Research grants worth six million euros at FAU

Four young researchers secure ERC Starting Grants amid strong competition

Four young researchers at FAU have succeeded in securing research funding in one of the toughest European selection processes. Over the next five years, the European Research Council (ERC) will provide ERC Starting Grants of 1.5 million euros each to support the outstanding research projects of Dr. Björn Braunschweig, PD Dr. Andreas Bräuer, PD Dr. Gerhard Krönke and Prof. Dr. Sabine Maier, Professor of Experimental Physics. In the strict selection process for the proposed projects, the ERC makes its decision on the basis of a comprehensive review process which involves many leading international researchers from the respective fields. Less than ten percent of the research projects submitted make the cut. Once a year, the ERC awards these grants to the best young researchers to give them the chance to establish their own working groups and pursue research projects with great potential for innovation.

What is remarkable is that three of the four grant recipients at FAU belong to two of the University’s institutes which are part of the German Excellence Initiative. Two are members of the Cluster of Excellence ‘Engineering of Advanced Materials’ (EAM) and one is from the Erlangen Graduate School in Advanced Optical Technologies (SAOT). This is a good indication that funding from the German Excellence Initiative is being invested very well at FAU. The nomination of Dr. Gerhard Krönke who works at the Department of Medicine 3 (Rheumatology and Immunology) at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, on the other hand, once again highlights the outstanding medical research in the field of immunology that is carried out in Erlangen. A fifth researcher who also received an ERC Starting Grant this year, Dr. Edouard Berrocal from Lund University, is currently teaching and researching at FAU as a visiting professor.

Prof. Dr. Joachim Hornegger, Vice President for Research at FAU, is delighted. ‘To get four ERC Starting Grants for FAU in one go – that is an outstanding success,’ he says. ‘Our four grant recipients are truly outstanding researchers and I would like to congratulate them on this fantastic achievement. We are proud of our rising stars! This also shows how important supporting young researchers is at FAU – and how prominent we now are in the international research environment.’

The molecular-scale weaver: Prof. Dr. Sabine Maier, 35

Modern electronic devices not only have to be increasingly powerful, they also have to be increasingly small. Molecular electronics makes it possible for incredibly small components or sensors to be made from functional molecules which act like a switch, conductor or memory cell. In light of this, the question of how the configuration of molecules and the way in which they interact with one another on an electrically insulated surface – an insulator – can be controlled is important in order to be able to develop new classes of material and minute electronic components with tailor-made properties in the future. Sabine Maier is using high-resolution scanning probe microscopy to do this. This is a method used in surface physics in which a sharp probe scans a surface step by step. This allows images of individual molecules and atoms on surfaces to be taken and also allows these molecules and atoms to be manipulated. Researchers can use this technique to examine not only the structure but also the electronic properties of molecular networks on different surfaces. Thanks to the ERC Starting Grant, Sabine Maier will be able to proceed with her latest research project in which she aims to use individual molecules to construct new molecular films on electrically insulated surfaces – and join them together to create new two-dimensional materials. The molecular components are vaporised in an ultra-high vacuum and spontaneously settle on the insulator, organising themselves. Sabine Maier wants to find out which reactions and which surfaces are suitable for joining molecules together very tightly through covalent bonding to create impossibly thin carpets of molecules using light or heat. The difficult art here is to weave the carpet together in such a way that it has as large a surface area and as few errors as possible. Sabine Maier will examine incredibly small pieces of these new networks with a scanning probe microscope at very low pressure (ultra-high vacuum) and temperature (-268°C), in a state where they are almost frozen still, so that the molecules do not move and their electrical properties can also be measured. This will make it possible for extremely stable, highly conductive molecular carpets to be created and measured – and for conclusions to be drawn as to which molecular structures are most suitable for nanoelectric applications.

Curriculum vitae

The Cluster of Excellence ‘Engineering of Advanced Materials’ (EAM) appointed Prof. Dr. Sabine Maier as a W1 Professor of Scanning Probe Microscopy at FAU’s Department of Physics in October 2010 as part of the EAM Rising Star programme to support young researchers. She has been a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities’ Young Scholars Programme since 2012. She was awarded an EAM Starting Grant worth 100,000 euros in 2013, which enabled her to set up her own working group and carry out preliminary research for an ERC Starting Grant application. Being awarded an ERC Starting Grant of almost 1.5 million euros is a great step forward for her career. She will use part of the grant money to increase the number of people in her working group.

Born in Switzerland, Sabine Maier studied physics at the University of Basel where she completed her doctoral degree in experimental physics on the subject of atomic force microscopy in 2007. As part of her doctoral studies she spend a year working as a researcher at McGill University in Montreal (Canada). She was a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley (USA) from 2007 to 2010. Sabine Maier is now very well integrated into the team at the Cluster of Excellence in Erlangen, and is also involved in a Collaborative Research Centre and a Research Training Group. Her expert knowledge of scanning probe microscopy is in high demand here for many different applications.

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