The trio who have been selected to participate in the program are Elin Esbjörner at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering, Klas Modin at the Department of Mathematical Sciences and Witlef Wieczorek at the Department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience.
“To make scientific breakthroughs, it is important to concentrate on your research for a long period and have good resources. Wallenberg Academy Fellows provides these conditions, and they are available during what could be the most creative phase of their research careers. They also have the opportunity to participate in a mentoring program, which helps boost their scientific leadership,” says Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Elin Esbjörner leads a research group focusing on understanding why nerve cells in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease degenerate. She has previously demonstrated that a protein, beta-amyloid, which researchers know is involved in the development of Alzheimer’s, accumulates in the nerve cells’ endosomes that handle the very transport of proteins and other important biomolecules in the body. There, the protein molecules can change and clump together, leading to conditions that can be likened to a traffic jam. Now her research group is given the opportunity to focus even more on how the cells' intricate traffic systems work.
"Many people today live longer lives, but as our brains age, there is also an increased risk of suffering from neurodegenerative disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting an estimated 40 million people worldwide. I hope that our research, in longer term, can contribute knowledge to further the development of future preventive and disease-modifying treatments," says Elin Esbjörner.
Klas Modin studies distances in shape analysis, a research area that emerged in the early 2000s when medical imaging had problems comparing organs from different patients because the organs changed shape as soon as the patient moved. Now he will continue to develop mathematical methods that can calculate distances in a more abstract world, which can be used to analyze more complex forms, for example the form of a proteins or organs.
"The research on shape analysis builds bridges between different mathematical areas, it is a sort of interdisciplinary field within mathematics with many applications that I find very interesting. My research is about developing the mathematics of shape analysis, but by extension, the mathematical techniques that are being developed can become useful tools for researchers who study the shape of proteins through cryo-electron microscopy, or for physicians who use MRIs to search for shape deviations in organs caused by tumours," says Klas Modin.
Witlef Wieczorek joined Chalmers University of Technology as tenure-track assistant professor in the Excellence Initiative Nano. Since then, he built up a laboratory and a research group focusing on research with mechanical-based quantum devices. Now they will develop a new platform for quantum experiments and sensors.
"Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, invented the gedankenexperiment of a cat being dead and alive at the same time. Though, such a state of a cat is in principle allowed by the laws of quantum mechanics, we have never observed superposed cats. The current record in superposition size is held by impressive experiments that observe the interference of large molecules. My project aims to superpose 10 million times heavier objects. This goal is ambitious! Therefore, we construct a novel experimental platform that should make this possible: levitated micrometer-sized superconducting objects that are coupled to superconducting circuitry," he explains.
The program, funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, has been established in close cooperation with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry, the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, the Swedish Academy and Swedish universities. The universities nominate researchers to the program, the academies evaluate the candidates and present the most promising researchers for the Foundation, which then makes the final selection. Since the program started in 2012, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation has invested a total of SEK 1.9 billion.
Text: Anita Fors, Julia Jansson, Setta Aspström and Michael Nystås