No fewer than four Rubicon grants to TU/e people

Never before have so many TU/e researchers been awarded a Rubicon grant in the same round. Four of the seventeen proposals approved came from our university. The recipients are Valentina Mazzoli, René Lafleur, Wouter Engelen and Mani Diba. Their grants will enable them to head for Stanford University, the University of Melbourne, the Technical University of Munich and Rice University in Houston, respectively.

photo Shutterstock / Brigit Span

René Lafleur - who obtained his doctorate at the Department of Biomedical Engineering in November - hopes to move in April to the University of Melbourne for a two-year period. “Winning this Rubicon grant creates a fabulous opportunity to do groundbreaking research abroad.”

“The research I'm going to do has been inspired by materials found in nature, like the bones in our body. While these are lightweight, they are also very strong. This is due to the interaction between the various layers in the material. In my research I'm going to make materials that likewise have a layered structure, achieved by smartly combining two very different molecular building blocks: peptides and polyphenols. Afterwards I will study how I can control the interactions between the layers by making minor adjustments to these molecules. This could lead to a whole new generation of hybrid materials, which, for example, we could make stronger or weaker by making changes at the molecular level.”

Perfect match

The expertise of the team at the University of Melbourne in which Lafleur will be doing his research is, he says, unsurpassed globally when it comes to making materials using polyphenols. “They are working on both gaining a better understanding of these materials and on new applications. Which makes the team a perfect match for the research I want to do. In addition, they have the very latest equipment for studying materials like these since making and characterizing sophisticated materials is a primary theme throughout their chemistry department.” Lafleur will be able to stay in Melbourne for two years thanks to the Rubicon grant. “And after my time there I want to carry on developing new materials by doing fundamental research. I am convinced that huge opportunities lie ahead with an approach focused on the molecular scale, and at a later stage I want to further explore and develop these ideas with my own research team.”

Testing muscles in MRI

Valentina Mazzoli had already been working as a postdoc at the Department of Radiology at Stanford Medical Center for a few months when she heard she would be getting the Rubicon grant. “I couldn't believe it. I had to read the mail a couple of times before the good news sank in.”

Her research aims to map the system of human skeletal muscles. “I am chiefly interested in being able to see the function and structure of skeletal muscles in a noninvasive way. The length of the sarcomeres (functional unit of striated muscle tissue, ed.) is an important parameter for muscle function because it allows muscles to contract and to generate power. In many pathologies the length of the sarcomeres is compromised. It is difficult, however, to build a picture of this in vivo. Thanks to the Rubicon grant I can use new MRI methods to research the length of sarcomeres in vivo and noninvasively.”

“I'm already completely smitten with campus life here and with Silicon Valley. Thanks to this grant I can continue working on my project until 2020, using the fantastic facilities Stanford Medical Center has to offer.”

“My dream is to get a job in the administration of one of Europe's best universities, but I don't yet know where that will be. It would be fantastic to be able to come back to Eindhoven some day.”

Motor on nanometer scale

Having gained his PhD at the Department of Biomedical Engineering in mid-October 2018, Wouter Engelen embarked on a postdoc at the Technical University of Munich. “In consultation with my current supervisor, Professor Hendrik Dietz, I submitted a Rubicon research proposal at the end of August.”

Thanks to the grant he can spend two years working on his research at TUM. “Of course, at the personal level it is also confirmation that my research is valued by the scientific community,” he says.

“Throughout my doctoral research I followed the work of the Dietz Lab with interest and I spoke to Professor Dietz and a number of members of his group at conferences. Last year I applied for this postdoc position.”

“In my research I use the ‘DNA origami’ technique to make very precise objects at the nanometer scale. In DNA origami, various DNA strands are coded in such a way that they assemble themselves into a pre-designed shape. I am making use of this technique to create a motor at the nanometer scale.”

Nano particles for regenerative medicine

A postdoc at ICMS, Mani Diba researches materials that encourage tissue regeneration. Regenerative medicine thus, the major advantage of which is that the body does not reject the new tissue. “In my Rubicon project I'll be using nano particles to 3D-print biomaterials that repair our bodies. I'll be looking at this as a general concept as well as focusing on blood vessels,” says Diba. Ultimately his research could be used in very many branches of regenerative medicine. “I see my work as being my hobby; there's nothing nicer, is there, than being able to use your hobby to help society.”

Thanks to the Rubicon award, Diba will be able to do his research at Rice University in Houston. “I'm going to work at one of the most prominent groups in this field. Rice University has a wealth of facilities at its disposal, and enjoys close cooperation with the largest medical center in the United States,” says Diba.

He'll be leaving for Houston in June. “I want to become a fully-fledged academic, and to do that you have to get as much experience abroad as you can.” Diba gained his Bachelor's in his home country of Iran, his Master's in Germany and his PhD at Radboud University Nijmegen. Now, by way of TU/e, his path is taking him to the United States. “My plan is to eventually return to the Netherlands; I'm already making plans to do so.”

High score

“Never before have so many TU/e people received a Rubicon,” says Gerard Verschuren, head of the Research Support Office at TU/e. A Rubicon grant is a next step after obtaining a PhD. “You can apply for it while you are still completing your doctorate,” says Verschuren. “It is part and parcel of the first stage of a scientific career, during which time you gain experience abroad.”

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