Trinity College Dublin: Five Trinity researchers win European Research Council Proof of Concept grants

Five researchers from Trinity College Dublin have won highly competitive European Research Council (ERC) Proof of Concept grants. They will now use the funds to take their ground-breaking research ideas towards exciting, impactful innovations.

The five winners are Professors Valeria Nicolosi (School of Chemistry and AMBER, the SFI Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research); Tríona Lally (School of Engineering and AMBER), Anna Davies (School of Natural Sciences), John Goold (School of Physics) and Dr Matthew Campbell (School of Genetics and Microbiology).

ERC Proof of Concept grants, worth €150,000 each, maximise the value of the research funded by the ERC to support further work to verify the innovation potential of ideas arising from previously funded projects. They are awarded on the basis of excellence assessed through breakthrough potential, the approach proposed, and the capacity and commitment of the applicant.

Congratulating the awardees and their wider teams, which involve many talented PhD and Postdoctoral researchers, Provost Linda Doyle said:

“These awards, which have gone to a diverse array of ERC teams in Trinity, confirm the enormous potential of frontier research to address some of the greatest challenges facing our planet.

“They will support exciting innovations – societal and commercial – which have emerged from the discoveries of ERC teams, and which were made possible by investment in fundamental research.”

The five Proof of Concept grants will support the development of innovations in areas ranging from communications to sustainable food-sharing, and from healthcare to climate change adaptation and land use planning.

Professor Valeria Nicolosi—who is remarkably winning a Proof of Concept Grant for the fifth time and an ERC grant for the seventh—will assess the economic and technical feasibility of developing new electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding materials for use in wireless communications via readily scalable additive manufacturing technologies.

Professor Nicolosi said: “With the fast development of wireless communication, especially the new 5G technology, electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding is becoming a challenge and high-performance EMI shielding materials are urgently needed for controlling electromagnetic radiation pollution. Some preliminary work carried out in my lab by Postdoctoral Researcher Ji Liu, who is going to work on this ERC PoC project going forward, showed the great potential of 2D nanomaterials for these types of applications. We now hope to 3D print EMI shielding materials that more precisely fit user needs.”

Professor Tríona Lally will generate a new software tool that can help medics diagnose patients who are at risk of stroke (the leading cause of disability and the third-leading cause of death in the Western World) and select the best treatment to minimise the need for surgery and healthcare-associated costs.

Professor Lally said: “Over 50% of strokes occur in asymptomatic patients due to the rupture of often undetected ‘vulnerable plaques’. This project, VASCOLL, aims to generate the first software tool that can determine the risk of plaque rupture in a non-invasive way using a particular type of MR imaging. This will enable early diagnosis of the predisposition of carotid plaques to rupture and facilitate the selection of the optimum treatment strategy.”

Professor Anna Davies—whose Proof of Concept grant is one of the first to support a social innovation—will develop the SHARE IT platform and its user base to include food retailers and local governments. By designing, testing and validating consultancy services it will enhance the sustainability of city-based food sharing economies all over the world.

Professor Davies said: “This grant will bring our novel sustainability impact assessment toolkit for food sharing—SHARE IT—to a wider audience, identifying the impacts created by food sharing initiatives as well as aggregating these impacts for food retailers donating surplus food and for local governments who govern food sharing activities. This will enable contributions towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals from food sharing to be mapped, tracked, valued and supported.”

Professor John Goold will test, develop, and find market opportunities for a new soil fertility monitoring and forecasting method based on the statistical physics of disordered systems. This early warning and large-scale survey of soil degradation offers a climate change adaptation tool for farmers, agricultural organisations and land use planners.

Professor Goold said: “This grant concerns a highly novel application of statistical physics to address one of the most pressing issues of our times – climate-induced land change. The project is the vision of Dr Francesca Pietracaprina, a Marie Curie Fellow in my group at Trinity, and an expert in complex disordered quantum systems. She had the highly innovative idea to apply state of the art statistical physics tools to time series data of satellite images. She hopes to identify large regions of land in these images that are under threat of desertification due to climate change, which would be particularly useful for the agricultural economy.”

Dr Matthew Campbell will develop a new, localised approach to gene therapy with the aim of restoring normal biological function and preventing the progression of age related macular degeneration – a disease for which existing therapies are minimally effective.

Dr Campbell said: “Our project—Opti-AAV—will allow us to screen a completely new form of gene therapy for one of the most common causes of blindness in the world, age-related macular degeneration. This new project is really exciting in that it will enable us to undertake a cutting-edge project with potentially significant therapeutic rewards for patients in the future.”

Trinity’s Dean of Research, Professor Wolfgang Schmitt, was a previous winner of an ERC Proof of Concept grant. He added:

“I am pleased to extend my warm congratulations to the five Trinity awardees in this round of the Proof of Concept scheme. Valeria, Triona, Anna, John and Matthew are fantastic mentors and leaders who consistently excelled in their research. These are very exciting and innovative projects and I look forward to seeing how their ideas will be developed.”

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