NWO: TU/e, Leiden Institute of Chemistry and AMOLF researchers talk about their research using Veni grant

The Hague, 05-Sep-2017 — /EuropaWire/ — Researchers Koen Hendriks (Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, TU/e), Thanja Lamberts (Leiden Institute of Chemistry) and Cristina Martinez Torres (AMOLF) talk about their planned research, using the Veni grant they have recently been awarded, how they got to where they are now, and those for whom their research is important.

Koen Hendriks

What went through your mind when you heard you had been awarded a Veni?
I was deliriously happy! And, at the same time, relieved that the long wait was over. The application procedure for the Veni is quite protracted. There are long periods of time between the application, the interview and the outcome. Despite the wait, I am extremely happy that the committee saw merit in my proposal and gave me the opportunity to actually carry out the research.

What type of research do you do?
I work on a new type of flow battery that should make it possible to store solar energy and wind energy on a large scale and in a sustainable manner. These batteries are based on organic molecules that can be charged either positively or negatively. This makes the batteries much simpler and more robust than existing technology.

How did you get to where you are?
My focus is the interface of organic chemistry and energy. In particular, it was the role that organic molecules can play in current energy issues that drew my interest. During my PhD programme, I worked on new materials for plastic solar cells. The molecules I used then are good at generating energy, but I think that they would also be very well suited to energy storage. That is what I plan to investigate further.

What are your plans?
During my Veni research, I would like to identify the features that make molecules suitable for use in flow batteries. I want to start by developing new basic principles that describe the relationships between the chemical structure of molecules and their ability to store energy. I also want to use these materials in prototype flow batteries that can be scaled up reasonably easily. My ultimate dream is to establish a research group to investigate organic systems that are highly efficient at both generating and storing energy in chemical bonds.

For whom is your research important?
I think the research in this initial phase will mainly be of theoretical importance. I hope that, at a later stage, the chemistry and technology we develop will find an application in the energy sector, for the large-scale storage of energy. This will ultimately be necessary to make the transition to entirely sustainable energy from sun and wind a reality. This would – in my view – be a good move for society as a whole.

Thanja Lamberts

What went through your mind when you heard you had been awarded a Veni?
It was slightly unclear to me exactly when and how I would find out about the outcome. Nervousness probably meant that I did not pay enough attention after the interview. I have, therefore, been checking the NWO website several times a day since 20 July. When I received the email on 26 July, I felt a weight fall from my shoulders.

What type of research do you do?
I study chemical reactions that take place at the surface of dust particles in cold regions of the interstellar medium. As a consequence of the low temperatures, these dust particles are covered in a thin layer of ice that contains a mixture of molecules. Question is, which portion of the reaction products – of reactions that, in principle, generate a lot of heat – evaporates at the surface of the ice into space? And just as important: what are the underlying mechanisms?

What inspired you to choose this field?
There were two parts to my PhD studies at the Leiden Observatory, one experimental and one theoretical. The experimental part had to be carried out in Leiden and the theoretical part in Nijmegen, where I had studied previously. This was therefore a wonderful way for me to combine the different universities, people and research methods. And I still very much enjoy this interdisciplinarity.

What are your plans?
During my Veni, I hope to rapidly familiarize myself with the new techniques in Leiden and to supervise students, in addition to carrying out my own research. Furthermore, I work primarily at the Department of Theoretical Chemistry, with Jörg Meyer, but I hope to establish a good working relationship with the Leiden Observatory, which is just a five-minute walk away. Finally, I look forward to giving further lectures to local astronomical societies.

For whom is your research important?
This research is primarily important to astronomers. With the development of new telescopes, we often observe molecules in previously unexpected quantities. When surface reactions lead to the evaporation of reaction products, we are then able to observe them in the gaseous phase. So I am actually carrying out fundamental research that has an application in another major branch of astronomy – research into the history of the solar system.

Cristina Martinez Torres

What was your first reaction when you heard you had been awarded the Veni grant?
It was really exciting and a big relief. This had been weighing on my mind for the past six months. As I was reaching the end of my current contract, there was additional pressure. I was certainly delighted when I received the news that I had been awarded such a prestigious grant. I immediately called my family in Mexico! Though a bit sleepy, they were very happy too.

What type of research do you do?
I work on experimental biophysics. I study the mechanical response of a biomaterial called fibrin, and its interaction with cells enclosed within it. I try to understand how these biological hydrogels respond to mechanical stimuli, and what prompts this response. Although my research is fundamental rather than applied, one possible application is the design of smart biomaterials that can be used as scaffolds in tissue engineering. We are cooperating on this with the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Erasmus MC and Fibriant (a biotech company).

How did you proceed in applying for your Veni?
I put a great amount of effort into making the proposed study into a well-rounded project. Starting with a novel idea, I proved how realistic it is by collecting preliminary data, and establishing future collaborations for the ‘real-world’ with industrial and clinical partners. Furthermore, I received excellent feedback from my colleagues during the various steps of the application procedure.

What do you plan to do with the Veni grant?
This Veni grant will allow me to delve deeply into the hitherto unexplored physics of blood clot stability. Blood clots play a crucial role in haemostasis and wound healing, providing a seal to prevent blood loss and a temporary extracellular matrix into which cells can migrate and grow. Our quantitative physics approach means this study will help us understand how this ‘seal’ modifies its response to fit the specific need.

Who will ultimately benefit from your research?
Due to fibrin’s biocompatibility and natural functions in wound healing, fibrin sealants are widely used in clinical applications, to stop bleeding or to seal injured tissue during surgery. By providing a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms that regulate the clot lifespan, my research will be of particular relevance for the design of clinical products employed in wound healing.




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