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Grants for the Best
August 29, 2012   
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Preventing hacker attacks; overcoming cancer by cracking the genetic code; building a global network of telescopes to observe the sky all day long—young Polish scientists believe that all this is possible, and have secured financial support for their research from the European Research Council (ERC). They have also obtained additional funding from the Foundation for Polish Science’s Ideas for Poland program.

Funds from the Ideas for Poland program are available to researchers with ERC Starting Grants. In recent years three Polish researchers, Maciej Konacki, Stefan Dziembowski and Marcin Nowotny, have won ERC Starting Grants and followed up with funding from the Foundation for Polish Science.

ERC Starting Grants are intended for basic, curiosity-driven research, says Dziembowski, who obtained his ERC grant in 2010 while working in Rome. He subsequently returned to Poland bringing the grant with him. “The things we are working on now may be applied in practice no earlier than 20 years from now,” he says. “Our goal is new ideas, not patents.”

Dziembowski’s research field is cryptography. He is carrying out his project at the Faculty of Mathematics of the University of Warsaw.

Cryptography provides encryption systems for devices such as credit cards and car remotes, Dziembowski explains. In practice, it is difficult to construct a device that does not leak any information outside, for example through electromagnetic radiation, or data on power consumption. Therefore, people designing encryption systems must assume that outsiders may obtain partial information about the code, because it is not completely secret, Dziembowski says. He wants to develop systems that are resistant to hacker attacks by combing cryptography with computer science and algorithmic tools.

Most of the known codes can be cracked by reviewing all possible combinations, Dziembowski says. But such an attack is inefficient because it takes too much time, he adds. All these issues related to cryptography are at the heart of the project Dziembowski is carrying out using the funds he has received from the ERC.

Nowotny, a researcher from the Protein Structure Laboratory at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw, is researching the mechanisms of DNA repair. His research as part of the ERC Starting Grant aims to uncover important facts about DNA repair pathways. DNA disorders in humans lead to diseases including cancer.

“The code for every living organism is stored in the DNA,” says Nowotny, who secured his ERC Starting Grant in 2011. When the genetic material of a cell is disturbed, there are mutations and changes in the genetic code. They lead to disturbances in different processes in cells and to uncontrolled growth and consequently the formation of tumors.

“Cancer cells are often unable to repair the DNA,” Nowotny says. “Many anticancer drugs damage the DNA, and when the cancer cell cannot handle that, it dies. Exploring these processes is very important for work on new drugs and treatments.”

Konacki’s Solaris project aims to open a new frontier in the hunt for extrasolar planets. The main aim of the project is to detect what are called circumbinary planets around a sample of up to 350 eclipsing binary stars using methods such as eclipse timing and precision radial velocities. Another goal is to study binary stars with an unprecedented precision to test the stellar structure and evolution theories.

To test such hypotheses, researchers need to make extremely accurate measurements of the basic properties of the stars, such as weight, size and chemical composition. In the Solaris project, such measurements will be possible thanks to data from a network of four 0.5-meter robotic telescopes on three continents—in Australia, South Africa and South America. Two of these telescopes are already operating in South Africa, and the other two will be launched in Australia and Argentina by the end of 2012. This will enable observations around the clock as part of the network. The telescopes will be activated automatically every night. After the end of each round of observations, computers will transmit data via the internet to Poland.

The project team consists of Prof. Maciej Konacki (primary investigator), Krzysztof Hełminiak (post doc), and Ph.D. students Stanisław Kozłowski, Milena Ratajczak and Piotr Sybilski.

The researchers are searching for circumbinary planets, which means planets that orbit two stars instead of one, utilizing a new method called eclipse timing.

The project is named after a 1961 science fiction novel by acclaimed Polish writer Stanisław Lem, who described a planetary system with two suns instead of one. The title of the book became an inspiration for the Polish research project, under which a network of modern, remote-controlled telescopes that allow 24-hour observations of the sky is being established.

In addition to the grant from the ERC, Konacki has received zl.100,000 from the Foundation for Polish Science as well as funds from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education and the National Science Center.

The European Research Council was established in 2007 under the European Union’s 7th Framework Program. It aims to stimulate, support and finance scientific research across the EU.

According to Nowotny, ERC Starting Grants are the best research grants available in Europe, both financially and in terms of prestige. They are flexible and “follow the researcher” if he or she changes the institution in which they work. A researcher with such a grant is attractive on the labor market and can count on job offers from different employers, Nowotny says. One of the aims of the Foundation for Polish Science’s Ideas for Poland program is to keep ERC grant recipients from leaving Poland.

Konacki says the Ideas for Poland program encourages grant recipients to remain in the country or return from foreign centers to conduct their research in Poland. “Support from the Ideas for Poland program run by the Foundation for Polish Science completely changes their financial situation; someone who gets this money will probably not be thinking of carrying out research funded by their grant working in a foreign institution,” Konacki says.

Karolina Olszewska
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