Eight Wallenberg Academy Fellows to Stockholm University
Of the 31 younger prominent researchers who are appointed Wallenberg Academy Fellows this year, eight are nominated by Stockholm University. Among other things, they do research on methane in the Arctic seabed and how we can make decisions about potential disasters.
Knut and Alice Wallenberg's foundation appoints 31 Wallenberg Academy Fellows this year. Eight of the young outstanding researchers who are granted these prestigious funds are active at, or will start at, Stockholm University. Depending on the subject area, the funds cover between SEK 6.5 and 15.6 million per researcher over five years. After the end of the first period, it is possible to apply for another five years of financing.
With eight granted Wallenberg Academy Fellows, Stockholm University becomes the university that has been granted the most Wallenberg Academy Fellows in a single year over the years.
The researchers at Stockholm University who will be the 2023 Wallenberg Academy Fellows are Read more below):
- Birgit Wild, Department of Environmental Science, Stockholm University
- Foivos Perakis, Department of Physics, Stockholm University
- Jessica Stephenson, University of Pittsburgh, USA (Stockholm University)
- Azadeh Fattahi, Durham University, UK (Stockholm University)
- Ilaria Piazza, Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, Germany (Stockholm University)
- Mika Sipponen, Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry, Stockholm University
- Orri Stefánsson, Department of Philosophy at Stockholm University and the Institute for Future Studies and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study
- Mateja Hajdinjak, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, (Stockholm University)
Wallenberg Academy Fellows
The grant was announced for the first time in 2012 after the program was established in collaboration with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and 16 Swedish universities. Depending on the subject area, the grant covers between SEK 6.5 and 15.6 million per researcher over five years. After the end of the first period, it is possible to apply for another five years of financing. The grant accommodates research in the natural sciences, medicine, technology and humanities as well as social sciences. Including this year's cohort, totally 261 young researchers, 46 percent of whom are women, have been appointed Wallenberg Academy Fellows.
Read more about Wallenberg Academy Fellows
How much methane is hidden in the Arctic’s frozen soil?
There are frozen masses of soil below the shallow Arctic Ocean, in a state called subsea permafrost. These masses contain huge amounts of organic material and methane, but no one knows exactly how much. Wallenberg Academy Fellow Birgit Wild will explore how much methane could be released into the atmosphere as the oceans warm and permafrost thaws.
Foto: Stella Papadopoulou
The permafrost below the Arctic formed during the last ice age and now functions like a lid, holding in large amounts of methane and organic material. However, as the climate warms, the permafrost will thaw and methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, will seep into the atmosphere.
Because underwater permafrost can thaw rapidly it is a “tipping point” that may drastically change the climate, but we do not know exactly how much methane could be released into the atmosphere. To find out, Dr Birgit Wild from Stockholm University will investigate how much methane gas is encapsulated in the underwater permafrost in a project called SuPerTip.
As the subsea permafrost thaws, microbes can also start to produce new methane from the organic material, although there are microbes that oxidize methane gas into carbon dioxide, a milder form of greenhouse gas. An important element of Birgits Wild’s project is thus to find out how much methane there may be in the thawing soil. The knowledge she obtains will be important to the UN’s climate forecasts.
How do biomolecules behave in the cell’s cramped environment?
The inside of a cell is packed with proteins, RNA, and other biomolecules. Researchers have discovered that this crowding in the cell results in a kind of condensate of biomolecules, like small molecular droplets, which appear to be important for the cell’s function. Wallenberg Academy Fellow Foivos Perakis will investigate these condensates to better understand how they work.
Foto: Patrik Lundin
Cells can be described as extremely advanced chemical factories. To separate different processes, it is divided into rooms – organelles – with walls made from a fatty membrane. Within the organelles and their membranes, different biomolecules accumulate and work together to drive chemical processes.
Researchers once believed that proteins and other biomolecules float around relatively freely between the organelles, but it is now clear that the congestion in the cell means they can be packed together as membraneless droplets called biomolecular condensates.
