Three women scientists from Heidelberg University were awarded highly endowed grants from the European Research Council (ERC): Biophysicist Prof. Dr Frauke Gräter, astrophysicist Prof. Dr Saskia Hekker, and physicist Prof. Dr Christine Selhuber-Unkel are each receiving an ERC Consolidator Grant for excellent young researchers. The ERC grants will fund their research for a period of five years. A total of approximately 6.5 million euros have been earmarked for their work. Frauke Gräter and Saskia Hekker, besides their professorships at Ruperto Carola, are also research group leaders at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS).

Frauke Gräter is a professor of molecular biomechanics at Heidelberg University. Her eponymous research group at HITS uses methods of high-performance computing and simulation techniques to investigate how mechanical forces influence the inner processes of living organisms. Proteins are a particular focus. In her ERC project, “Mechanoradicals in Collagen” (RADICOL), Prof. Gräter and her team are looking at the impact of mechanical loads on collagen, which is the main component of our connective tissue. In particular, they are investigating whether, and how, highly reactive radicals originate in the collagen of e.g. the Achilles tendon and damage the tissue. The results may supply important leads for our understanding of aging and pain. The ERC has approved funding amounting to approximately two million euros.

After studying chemistry in Tübingen, Kyoto (Japan) and Heidelberg, Frauke Gräter earned her doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, followed by a stay as postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University in New York (USA). She then led a junior research group at the Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, a partner institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Society. She has been a researcher at HITS since 2009 and became a professor at the Faculty of Biosciences of Heidelberg University in 2014. Prof. Gräter was a member of the directorate of the Interdisciplinary Center for Scientific Computing there from 2017 to 2020.

Frauke Gräter
Frauke Gräter | © HITS / Annette Mück
In the field of astrophysics, Saskia Hekker studies the inner structures of stars through their global oscillations. These oscillations contain information about the physical conditions inside the stars. In her ERC project “Internal structure of red-giant stars through the sound of dipole oscillation modes” (DipolarSound), she will investigate “red giants” by means of asteroseismology. These large, bright stars exhibit different oscillations. Through the analysis of these oscillation spectra Prof. Hekker wants to discover the physical origin of these differences. The European Research Council is funding the project with two million euros.

Saskia Hekker studied applied physics in Delft and earned her PhD at Leiden University in the Netherlands in 2007. After working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Observatory of Belgium and the universities of Birmingham (Great Britain) and Amsterdam (Netherlands), the scientist – with funding from an ERC Starting Grant – moved on to the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen in 2013, where in 2014 she also became an independent Max Planck Research Group leader. Since September 2020, Saskia Hekker has been a professor of theoretical astrophysics at the Faculty of Physics and Astronomy of Heidelberg University. At the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, she leads the “Theory and Observations of Stars” research group.

Saskia Hekker
Saskia Hekker | © HITS / Annette Mück
Christine Selhuber-Unkel’s research focuses on new structured materials, whose functions are controlled through molecular components and nanoparticles. At Heidelberg University’s Institute for Molecular Systems Engineering (IMSE), Prof. Selhuber-Unkel conducts research at the interface of chemistry, physics, materials science and biology. Her ERC project “Photomechanical writing of cell functions” (PHOTOMECH) aims at regulating cell functions through external physical forces. To this end, she combines photoswitchable materials with a complex optical system that uses intensive laser light pulses. This laser is intended to be used as a “pen” to write cell functions in three dimensions and to enable the growth of cell tissues. The project is being funded with approximately 2.5 million euros. Prior to receiving the current grant, she received an ERC Starting Grant and three supplementary Proof of Concept Grants from the European Research Council.

After studying physics in Heidelberg and Uppsala (Sweden), Christine Selhuber-Unkel earned her PhD at Heidelberg University in 2006 and joined the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen (Denmark) as a postdoctoral researcher. In 2010, she was appointed a junior professor at the Institute for Materials Science of the University of Kiel and directed an Emmy Noether junior research group. There, the following year, the researcher was appointed professor for biocompatible nanomaterials. She has been professor for molecular systems engineering at the Faculty of Chemistry and Earth Sciences of Heidelberg University since July 2020.

The Consolidator Grant is given to promising researchers whose own independent working group is in the consolidation phase. Scientific excellence is the main criterion.