3 April 2019

Millions rain on four University of Copenhagen professors


How do we halt the loss of biodiversity on our planet? How will quantum physics and quantum computing reshape our future? And what secrets can we glean from plant cells that will allow us to produce sustainable biofuels and advanced new medicines. Four University of Copenhagen professors have received DKK 150 million to answer these questions from the Villum Foundation's "Villum Investigators 2019".

Research funds are not just being awarded to talented researchers here at home, but to draw talented and renowned researchers from abroad to Danish universities and institutions of learning.

One of the four recipients of this mother lode of grants at the University of Copenhagen is 47-year-old Swedish professor Staffan Persson. Currently at the University of Melbourne in Australia, he will move to Copenhagen and begin working at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, PLEN.

Persson has received DKK 40 million from the Villum Foundation to finance his "Engineering Plant Cell Walls" project for six years.

Professor Staffan Persson.

Describing his project, Persson says:

“With increased knowledge about the soft cell walls of plants, we will be able to develop a basis for research into new materials and new uses for plants. For example, one can imagine new and improved biofuels. Our research could also pave the way for projects with nano-materials that can be used in everything from the construction to pharmaceutical industries," underscores the Swedish professor. He will also assemble a group of roughly ten talented young researchers.

From biodiversity to quantum mechanics
The diversity of plants and animals - biodiversity - on planet Earth is in trouble. The Villum Foundation is supporting research at the University of Copenhagen in this context.

Professor Guojie Zhang, a Chinese geneticist and biologist who has been at the University of Copenhagen since 2012, has been awarded DKK 40 million for research that includes deepening our understanding of bird and ant genetics.

Professor Carsten Rahbek, who also works with biodiversity, has received DKK 40 million for his research group. His funding will go towards improving our understanding of the underlying reasons behind the enormous biodiversity in areas such as tropical mountains, that so impressed great scientists throughout history including Darwin, Humboldt and Wallace. In 2013, Carsten Rahbek was awarded the Villum Kann Rasmussen's Annual Grant of DKK 2.5 million for his research in biodiversity, evolution and ecology.

Quantum physics, the foundations of which were laid at the Niels Bohr Institute nearly 100 years ago, is becoming increasingly important for society. The field is being applied to everything from supercomputer development to understanding phenomena in space.

The Russian-born American, Eugene Simon Polzik, has worked at Danish universities since 1998. He will receive DKK 30.3 million for his quantum physics work at the Universities of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute.     

Collaboration between universities and private foundations
"Villum Investigators 2019" has granted a total of DKK 410 million in funding to 11 researchers. Six of the grant recipients currently work in Denmark. The others are on their way. Eighty researchers in the technical and natural sciences applied for grants from the foundation this year.

Danish Minister for Higher Education and Science, Tommy Ahlers, commented on the multi-million kroner grants:

"The foundation’s grants are a solid contribution towards our ability to maintain Denmark as a leading research nation. It is a wonderful example that collaboration between universities and private foundations can elevate basic research and attract very high level international researchers to this country."