These biomolecular condensates appear to play a key role in cell function. To learn more about how they work, Dr Foivos Perakis at Department of Physics, Stockholm University will develop a kind of microdroplet reactor, which can stimulate how the condensates form. He will then visualize the dynamics of the biomolecules in the condensate using extremely intense X-rays from new X-ray sources, such as MAX IV in Lund and the European XFEL in Hamburg.
The knowledge generated by Foivos Perakis will be fundamental to our understanding of how cells function, and could provide new insights into the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
How does animals’ social behavior affect the development of epidemics?
When humans or animals are infected by a virus or another parasite, their behavior influences whether and how an epidemic develops. But how does our behavior influence the emergence and evolution of epidemics? To answer this question, Wallenberg Academy Fellow Jessica Stephenson will study the dynamics between guppy fish and their parasites.
For a parasite to transfer from one host animal to another, these host animals must have some form of contact. Accordingly, social creatures such as humans are more often affected by epidemics than solitary animals but, during an epidemic, social hosts may interact less. This will slow the epidemic’s progress and lower the risk of the parasite becoming more infectious and more harmful.
A host animal’s social behavior therefore influences the development of an epidemic, but our knowledge in this field is still very rudimentary. To improve our understanding of how deadly parasites evolve, Dr Jessica Stephenson from the University of Pittsburgh, USA, is studying guppy fish. She is investigating how parasites spread and evolve in guppy populations with different social behaviors and, in turn, how the guppies respond to the parasites. Hopefully, the knowledge generated by the project will help us better manage future infectious diseases, in animals including humans.
As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Jessica Stephenson will work at Stockholm University.
Will simulate dwarf galaxies and the universe’s dark matter
The unknown matter in the universe, which researchers call dark matter, is particularly abundant in ultra-faint dwarf galaxies. To get an idea of what this dark matter actually is, Wallenberg Academy Fellow Azadeh Fattahi will develop advanced computer simulations of how these dwarf galaxies form and evolve.
Foto: Patrik Lundin
Researchers know that there is dark matter in the universe because its gravity affects stars and galaxies. According to current models, galaxies are formed in the center of an expansive accumulation – a halo – of dark matter. In the smallest galaxies, dwarf galaxies, the mass is dominated by such a halo of dark matter; some dwarf galaxies have a thousand times more dark matter than visible matter.
To better understand the nature of dark matter, Dr Azadeh Fattahi from Durham University, UK, will develop extremely advanced simulations of how ultra-faint dwarf galaxies form in a dark matter halo. The aim is for the simulation to have a resolution that is 100 times better than previous simulations of dwarf galaxies.
Azadeh Fattahi will then use the simulation to explore galaxies and dark matter. For example, she will test giving the dark matter different properties, investigating how these influence the formation of the galaxy and how the simulation results correspond to real observations. One hope is for the simulations to provide such a good picture of the universe that she will be able to predict the location of dwarf galaxies so faint that we have not yet discovered them.
As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Azadeh Fattahi will work at Stockholm University.
Will map how single substances control cell metabolism
Most of the chemical events in a cell are driven by proteins. Wallenberg Academy Fellow Ilaria Piazza will map how different substances in cells – such as amino acids – can switch proteins on and off. The aim is to gain a deeper understanding of how cells can rapidly adapt their metabolism when conditions change.
Foto: Patrik Lundin
Proteins can be described as the cells’ labour force: they break down the food we eat and generate energy; they produce various building blocks, signalling substances and hormones; they regulate the expression of genes; and copy the genome when the cell is about to divide, to provide just a few examples.
Protein activity is regulated to ensure they do not overproduce a substance, but only do what the cell needs right then. For example, individual substances – such as amino acids, vitamins or hormones – may bind to proteins, changing their shape and switching them on or off.
However, researchers have struggled to identify exactly which substances in the cell control different proteins’ activities, but Dr Ilaria Piazza from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin has developed a smart method called LiP-MS. Using it, she can determine on a large scale which proteins are regulated by fumarate, for example, a molecule in the citric acid cycle, or the amino acid glutamate.
