Researchers awarded three ERC Advanced Grants

Quantum physicists Francesca Ferlaino and Hans Briegel and biochemist Kathrin Thedieck each receive an ERC Advanced Grant. A total of more than 7 million euros will be invested in basic research in Innsbruck. For Francesca Ferlaino, it is already the third ERC grant after a Starting Grant (2010) and a Consolidator Grant (2016).

The European Research Council (ERC) awards ERC Advanced Grants to established top scientists for their outstanding scientific research. They receive up to 2.5 million euros over a period of five years as funding for their basic research. Today, the ERC announced in Brussels that Francesca Ferlaino, Kathrin Thedieck and Hans Briegel from the University of Innsbruck, Austria, will receive this prestigious award. They will conduct research on new systems for quantum matter simulation, control of mTOR-dependent metabolic processes, and models for AI-driven quantum experiments. “The ERC Advanced Grant is the highest award for accomplished scientists in the EU. The fact that no less than three of our researchers are receiving this million-dollar funding today makes me very proud,” Rector Tilmann Märk is pleased to say. “A total of eight such Advanced Grant awards in the past five years impressively underline the very successful development in top-level research at the University of Innsbruck.”

Francesca Ferlaino

With the help of ultracold gases, quantum phenomena can be specifically controlled and investigated in the laboratory. Francesca Ferlaino has pioneered the use of a new class of atomic species, rare earth metals, to induce many-body quantum phenomena, which have no counterpart in other systems. Rare-earth metals are the most magnetic elements in the periodic table. Each behaves like an atomic magnet, and “a million of these tiny magnets can create dipolar gases with unique properties”, says the physicist. Together with her team (www.erbium.at), she demonstrated in 2012 the first Bose-Einstein condensation of erbium and later created Erbium-Dysprosium mixtures. Very recently, her group was able to access quantum phenomena that long-awaited demonstration in laboratories, such as a special minimum in the excitation energy, called after Landau roton, and, simultaneously with two other groups, a novel phase of matter called supersolidity. “Our aim is now to go even further with rare-earth condensates, and using also their internal structure and degrees of freedom”, says Francesca Ferlaino.

In her ERC project, the researcher now aims to push the limits of interaction control using tailored optical potentials and Rydberg excitations, as well as state read-out through the application of quantum-gas-microscopy techniques. “We will harness the multi-valance-electron nature of magnetic lanthanides to create the next generation of quantum simulators, which promises enhanced capabilities otherwise not accessible”, says the awardee.

Francesca Ferlaino is an Italian physicist, born in Naples, currently a professor for atomic physics at the Department of Experimental Physics of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and scientific director at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She has received many awards and is now the recipient of her third ERC grant, following a Starting Grant (2010) and a Consolidator Grant (2016).

Kathrin Thedieck

The protein mTOR controls virtually all metabolic processes in cells and organisms and is a key therapeutic target in aging-associated diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. mTOR is at the center of a complex cellular signaling and metabolic network. In response to growth factors, nutrients, energy, and stress, mTOR promotes metabolic processes that control cell growth and differentiation. But how are specific metabolic responses to different metabolic signals mediated? Kathrin Thedieck’s research centers upon this question. Recently, she and her team observed that proteins from so-called stress granules interact with mTOR beyond stress and control mTOR-dependent metabolic processes. With her BEYOND STRESS project, she is investigating this phenomenon and its significance for the functions of healthy cells and in tumors.

Kathrin Thedieck is Professor and Head of the Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Innsbruck. She is Honorary Professor at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) and faculty member at the University of Oldenburg (Germany). Her research group investigates the regulation of metabolism by complex signaling networks to study fundamental cellular mechanisms of metabolic signal transduction by experiments and systems modeling (www.metabolic-signaling.eu). Kathrin Thedieck has received many awards and coordinates the European breast cancer consortium MESI-STRAT (www.mesi-strat.eu).

Hans Briegel

Machine learning is already employed in different areas of physics, mostly for big data processing and classification. But the development of artificial intelligence (AI) is heading much further and is likely to transform basic science in the near future. “In our ERC project, we will investigate the use of AI in basic research, focusing on quantum physics and, more specifically, quantum information,” says theoretical physicist Hans Briegel (www.uibk.ac.at/th-physik/qic-group). He has pioneered research in the fields of quantum computing and quantum communication. Among other achievements, he is co-inventor of the one-way quantum computer, which several companies worldwide are currently working to realize. In his ERC project Briegel plans to develop models of artificial agency which are beneficial for basic research. “The models we develop will facilitate applications for AI-driven quantum experiments and scientific discovery.” These models can be used in future hybrid laboratories where human researchers will interact with AI assistant systems. On the foundational side, Hans Briegel will investigate quantum agents and the role of agency in quantum theory. This will also address questions regarding the explainability of quantum-enhanced AI.

Hans Briegel is a professor at the Department of Theoretical Physics at the University of Innsbruck and also has longstanding collaborations with philosophers at the University of Konstanz. His research group explores fundamental concepts in quantum mechanics and statistical physics and their applications to information processing. Current research interests focus on the problem of learning and artificial intelligence in quantum experiments, on quantum machine learning, and on collective behavior in biological systems.

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