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The Hebrew University is a leader in entry-level ERC grants. Ten researchers will receive 17 million euros for five years 

The number of wins by male and female Hebrew researchers places the university in first place among universities in Israel in terms of success rate among applications, with an increase of 5.5% compared to last year and it has the highest number of winners

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The researchers who won the ERC grants on behalf of the Hebrew University are: Prof. Guy Katz from the School of Engineering and Computer Science, Dr. Shir Atzil from the Department of Psychology and head of the Laboratory for Brain Mechanisms and Attachment Behavior, Dr. Or (Michael) Hershkovitz from the Einstein Institute of Mathematics, Dr. Daniel Sharon from the Institute of Chemistry and the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Dr. Tamar Stein from the Institute of Chemistry and the Fritz-Haber Center for Molecular Dynamics, Dr. Michal Barker-Dekel from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the Faculty of Sciences, Dr. Gali Umshoif-Navo From the School of Pharmacy, Prof. Noam Gedron from the Department of Political Science and the Program for Philosophy, Economics and Political Science, Mr. Raunk Basu from ELSC, Dr. Rebecca Bekenstein from the Rakah Institute of Physics.

Prof. Guy Katz will receive the grant for his research dealing with formal validation of deep neural networks. In recent years, developments in deep machine learning have caused a tremendous revolution in computer science. Automatically learned programs ("deep neural networks") are currently used in critical systems in many fields and lead to much better results than manually written programs. The significant disadvantage, which is a barrier to the use of deep neural networks in critical systems, stems from the fact that we cannot understand how a neural network reached the result it reached, and we cannot be convinced of the correctness of the result. Prof. Katz and his team are working on developing methods that will make it possible to identify errors, if any, in neural networks, very quickly, and without going through an exponential number of cases, as is required today. The products of the project are expected to be a mature and stable system for proving the correctness of very large learned systems. This system will ensure the safety of neural networks in critical systems, and will allow human society to enjoy the full benefits of the deep learning revolution.

A noble song. Credit - Yaniv and Kanin
A noble song. Credit - Yaniv and Kanin

Dr. Shir Atzil You will receive the grant for her research that examines the biological and brain mechanism that causes us to be attracted and attached to a certain person and not another. In her laboratory, Dr. Atzil investigates the brain, biological and behavioral mechanisms that underlie close relationships: how parents and babies bond, and how couples fall in love. Despite extensive research in recent years, science still does not understand what causes social animals, such as humans, to produce strong and long-term social ties, and why we prefer certain partners. In her ERC-winning research, Dr. Atzil proposes a new mechanism for social attachment, and asks how basic physiological processes and the brain systems that regulate them are involved in creating bonds between parents and babies, and in romantic attraction and falling in love.

Dr. Or (Michael) Hershkowitz will receive the grant for research on the properties and uses of mean curvature flow. The mean curvature flow is a mathematical process that causes displacement and change of surfaces in space, so that the change is done analogously to the way heat spreads. In the last 40 years, and even more so since Gregory Perlman proved the Poincaré conjecture with similar tools, the study of mean curvature flow has become a central area in both modern geometry and partial differential equations. The main challenge in the mathematical analysis of the average curvature flow is to understand the "singularity" it develops, that is, how the evolving shapes look like a fraction of a second before their curvature aspires to infinity. One strand of the research proposal that won the grant deals with a plan for an in-depth understanding of "generic" singularities in the fourth dimension - a dimension in which there are several important open problems in geometry for which, one day, the average curvature flow may provide an answer. A second tier of the research proposal deals with the uses of the average curvature flow in cosmology, for a (mathematical) understanding of the future of an expanding universe and a (mathematical) answer to the question of the beginning of cosmic inflation.

Dr. Daniel Sharon He will receive the grant for his research that examines how to control unstable metal deposition processes on a nanometer scale, with the aim of producing advanced electrochemical systems for energy accumulation, with an emphasis on solid-state rechargeable batteries. The most advanced rechargeable batteries today use liquid electrolytes. It is known that switching from liquid to solid electrolytes will allow us to develop high energy batteries and even safer than the ones we use today. By controlling metal deposition processes, the development of batteries with significantly higher energy densities than existing technologies makes production accessible. Dr. Sharon suggests that the key to controlling the deposition process is a combination of ion-conducting materials with ordered nanometer structures and a transition from a liquid to a solid state. As part of the project they will develop new experimental methods that allow us to see the deposition processes in real time by using a high-resolution electron microscope.

Tamar Stein. Credit - Uri Stein
Tamar Stein. Credit - Uri Stein

Dr. Tamar Stein You will receive the grant for her research dealing with the development of new tools for studying the processes that occur as a result of a meeting between large molecules with radiation, under the extreme conditions that exist in space. Today, the way in which molecules are formed in space is still a mystery and very little is known about the mechanisms responsible for the formation of molecules in the interstellar medium. The efforts to solve this mystery are multidisciplinary and include astronomical observations, laboratory experiments with the aim of imitating the extreme conditions in the studied areas as well as theoretical calculations. These calculations enable the deciphering of the chemical processes and also provide guidance for the interpretation and understanding of the observations and the results of the experiments. Despite the vitality of theoretical chemistry, it cannot currently describe light-induced processes in large molecules, a fact that significantly hinders our understanding in the field of astrochemistry. The tools that will be developed in this research will significantly advance the field of computational chemistry and astrochemistry and allow a deeper understanding of the chemistry that occurs in space.

