ERC Starting Grants for five Ghent University researchers

(05-09-2023) Five Ghent University researchers will receive an ERC Starting Grant. This grant will allow them to expand their research group and conduct groundbreaking research.

The European Research Council (ERC) awarded 400 young researchers with a Starting Grant, including five researchers at Ghent University: Sven Rogge for the project STRAINSWITCH, Sara Pacchiarotti for the project CONGUBANGI, Charles DiSimone for the project Gandhāra Corpora, Tom Bultreys for the project FLOWSCOPY and Marijn Bauters for the project FORECAT. This makes us once again frontrunners among Belgian universities.

The new Starting Grant projects

Sven RoggeSTRAINSWITCH – Sven Rogge

Diamonds transform into graphite over time. Similarly, many solid-state materials around us can switch between different phases and change their colour, conductivity or other functional properties. A material’s specific atomic structure defines the conditions–temperature, pressure, adsorption–under which it exhibits polymorphism. In STRAINSWITCH, Sven and his research team aim to develop computational models that predict how both atomic-level modifications and polymorphism deform the material and, thus, induce strain fields. These strain fields–areas where the material gets stretched or compressed–are key to understanding how atomic-level modifications and polymorphism interact. This could open the door to rationalising nanostructured materials design for sustainable applications in photovoltaic devices or water harvesters, among others.

Sarah PacchiarottiCONGUBANGI – Sara Pacchiarotti

The Congo-Ubangi watershed in the northern margins of the Congo rainforest is home to a complex mosaic of genealogically and structurally diverse languages spoken by small-size communities with different material cultures and subsistence specializations. Straddling the borders of three modern countries in Central Africa, i.e., Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, and the Central African Republic, it is a major hotbed of linguistic, cultural, and genetic diversity with a deep history of human occupation. Despite the myriad of insights it could generate about language evolution and deep human past, it is poorly known due to difficulty of access and an astonishingly intricate configuration. CONGUBANGI will realize a breakthrough in our understanding of how linguistic diversity correlates with cultural and genetic diversity and why it originated and persisted in this specific ecoregion for millennia through an interdisciplinary approach involving linguistics, archaeology, and genetics. Understanding the genesis of a central area in the continent where mankind originated represents a unique opportunity to learn about our shared human history of evolution, migration, and diversification, and their impact on human language, a faculty unique among all forms of animal communication. Beyond research, CONGUBANGI will replicate world-wide efforts to preserve local linguistic diversity in a region where it is threatened to extinction by multiple uniformizing pressures, so that it can be made permanently available for posterity.

Charles DiSimoneGANDHĀRA CORPORA – Charles DiSimone

In the last several years, fantastic manuscript finds have surfaced opening new windows into the scholarly study of the development of Buddhist literature. Gandhāra Corpora represents a multifaceted, holistic approach to the study of an important and voluminous genre of manuscript witnesses from an early era of Buddhist textual transmission composed mainly in Sanskrit in the Gilgit/Bamiyan type scripts from the historic region of Greater Gandhāra covering modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Northern India. This project centers on the study of large, recently discovered caches of highly significant early Buddhist manuscripts and their place in the body of works from Greater Gandhāra. The philological, paleographical, codicological, and critical research conducted in this project will examine textual and material production, transmission, and relationship networks in the Buddhist manuscript cultures of Greater Gandhāra and beyond in the first millennium of the Common Era.

Tom BultreysFLOWSCOPY – Tom Bultreys

Fluid flow through porous materials is a widespread phenomenon, just think of groundwater flow in the subsurface. The behavior of the flow on the large scale, for example how a pollutant spreads in a soil after an environmental disaster, is controlled by the interactions that fluids undergo on the microscopic scale. This is because the fluids have to work their way through a maze of minuscule, interconnected pores. This flow involves complex fluid physics that are currently far from being fully understood. However, there is a major challenge to study this: how do you measure fluid flow in minuscule pores inside a material? After all, most porous materials are opaque to visible light, and traditional microscopes are therefore of little help. In this project, new techniques will be developed to solve this using high-resolution X-ray CT, based on principles used in hospitals to image patients, but at a hundred times higher resolution. By introducing specially designed micro- and nano-particles into the flow and tracking their motion with new computer algorithms, we will be able to measure fluid flows that are representative of realistic processes in the subsurface. This will lead to better models of groundwater flows, and of how CO2 and hydrogen can be stored in porous rock layers in the subsurface.

Marijn BautersFORECAT – Marijn Bauters

The tropics host the most lush forests on Earth. Despite also growing on some of the poorest soils globally, tropical trees manage to mobilise the necessary nutrients and store them in their own biomass during a long growth process. For centuries, those nutrients in the biomass have been used in agriculture on poor soils through slash-and-burn. The forest is cut down and burned, some of the nutrients are lost, but another part remains in the form of ash, as a 'natural' fertiliser. If this happens only sporadically in a giant forest landscape, the losses are negligible and the process is quite sustainable. However, in Africa, where the population is set to quadruple in the next few decades, such shifting agriculture will be done on an increasingly large scale, as well as repeatedly. The net nutrient losses that will occur in the process will become much more substantial. Not only will this make it harder to maintain good yields in agriculture, but forest restoration will also be increasingly undermined by the ever-smaller residual nutrients.

In FORECAT, Marijn Bauters and his team aim to understand the future of forests in central Africa under pressure from expected population growth. The big question that FORECAT will answer is how land use can be organised as sustainably as possible from a biogeochemical perspective, especially under the growing pressure to also guarantee food security in the area.

About the ERC

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants and Synergy Grants. 

Researchers within and outside of Ghent University who wish to apply for an ERC Grant with our university as host institution, can contact the EU Team for advice and support.