Hebrew University Leads in 2023 ERC ‘Starting Grant’ Recipients

Hebrew University Leads in 2023 ERC ‘Starting Grant’ Recipients
6th September 2023 Moriah Aharon

The European Research Council (ERC), the grant fund of the European Union, has allocated 16.7 million euros (NIS 69 million) to support ten researchers from the Hebrew University with ‘Starting Grants.’ Each of these scholars will receive an individual grant ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 million euros, totaling 16,770,424 euros. The University stands out as the top-performing Israeli institution with the highest success rate in grant applications. Additionally, the University has witnessed a 5.5 percent increase in the number of grant recipients compared to 2022.

The following Hebrew University researchers have been selected as recipients of ERC grants: Professor Guy Katz of the School of Computer Science and Engineering; Dr. Shir Atzil of the Department of Psychology and head of the Neuroscience of Bonding Lab; Dr. Or (Michael) Hershkovits of the Einstein Institute of Mathematics; Dr. Daniel Sharon of the Institute of Chemistry and the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology; Dr. Tamar Stein of the Institute of Chemistry and the Fritz Haber Research Center for Molecular Dynamics; Dr. Michal Breker-Dekel of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the Institute of Life Sciences; Dr. Gali Umschweif-Nevo of the School of Pharmacy; Professor Noam Gidron of the Department of Political Science and PPE; Dr. Raunak Basu of ELSC; and Dr. Rivka Bekenstein of the Racah Institute of Physics.

ERC Starting Grants 2023

Read about the researchers and their work:

Professor Guy Katz is set to receive the grant for his pioneering research in the formal verification of deep neural networks. In recent years, the world of computer science has witnessed a profound transformation due to advancements in machine learning. The adoption of self-learning software, known as ‘deep neural networks,’ has become pervasive across diverse fields, consistently outperforming manually crafted software solutions. However, a substantial challenge hampers the integration of deep neural networks into critical systems: the lack of transparency regarding how these networks arrive at their conclusions. This opacity poses a barrier to ensuring the accuracy of their outputs. Professor Katz and his team are diligently working to develop systems capable of identifying errors within neural networks, should they occur, without the need for scrutinizing an impractical number of cases, as is currently the practice. This groundbreaking project aims to deliver a robust and reliable system for validating the correctness of extensive machine-learned systems. The outcome of this endeavor will not only safeguard the integrity of neural networks in critical applications but also unlock the full potential of the deep learning revolution for the benefit of human society.

Dr. Shir Atzil is set to receive the grant for her groundbreaking research into the biological and neural mechanisms underlying our attraction and attachment to specific individuals over others. Within her laboratory, Dr. Atzil delves into the intricate neural, biological, and behavioral processes that underpin profound human connections. Her investigations encompass the formation of parent-infant bonds and the dynamics of romantic love. Despite extensive research in recent years, the scientific community still grapples with the enigma of what drives social animals, including humans, to establish enduring and profound social bonds, as well as the reasons behind our preferences for certain partners. In her ERC-awarded research, Dr. Atzil proposes a novel mechanism for social bonding. Her work delves into the intricate interplay between fundamental physiological processes and the neural networks governing them, shedding light on the creation of bonds between parents and infants and unraveling the mysteries of romantic attraction and infatuation.

Dr. Or (Michael) Hershkovits is set to receive the grant for his pioneering research focused on exploring the properties and applications of mean curvature flow. Mean curvature flow is a mathematical phenomenon that induces the movement and transformation of planes in three-dimensional space, akin to the dispersion of heat. Over the past four decades, and notably since Grigori Perelman’s groundbreaking proof of the Poincaré conjecture using related mathematical tools, the study of mean curvature flow has emerged as a central field in modern geometry and the investigation of partial differential equations. One of the principal challenges in mathematically analyzing mean curvature flow lies in comprehending the ‘singularities’ it develops. These singularities offer insights into how shapes evolve just moments before their curvature approaches infinity. Within the scope of Dr. Hershkovits’ research proposal, there is a multifaceted program designed to delve deeper into understanding ‘generic’ singularities in the fourth dimension. This dimension presents a range of significant, unresolved geometric problems, some of which may find solutions through the application of mean curvature flow. Additionally, the research proposal explores the utility of mean curvature flow in cosmology. It offers mathematical insights into the future of an expanding universe and addresses questions related to the origin of cosmic inflation, using the power of mathematical analysis.

Dr. Daniel Sharon is set to receive the grant for his pioneering research in the precise control of unstable metal precipitation processes at the nanoscale, with the ultimate aim of advancing electrochemical systems for energy storage, notably solid-state rechargeable batteries. Presently, the most advanced rechargeable batteries rely on fluid electrolytes. The transition from fluid to solid-state electrolytes holds the promise of yielding safer and energy-dense batteries compared to current technologies. Dr. Sharon’s approach centers on harnessing ion-conductive materials with specific nanometric structures and effecting the shift from fluid to solid states. By mastering the control of metallic precipitation processes, this research envisions the creation of rechargeable batteries with significantly heightened energy density, thereby facilitating more accessible production methods. A pivotal aspect of this project involves the development of novel experimental techniques that enable real-time observation of the precipitation process, achieved through the utilization of high-resolution electron microscopy.

Dr. Tamar Stein is set to receive the grant for her research aimed at creating innovative tools for deciphering the intricate processes arising from the interaction between large molecules and radiation within the extreme conditions of outer space. The formation of molecules in space remains an enigmatic puzzle in contemporary science, with limited insights into the mechanisms responsible for generating molecules within the interstellar medium. Addressing this profound mystery necessitates an interdisciplinary approach that combines astronomical observations, laboratory experiments simulating extreme space conditions, and theoretical calculations. These calculations play a pivotal role in unraveling chemical processes, facilitating the interpretation of observations and experimental data. Despite the advanced state of theoretical chemistry, it currently falls short in describing light-saturated processes within larger molecules, posing a significant impediment to our understanding of astrochemistry. The tools developed through Dr. Stein’s research promise to propel computational chemistry and astrochemistry to new heights, enabling a more profound comprehension of the chemistry unfolding in the cosmos.

