its theoretical structure; and it contains dozens of arbitrary parameters that are only measured in laboratories but are not the result of an underlying theory. Elias Miró's project will try to answer some of these unanswered questions, but it will also have broader beneficial effects to the whole field, including more precise predictions in the form of new particles or new processes to be seen in experiments.

"I am excited about the grant and the possibilities it will give me to investigate important and tough open questions in high energy physics," says Elias Miró. He plans to use the grant money to hire postdoctoral fellows who will work on the various aspects of the project, and to organize conferences and seminars. "This is a very ambitious project, so these resources are very welcome."

In January, an ERC Starting Grant was awarded to ICTP researcher Jean Barbier of the Centre's Quantitative Life Sciences section, to fund a multidisciplinary project that will tackle questions concerning machine learning and neural networks using high-dimensional statistics. 

The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. It offers four core grant schemes: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants.

 

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