The fundamental knowledge of cellular metabolism gained by Ilaria Piazza could contribute to the development of more targeted drugs, among other things. As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, she will work at Stockholm University.
Will create living materials for water purification and carbon fixation
Microorganisms have an amazing ability to drive chemical processes, so researchers have begun to encapsulate them in functional materials. Wallenberg Academy Fellow Mika Sipponen will try to get microbes to thrive in lignin, a waste product from the wood industry. The aim is to produce useful materials with the capacity to do things like purify water or fix carbon dioxide.
Foto: Patrik Lundin
There is an incredible variety of microbes on Earth – algae, yeast cells, fungi and bacteria – that can drive a wide range of advanced chemical processes. In addition to trying to mimic these chemical processes, scientists have started to encapsulate these microbes in what they call living hybrid materials. They have embedded bacteria that can form calcium carbonate in concrete to improve its durability, for example.
As part of a research program called LignoLife, Dr Mika Sipponen at Stockholm University will investigate whether it is possible to use lignin – a by-product of the pulp and paper industry – as a basis for living hybrid materials. Lignin is cheap and, because it is naturally present in wood, there is a good chance that microbes could thrive in this type of material.
Mika Sipponen will primarily work with microalgae, yeast, and filamentous fungi. Among other things, he hopes to develop materials that can produce enzymes for water purification and fat degradation, as well as carbon fixation. The project has a great deal of potential for producing materials that can contribute to a more sustainable world.
How should we make decisions about potential catastrophes?
Humanity risks being affected by a range of catastrophes, such as devastating climate change, nuclear war, deadly pandemics, and bioterrorism. How can we deal with these risks in a rational and ethically responsible manner? Wallenberg Academy Fellow Orri Stefánsson will examine this question.
Foto: Patrik Lundin
How great is the probability that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine will turn into nuclear war? This is one example of a question that is important for humanity, but which is also very difficult to answer.
Orri Stefánsson, professor at Stockholm University and researcher both at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study and Institute for Futures Studies, investigates how we can assess risk and manage potential catastrophes in a more rational manner. He develops tools that can help us by combining methods and theories from three areas of philosophy – decision theory, epistemology and ethics – with statistics, economics and political theory.
One of the central issues is which principles to use when making decisions about catastrophes. Many people believe we should base them upon the precautionary principle. But what does that actually entail? Orri Stefánsson will also investigate how we can determine probability for risks that are extremely difficult to evaluate, as well as how we should consider the value of protecting ourselves from irreparable damage – what is it that makes irreparable damage a bad thing? The aim is to make us better able to deal with all the challenges humanity is facing.
What was the relationship between neandertals and early Homo sapiens?
When the first humans migrated from Africa to Europe, they encountered neandertals. Wallenberg Academy Fellow Mateja Hajdinjak will map DNA from ancient skeletons around Europe, to try to understand how different populations of Homo sapiens and neandertals interacted, and which of them left traces in our DNA.
Foto: Patrik Lundin
Genetic archaeologists have become increasingly able to isolate genetic material from prehistoric humans. They have even succeeded in sequencing DNA from people who lived in Europe 30–50,000 years ago: eight neandertals and seventeen Homo sapiens. The mapping shows that some of the early groups of Homo sapiens are our ancestors, while other groups had no impact on our DNA. Several Homo sapiens also carry neandertal traces in their DNA, but researchers have not yet discovered the opposite.
To better understand how Homo sapiens and neandertals interacted before the neandertals died out, Dr Mateja Hajdinjak, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, will map DNA from more prehistoric humans. She will isolate DNA from remnants of human bone found at 27 different archaeological sites in Europe and Asia. The aim is to investigate whether there were different species of neandertals and Homo sapiens, how close the contact was between them and which of them left traces in modern humans’ DNA. She also hopes to be able to find genetic explanations for why neandertals died out.
As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Mateja Hajdinjak will work at Stockholm University.
Last updated: November 29, 2023
Source: Communications Office