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10 September, 2020 - 13:49 By Jamie Quested

Magnificent seven backed by European Research Council

Seven East of England academics have been awarded European Research Council (ERC) grants to conduct pioneering research in their respective fields.

The ERC is investing a total of €677 million in 746 projects as part of the EU’s Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020. The ERC estimates that the grants will create around 2,500 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other staff at the host institutions.

Six University of Cambridge scientists and one from The Quadram Institute Bioscience in Norwich are among the beneficiaries.

Luca Magri from the University’s Department of Engineering has been awarded an ERC of €1.5 million to grow his research group for the next five years, as they conduct pioneering research into physics-aware artificial intelligence.

Magri says the aim of the research is to seamlessly combine physical modelling, which is driven by principles, with machine learning modelling, which is driven by data. He says machine learning techniques have already been applied to some fluid mechanics problems with success, but attention is now being paid to how best to combine the physical principles (for example, conservation laws) and empirical approaches (relying on real-world data, metrics and results) of both into a unified approach: physics-aware artificial intelligence. 

This computational research will develop versatile methods to tackle high-dimensional nonlinear systems beyond multi-physics flows.

According to Luca, there are still three big questions left to answer:

  • Do machine learning algorithms scale to engineering configurations i.e. are they robust?
  • Can we gain physical insight into the solutions i.e. are they interpretable? 
  • Can we extend knowledge to other configurations such as multi-physics problems i.e. are they able to be generalised? 

He hopes to answer these questions with an approach that will see machine learning methods go hand in hand with the art of constructing physical models. 

“This approach has the potential to make a step change in the design of engineering systems,” said Luca. “The technical objectives are to combine physical principles with machine learning that will then be applied to maximise energy harvesting from aeroelastic systems to produce clean energy; optimise hydrogen-based aeroengines with low emissions; and create adaptive models that learn the physics of the problem every time that measurements from sensors become available. 

“This project will benefit industries that wish to optimise the performance of a device, and artificial intelligence companies that wish to design domain-aware learning paradigms.”

Alice Hutchings from the University of Cambridge‘s Computer Laboratory has received a grant for her Interdisciplinary Cybercrime Project (iCrime). She established and maintains the Cambridge Computer Crime Database (CCCD), a database of computer crime events where the offender has been arrested, charged and/or prosecuted in the United Kingdom. 

Amanda Prorok from the Department of Computer Science and Technology, at Cambridge University has received funding for a project entitled – ‘Scalable Co-optimization of Collective Robotic Mobility and the Artificial
Environment‘.

PROROKLAB’s research focuses on multi-agent and multi-robot systems. Its mission is to find new ways of coordinating artificially intelligent agents (e.g., robots, vehicles, machines) to achieve common goals in shared physical and virtual spaces.

The research brings in methods from machine learning, planning, and control, and has numerous applications, including automated transport and logistics, environmental monitoring, surveillance, and search.

It is supported by the ERC, Arm, Amazon, the Distributed and Collaborative Intelligent Systems and Technology Collaborative Research Alliance (CRA), Nokia Bell Labs, and UKRI's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Prorok has been honoured by numerous research awards, including an ERC Starting Grant, an Amazon Research Award, the EPSRC New Investigator Award, the Isaac Newton Trust Early Career Award, and several Best Paper awards.

Maria Ubali, also from Cambridge University has received funding to explore ‘Physics beyond the standard proton.’ Ubiali is a member of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics High Energy Physics research group and The Cambridge SUSY Working Group based at the Cavendish Laboratory. She divides her time between Cambridge and CERN.

A particle phenomenologist, her primary research interests include Quantum Chromo Dynamics and Beyond Standard Model phenomenology, the precise determination of the structure of the proton using machine learning techniques and processes involving heavy particles.

Her current projects are devoted to the formulation of precise theoretical predictions to be compared to the experimental data collected by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva. Maria’s work tackles a number of open fundamental questions about the structure of the proton and the origin of the universe.

Other Cambridge University-backed projects are Guy Jacobs (Movement networks and genetic evolution among tropical hunter-gatherers of island Southeast Asia) and Jessica Fintzen (p-adic Groups, Representations, and the Langlands Program).


Dr Falk Hildebrand, Quadram Institute

Quadram Institute scientist Dr Falk Hildebrand secured €1.5 million to research the role elusive microbes may play in the gut microbiome and human health. Quadram is a global leader in the segment and is based at Norwich Research Park.

Unicellular eukaryotes and prokaryotes are ubiquitously found in the gut microbiome, but for some of them their function and genetic makeup are completely unknown, as is the interaction they have on human health. Worse yet, we do not understand if these microbes just randomly colonise the gut for short periods of time or are essential parts of us that permanently reside within our guts.

The ERC grant will allow Dr Hildebrand’s group to study these questions by setting up a new cohort of volunteers based in Norfolk, jointly with the ongoing PEARL study. 

Using snapshots of their gut microbiome, novel sequencing approaches will be developed jointly at the Quadram and Earlham Institute to increase the resolution and quantity of microbes that can be resolved. 

Together, the new technologies and specifically designed cohort will enable a detailed and unprecedented view of the healthy microbiome.

Dr Hildebrand will be recruiting a PhD student and a post-doctoral position for the EPYC study from January 2021.

The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. 

The overall ERC budget from 2014 to 2020 is more than €13 billion, as part of the Horizon 2020 programme, for which the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel is responsible.

To date, the ERC has funded over 9,500 top researchers at various stages of their careers, and over 50,000 postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other staff working in their research teams. The ERC strives to attract top researchers from anywhere in the world to come to Europe. Key global research funding bodies, in the United States, China, Japan, Brazil and other countries, have concluded special agreements to provide their researchers with opportunities to temporarily join ERC grantees' teams.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “With European Research Council grants, the EU is leveraging the talent and curiosity of some of the best young researchers in Europe. 

“Their ideas are set to break fresh ground and open new ways to deal with pressing challenges in the areas of health, energy and digital technologies, as well as many other fields. Our ambition to effectively tackle current and future crises depends on our strong will to continuously and increasingly support top research at the frontiers of our knowledge.”

The grantees are a diverse group with 40 different nationalities. Amongst the winners, 20 researchers are moving to Europe from further afield thanks to the funding. The new grantees will be based in 25 countries across Europe, with Germany (88 grants), the UK (62), the Netherlands (42) and France (38) as top locations. 

President of the European Research Council (ERC), Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, said: “The present health crisis showed that despite spectacular progress in research over the past decades, there still remain plenty of unsolved scientific mysteries, as well as lessons to be learnt from the past. 

“Therefore, the best strategy to tackle it is to enable some of the brightest minds to pursue their most innovative ideas, in order to create opportunities for serendipitous discoveries.This is what the European Research Council is for.

“It’s clear that, if Europe is to be competitive globally, it needs to give excellent prospects to the next generation of researchers as these ERC Starting Grants do, and to invest much more in top blue sky research.”

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