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European Research Council

Three LMU scientists win prestigious EU research grants

Munich, 01/18/2010

Research proposals submitted by scientists from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich are once again among those selected for long-term support by the EU. The immunologist Professor Erika von Mutius, the geologist Professor Donald Bruce Dingwell and the physicist Professor Ferenc Krausz will each receive an Advanced Investigator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Erika von Mutius is a pediatrician and epidemiologist at the LMU’s Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital. The ERC grant will enable her to undertake the HERA Project, whose aim is to find new strategies for the prevention of asthma und allergies. Donald B. Dingwell, who holds the Chair of Mineralogy und Petrology and is Director of the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at LMU, plans to investigate the effects of volcanic activity on the Earth system, in the context of the project EVOKES. Ferenc Krausz, Professor of Experimental Physics at LMU and Director at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, will tackle the project “4D Imaging”, an ambitious attempt to obtain time-resolved images of atomic and electronic motions in atoms and molecules. In addition, the linguist Professor Adamantios I. Gafos of New York University, who also receives an Advanced Investigator Award, has been invited to carry out his winning project at LMU.


Professor von Mutius’ project
Asthma and allergies are complex diseases which are caused by interactions between genetic and environmental factors. Available therapies only control symptoms, and cannot cure or prevent the underlying condition. Earlier work by Prof. Erika von Mutius and her team showed that children who grow up on farms, where they are exposed to a wide variety of potential pathogens, are less likely to develop asthma and allergies than children brought up in cities; asthma and hay fever are five times more prevalent in urban settings than in the countryside. These studies have now progressed to the point where a systematic attempt can be made to identify the protective microbes and their immunostimulatory components. This is what the project HERA (“Host-environment interactions in protection from asthma and allergies”) is intended to achieve. In the first step, the plan is to characterize the microbial ecology of samples that have already been collected. Newly developed methods will then be used to dissect how components of these pathogens stimulate the human immune system. The hope is to identify those microbes whose presence protects against asthma and allergies, and to clarify how this depends on the genetic constitution of the individual human host. The longer-term goal is to isolate the active compounds from these pathogens, and use them as starting points for the synthesis of novel and effective agents which prevent the subversion of immune reactions that is the hallmark of both asthma and allergy.

Professor Erika von Mutius
Erika von Mutius was born in 1957. She studied Medicine at LMU from 1976 to 1984, and has been a pediatric specialist since 1992. After fulfilling Habilitation requirements in 1998, she earned a Master of Science degree from the Harvard School of Public Health in the year 2000. She became Professor of Pediatrics at LMU in 2004. As Chief Medical Officer of the Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital, she also serves as Head of the Outpatient Department for Asthma and Allergology. She was awarded the Europa Medal by the State of Bavaria in 2008.


Professor Dingwell’s project
Volcanic activity results from an intricate interplay between physical and chemical processes in the Earth’s interior, and has repercussions not only for Earth’s inhabitants but for the whole Earth system. The silicate melts and their byproducts in magma play an important role in the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. Volcanic eruptions also have direct effects at local and regional levels, and sometimes – as when explosive eruptions occur -- even on a global scale. But precisely these large-scale volcanic events are especially difficult to study. The aim of the project “Explosive volcanism in the Earth System (EVOKES)”, led by Professor Donald B. Dingwell, is to obtain insights into such cataclysmic events -- by means of laboratory experiments. Experimental volcanology investigates how parameters like pressure, temperature and other factors behave over time under the conditions that prevail in active volcanoes. The overall goal is to develop mechanistic models of magmatic and volcanic processes and their effects on the Earth. Key aspects of the EVOKES project include the characterization of various types of volcanic ash and their effects on the Earth, and measurements of the rheological properties of magma and lava. It is hoped that the data obtained in the laboratory will permit more effective monitoring of volcanoes and so help to minimize the effects of hazardous eruptions on human life.

Professor Donald B. Dingwell
Donald B. Dingwell studied geology and geophysics at the University of Newfoundland from 1975 to 1980, and obtained his PhD from the University of Alberta in 1984. From 1987 until 2000 he served as Managing Director of the Bavarian Geoinstitute at the University of Bayreuth, and completed his Habilitation there in 1992. He has held the Chair of Mineralogy and Petrology at LMU since 2000, and became Director of the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences in 2006.


Professor Krausz’ project
Electrons, atoms and molecules will star in the films that a team of laser physicists led by Professor Ferenc Krausz and Dr. Peter Baum want to make in the course of the project “Towards 4D Imaging of Fundamental Processes on the Atomic und Sub-Atomic Scale (NAME)”. They will use laser pulses to generate extremely brief electron pulses that are short enough to capture the ultrafast motions of particles within atomic systems and materials. Subatomic particles can undergo changes in state within femtoseconds, or even attoseconds, and the “camera” used to catch them in the act must be equally fast. One femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second, an attosecond is 1000 times shorter again. For comparison, the “shutter speed” of the human eye is so slow that a sequence of snapshots projected at a rate of only 24 frames per second is perceived as a continuous action. Reconstruction of the  ultrafast motions of atoms and electrons in the microcosm, on the other hand, requires an exposure time in the femto- and attosecond range and a spatial resolution of a fraction of a nanometer. The researchers aim at producing electron bunches with femto- and ultimately atto-second duration, which would offer the required resolution in both space and time. The ultrashort electron flashes will enable them to follow the dynamics of molecular and solid-state structure as well as the dynamics of electrons on atomic and sub-atomic scale and so obtain insights into the elementary steps that underlie physical, chemical and biological processes. The technology should, for the first time, provide three-dimensional snapshots of events taking place within atoms, molecules and solids, and, from a sequence of such snaps, also reveal how these events are ordered in the fourth dimension – time.

Professor Ferenc Krausz
Ferenc Krausz was born in Hungary in 1962. He studied Electrical Engineering at the Technical University of Budapest and Physics at the Eötvös-Loránd University. In 1991 he obtained his doctorate in Quantum Electronics and Laser Technology at the Vienna University of Technology. He went on to complete his Habilitation there in 1993, and became a professor at the TU in 1999. Professor Krausz was appointed director at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching in 2003 and has held the Chair in Experimental Physics (Laser Physics) at LMU Munich since 2004. He is also director of the Cluster of Excellence MAP: Munich Centre for Advanced Photonics. In 2006 he was awarded the Leibniz Prize by the German Research Foundation (DFG) for pioneering the birth of attosecond physics.


Besides these three LMU researchers, Professor Adamantios I. Gafos of New York University also received an ERC Grant for his proposal “Syllables and the Timing of Speech” (STIMOS), and has been invited to undertake the project at LMU Munich. Adamantios I. Gafos was born on the Greek island of Chios, and studied Computer Science in Greece, graduating from the University of Patras in 1990. He obtained a PhD in Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, and is currently on the faculty of the Department of Linguistics at New York University. He is no stranger to Munich, having been a guest of the LMU’s Institute of Phonetics from July to September 2009.


The ERC Advanced Investigator Grant Scheme
The ERC Advanced Investigator Grant Scheme supports basic research in Europe. Interdisciplinary proposals that devoted to ground-breaking research or utilizing innovative methods are especially welcome. ERC Grants are awarded on a competitive basis to outstanding scientists. The sole criterion for assessment is the scientific quality of the applicants and their proposals. ERC Grants cover up to 100% of direct research costs -- for personnel, equipment, consumables and travel costs -- and include a contribution amounting to 20% of indirect costs.

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