The ERC Consolidator Grant is one of the finest personal research grants available from the European Research Council (ERC). Competition is razor sharp. Åsa Haglund is one of only ten Swedish researchers and one of only two at Chalmers who receives the award. Of the 2 453 applicants from all over Europe, only 301 were successful in this round. They were granted a total of 600 million euro.
Åsa Haglund receives around 2 million euro to lead the five-year project "Out of the blue: membrane-based microcavity lasers from the blue to the ultraviolet wavelength regime" or in short "UV-LASE".
"It feels fantastic of course! This will allow me to strengthen my team, concentrate on research and invest in more high-risk ideas that will hopefully pay off in the long run. A necessity if we are going to realize our dream that is now also a project goal; the demonstration of an electrically driven ultraviolet-emitting vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser", she says.
Her project is focused on pushing the wavelength of microcavity lasers really into the ultraviolet.
"Our approach is based upon a unique membrane technique we have developed over the past three years to enable vertical cavity lasers with highly reflective dielectric mirrors on both sides of the cavity – a device concept previously un-realizable for UV-lasers. Once realized these lasers would be of interest for a wide range of applications such as water purification, photolithography, enhancing health-promoting substances in plants, gas sensing, medical diagnostics and treatments, and UV curing", Åsa Haglund explains.
But at first, she didn't plan to apply for the grant at all. She tells us that she was uncertain about having the time to deliver an application strong enough to be successful in the harsh competition. In the end, Peter Andrekson, head of the Photonics Laboratory, managed to convince her:
"Reprioritize! he said, which I managed to do despite the fact that my daughter got the stomach flue in this period! Luckily, this was the most fun application I have written so far. Thanks to my great team at Chalmers and our excellent collaborators, in particular in the group of professor Michael Kneissl and Tim Wernicke at TU Berlin in Germany, I had a lot of exciting and promising results to put into the application", Åsa tells us.
The ERC has high demands on its applicants. They have to undergo a serious evaluation process including an interview at the ERC headquarter in Brussels. There, they are given two slides and 5 minutes sharp to present their research proposal and themselves, followed by a 20 minutes question session by the reviewers. Åsa tells us about nervous candidates returning from their interviews with a look of resignation on their faces.
"This is a very stressful event, and maybe even more so before the interview when many candidates are waiting in the same room for about two hours for their turn. But I really enjoyed the interview! I was given the opportunity to describe my research project and respond to a lot of relevant questions posted by the reviewers. Many of these questions were in fact the same as those my colleagues at Chalmers had posed to me at my mock-up interview. Normally when you apply for funding you are never given the opportunity to explain things that might be misinterpreted in the application nor to oppose the criticism and explain your point of view. In my opinion this is an important part of a thorough evaluation process."
Åsa Haglund is in good company at MC2. Her laboratory has been successful in getting ERC Grants, Åsa Haglund is the third grant holder from Photonics in recent years.
"I believe this is the best Christmas present you can receive as a researcher and I am truly honored to be awarded with this prestigious grant", says Åsa.
"As a side note, when I checked into the hotel the day before my interview in Brussel there was a note book on the desk with the following statement "This may be the beginning of something big (or just some bad handwriting)". For me, being awarded with an ERC Consolidator grant is indeed the beginning of something big. Now I have the opportunity to focus on research for five years with the aim to realize a dream – the demonstration of an electrically driven ultraviolet-emitting vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser."
Åsa Haglund is one of the most talented and successful young researchers at MC2. She got her PhD from Chalmers in 2005. In 2012 she was able to start her own group when she was awarded with a young researcher grant from The Swedish Research Council (VR). And as late as 2018, she got a consolidator grant from the same council.
Besides Åsa, Fredrik Westerlund, Professor at the Department of Biology and Biology Engineering, managed to get an ERC Consolidator Grant in this round.
Text: Michael Nystås
Photo: Johan Bodell