Dr. Michal Breker-Dekel is set to be awarded the grant for her research aimed at uncovering the intricate molecular mechanisms involved in protein delivery to the chloroplast, a vital organelle central to life on Earth, where critical processes like photosynthesis occur. The chloroplast’s protein composition profoundly influences its functionality. Despite its pivotal role, our understanding of the identification, delivery, and insertion processes of chloroplast proteins remains limited. To tackle this challenge, Dr. Breker-Dekel will pioneer innovative genetic and microscopic scanning methods focused on the single-celled microalgae Chlamydomonas. These methods will serve as a significant technological leap forward, offering valuable insights for future lab projects. The outcomes of this research will provide a fertile ground for technological innovation and hold the potential to enhance the efficiency of photosynthetic and metabolic systems in plants in the future.

Dr. Gali Umschweif-Nevo is set to be awarded the grant for her groundbreaking research into the biological processes underlying the comorbidity of depression and anxiety. Anxiety and depression are prevalent psychiatric disorders that inflict considerable suffering on individuals and their communities. It is common for both conditions to co-occur, with depression often emerging after an initial diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Notably, these disorders are predominantly treated with the same medications, indicating a shared biological basis, though the precise biological cause of this comorbidity remains elusive. Dr. Umschweif-Nevo’s research will scrutinize the essential biological processes implicated in both depression and anxiety, employing unique tools to focus on specific groups of neurons with the potential to serve as natural anti-anxiety mechanisms. This investigation is expected to unveil novel neuronal mechanisms underpinning both depressive and anxious disorders, as well as the innate processes for anxiety reduction. These findings will provide fertile ground for the development of innovative and effective psychiatric medications that target these mechanisms and the neurons responsible for their activation.

Professor Noam Gidron is set to be awarded the grant for his research investigating how national identities influence the political polarization observed in contemporary Western states, and whether these identities can serve as a unifying factor among citizens with opposing political views. While it may appear that political polarization reflects a growing divide between individuals strongly attached to their national identities and those who distance themselves from such affiliations, empirical data suggests a different reality. Many individuals from both ends of the political and social spectrum share a belief in the significance of national identity. Professor Gidron’s research introduces a fresh perspective, suggesting that the polarization evident in today’s political landscape does not necessarily hinge on the strength of national identities but rather on the different interpretations of national identity. Furthermore, the way individuals construe their own national identity has implications for various political positions. To investigate the connection between polarization and national identities, this research will employ an extensive analysis of surveys and political discourse from both the general public and public representatives in eight Western countries. The outcomes promise to enhance our understanding of the fault lines within our polarized political landscape.

Dr. Raunak Basu is set to be awarded the grant for his research focused on unraveling the processes underlying spatial decision-making in the brain, a fundamental aspect of human and natural behavior. Despite its omnipresence, the mechanisms governing spatial decision-making remain poorly understood, both at the behavioral and neural levels. Dr. Basu’s research is rooted in the hypothesis that the brain, prior to making a decision, constructs ‘task-relevant cognitive maps.’ These maps encapsulate the environment and all pertinent information essential for the impending decision-making process. These cognitive maps are then employed to assess and compare potential options, ultimately leading to a decision. To identify the neural regions responsible for representing these cognitive maps, various decision-making scenarios will be studied using laboratory animals. To accomplish this, the research team will employ specialized recording systems capable of capturing and encoding the activity of hundreds of neurons across multiple brain areas during decision-making processes.

Dr. Rivka Bekenstein is set to receive the grant for her pioneering research in the development of innovative quantum metamaterials tailored for quantum information processing. These materials hold the promise of addressing one of contemporary physics’ most profound challenges: the realization of practical quantum technology systems, including quantum computing and communication. During her post-doctoral tenure at Harvard University, Dr. Bekenstein laid the foundations for these metamaterials, demonstrating the feasibility of using arrays of atoms to manipulate the states of individual photons, thereby harnessing them as quantum bits (qubits). Her current research team is actively engaged in fabricating these materials and exerting control over them by constructing arrays of novel quantum particles with exceptional photosensitivity. Their interdisciplinary approach combines experimental techniques like quantum control, low-temperature physics, and nanophotonics with theoretical and computational tools encompassing atomic physics, optics, and quantum information theory. Collaborating closely with Harvard University, this research aims to culminate in the development of a singular chip capable of processing quantum information using photons and cutting-edge quantum particles, a significant stride towards realizing the potential of quantum technology.”

Alongside the recipients of the 2023 grants, Dr. Neta Shlezinger from the Faculty of Agriculture, has been honoured for her research proposal within the reserve program of the ERC Starting Grants for 2022. Dr. Shlezinger’s research delves into the realm of mycoviruses, exploring their impact on the physiology of pathogenic fungi, the mechanisms of pathogenesis, and the responses elicited by the host’s immune system. Her proposal seeks to unravel the intricate interplay between these viruses and fungi, shedding light on how fungal viruses influence the virulence of the fungus, our immune system’s response, and ultimately, whether a disease will manifest. This study reveals that fungal viruses contribute to the pathogenicity of fungi in humans, enhancing their virulence and aggressiveness. The findings are poised to pave the way for the development of novel antifungal medications and diagnostic tools with far-reaching implications for public health, agriculture, and wildlife conservation.