Dr. Michal Barker-Dekel You will receive the grant for her research to discover the molecular mechanisms for transporting proteins to the chloroplast. The chloroplast is a central organelle for life on the Earth's surface where, among other things, the processes of photosynthesis take place, and its protein composition has a decisive effect on its functionality. In spite of its vitality, there is more hidden than visible in the processes of identification, transport and introduction of the proteins. In order to face the challenge, Dr. Barker-Dekel will develop innovative methods for genetic and microscopic scans in the single-celled algae Chlamydomonas, which will be a significant technological jump for other projects in the laboratory as well. The results of the research will serve as fertile ground for technological innovation and will help us in the future to engineer plants for the purposes of optimizing the photosynthetic and metabolic system.     

Dr. Gali Umshoif-Nevo You will receive the grant for her research examining the biological processes that cause the double morbidity of depression and anxiety. Anxiety and depression are common psychiatric illnesses that cause both patients and those around them great suffering. It is common for these two diseases to appear together, when in most cases depression will develop after the anxiety disorder has already been diagnosed. Moreover, depression and anxiety are often treated using the same drugs, suggesting a common biological basis, but the biological cause of this comorbidity is still unknown. Dr. Omshioff-Nevo will examine the biological processes with the help of unique tools that will allow focusing on nerve cell populations, which have been diagnosed as critical for both depression and anxiety and also have the potential to be a natural anti-anxiety effect. The research, at its end, is expected to reveal new neural mechanisms underlying both the disorders of depression and anxiety and the natural response to reduce anxiety. These will serve as fertile ground for the development of new and effective psychiatric drugs, which will have a targeted effect on these mechanisms and the nerve cells that activate them.

Prof. Noam Gedron will receive the grant for his research that examines how national identities shape political polarization in Western countries today and also whether they may create a common denominator between citizens from opposite ends of the political spectrum. It often seems as if the political polarization expresses a growing rift between those who have a strong national identity and those who renounce it. But the data show that the opposite is true: the importance of national identity is shared by many of us, in a way that transcends political camps and social background. Prof. Gedron's research offers a new point of view according to which the polarization that characterizes the political arena at the moment does not separate strong and weak national identities, but between different shades of national identities and also, because the way we interpret our national identity in turn entails consequences for a variety of political positions. To examine the relationship between polarization and national identities, the research will be based on the analysis of surveys and political discourse both among the general public and among elected officials in eight Western countries. The results of the study will help us better understand the fault lines of our polarized politics.

Dr. Raunk Basu He will receive the grant for his research examining how the brain makes decisions based on the calculation of different parameters in space (spatial decision making). Making decisions based on spatial considerations is found in every element of our lives and among nature's animals. Despite this, researchers have yet to understand how these decisions are made at the behavioral level, much less at the neural level. Basu's research is based on the hypothesis that before making decisions, the brain prepares "task-relevant cognitive maps". This map contains a coding of the environment and the relevant information in it for making the decision. This map is used to evaluate and compare the potential options and reach a decision. Using laboratory animals, the different decision-making scenarios will be examined and also, the areas of the brain that represent those "cognitive maps" will be located. For this purpose, the research team will use special recording systems that can record and code the activity of hundreds of nerve cells across several brain regions during decision-making. 

Dr. Rebecca Beckenstein You will receive the grant for her research that deals with artificial quantum metamaterials for the processing of quantum information. These materials can provide an answer to one of the biggest challenges in physics research today and it will create practical systems for quantum technologies, such as quantum computing and communication. Beckenstein developed the principle idea behind these materials in theoretical research she conducted during her post-doctorate at Harvard University. In this research, she proved that atomic arrays can be a tool for controlling the state of individual light particles that can be used as quantum bits. These days her research group is working on the development of materials and their control by building arrays of artificial quantum particles with a strong response to light. In their research, they combine experimental techniques of quantum control, low temperatures, nano-photonics, together with theoretical and computational tools of atomic physics, as well as optics and quantum information. This research was done in collaboration with researchers from Harvard University. The research program is expected to enable the production of a single chip that enables the processing of quantum information with the help of light particles and artificial quantum particles.

In addition to the 2023 grant winners, as part of the reserve program of the ERC grants at the Starting Grant level for 2022, Dr. Neta Schlesinger, from the Faculty of Agriculture, won the award for the research proposal that focuses on diving into the cryptographic kingdom of fungal viruses (mycoviruses) and their effect on the physiology of pathogenic fungi, pathogenesis and the host's immune responses. The research proposal examines the interaction between the virus and the fungus, that is, how fungal viruses affect the violence of the fungus, and how this affects our immune response and whether or not a disease will develop. The results of the study show that viruses of fungi pathogenic to humans are actually part of their mechanism of violence by increasing the survival of the fungus, which causes a more violent disease. The results of the research are expected to lead to the development of new antifungal drugs and the development of diagnostic tools relevant to both public health, agriculture, and wildlife.

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