Trinity researchers win prestigious European Research Council Starting Grants

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Three Trinity researchers – Dr Kenneth Silver, Dr Colm Delaney and Dr Elaine Corbett – have won prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant awards worth up to €5 million.

ERC awards support investigator-driven, frontier research across all fields and are awarded on the basis of scientific excellence. The Starting Grants support excellent Principal Investigators at the career stage at which they are starting their own independent research team or programme. Supporting five-year projects, these grants are among the most sought-after and competitive in the world of research.

Seven early-career researchers in Ireland have been awarded ERC Starting Grants this year. The three Trinity awardees are:

Dr Kenneth Silver, Trinity Business School, Centre for Social Innovation and Trinity Centre for Justice & Values has been awarded €1.37 million for the Project Corporate Moral Progress.

Dr Elaine Corbett, Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) and School of Psychology has been awarded €1.49 million for the Project MYODECISION – Neuromuscular-Cognitive Interactions in Sensorimotor Decision Making.

Dr Colm Delaney, School of Chemistry and AMBER has been awarded €1.5 million for Project BIO4D – Bioinspired Composite Architectures for Responsive 4Dimensional Photonics.

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ERC Grant winners – Paul Sharp Photographer.

Welcoming the awards, Dr Linda Doyle, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, said:

“I warmly congratulate Colm, Elaine and Kenneth on securing these highly competitive ERC Starting Grant awards. It is striking to see how each researcher is taking a strong interdisciplinary approach. The successful projects will combine philosophy and business, engineering and psychology, and chemistry and materials science respectively. This creativity will be key to tackling their ambitious research questions.

ERC Starting Grants come at a critical stage in a researcher’s career journey, enabling the establishment of a research group and paving the way to become a leader in their research field internationally.”

Speaking on the awards, Prof. Wolfgang Schmitt, Dean of Research at Trinity College, said:

“Congratulations to Colm, Elaine and Kenneth on the funding of these three extremely exciting projects. I am so impressed at their success the ERC evaluation process becomes more competitive each year. ERC awards are internationally recognized as a badge of research excellence, and it is fantastic to see not only success in Chemistry and Neuroscience which are areas where Trinity has a strong research community of ERC-funded projects, but also the first award (of hopefully many more) ERC award to a researcher in Trinity Business School which is quickly gaining a reputation for its innovative and vibrant research community.”

Trinity has consistently been the top Irish university for ERC awards since the inception of the programme.

In the ERC’s annual report of activities for 2021, Trinity was listed as the only Irish university to secure more than 30 ERC awards in the Horizon 2020 EU Research & Innovation Programme (2014-2020) and Drs Corbett, Delaney and Silver are now among 49 ERC funded investigators at Trinity since 2014.

The teams they recruit will join over 200 PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, research assistants, lab managers, technicians and other team members funded through ERC projects working at Trinity.

European Research Council Starting Grants Awardees

Dr Kenneth Silver – Project: Corporate Moral Progress

The modern corporation plays an enormous role both in the global economy and in society at large. However, as members of that society, we are often deeply ambivalent about the moral role that we think corporations should play. On one hand, we find ourselves blaming corporations for the bad effects of their businesses and wishing that they would behave better. On the other hand, we often despair at the uncertainty of whether they are capable of doing better.

This ambivalence is also reflected in a longstanding stalemate within the field of business ethics. Some there maintain that corporations have social obligations and should be held to the standard of meeting those obligations. And others argue that corporations themselves have no obligations or cannot be responsible for what they do.

Corporate Moral Progress (CMP) aims to answer the question of whether and how corporate moral progress is possible. To break through the stalemate within business ethics, CMP will bridge between business ethics, philosophy, and management scholarship to transcend our current understanding of what corporations are, how they make moral decisions, their position in society, and the greatest challenges to their incorporation into the moral community. By doing this, CMP will pursue concrete ways to improve corporations for good.

This funding will help to secure the time, resources, and profile to pursue some of the most challenging interdisciplinary social questions of our time. Large corporations are significant actors in society, and we want to hold them responsible for wrongdoing. But successfully doing this requires attention to detail and communication across the academy and society at large that is often absent. It requires making management scholars listen to metaphysics, developing concrete tools for managers, and earnestly considering what could satisfy our collective resentment for corporate wrongdoing.

Dr Kenneth Silver

Dr Elaine Corbett – Project: MYODECISION – Neuromuscular-Cognitive Interactions in Sensorimotor Decision Making

Successfully interacting with one’s environment requires a rich interplay of perceptual judgement and neuromuscular control, with each taking account of the other in real-time. Miscalculations in this accounting, as happens in demanding sensorimotor tasks (e.g. sports), cognitive and motor disorders, or age-related decline, can have serious consequences.

The Myodecision project will develop new decision-making paradigms to study how sensory and motor systems interact in the brain. With a combined brain-behaviour computational modelling approach, this project will investigate how people adjust sensorimotor processes to meet changing time and effort demands on their movements, and probe how these processes underpin dynamic changes of mind that rescue erroneous behaviours.

I am hugely excited and honoured to have received this award from the European Research Council, which now gives me an incredible opportunity to build a team of talented PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. We will develop new methods at the intersection of engineering, psychology, and neuroscience to probe how our brains enable interactions with our sensory environment.

I am fortunate to work with amazing mentors, colleagues, and students who have challenged, guided and inspired me through the past several years of research leading to this proposal. I am grateful to them and to my wonderful family for their unwavering support.

Dr Elaine Corbett

Dr Colm Delaney – Project: BIO4D – Bioinspired Composite Architectures for Responsive 4-Dimensional Photonics

For more than 500 million years, nature has perfected the harvesting of light and translating colour from natural organisms using dynamic structural colouration.

Through these hierarchical periodic structures, which interact with light, animals can efficiently camouflage, signal, mimic, and regulate temperature. Exploiting bioinspiration to recreate this synthetically would develop active encryption technologies, rapid-response chemical and biological sensors, and low-cost gas monitors.

The bioinspired approach of BIO4D exploits materials chemistry to harness dynamic and responsive structural colour, through the development of self-ordering nanoparticles (in place of guanine found in nature), synthesis of responsive materials (mimicking motor proteins and actin filaments), and programmed nanoscale 3D printing (yielding ordered and disordered superstructures).

Using this approach, it is possible to generate microscopic optical arrays that can respond to light, heat, vapour, or chemical analytes, to instantly camouflage and encrypt or to sense and diagnose.

This grant enables us to combine chemistry, materials science, and physics, to harness some exciting things that nature has been perfecting for millions of years. Not only can we use this information to understand exactly how nature achieves these optical sleights of hand, but it also enables us to develop new ways of encrypting information and fabricating low-cost biochemical sensors.

Dr Colm Delaney

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