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ERC Advanced Grants for two Leiden researchers

The European Research Commission (ERC) has awarded Advanced Grants to two Leiden researchers. Joke Meijer will be researching the effect of the biological clock on our health and Carlo Beenakker will be looking for Majorana fermions in superconductors.

Each year, the ERC provides Advanced Grants to outstanding well-established researchers to ‘allow them to research their most creative ideas and generate findings that will have a major impact on science, society and the economy.’ Alongside Leiden professors Carlo Beenakker (Leiden Institute of Physics) and Joke Meijer (Leiden University Medical Center), a further 220 European researchers have been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant of up to €2.5m for a five-year project.

Carlo Beenakker: Majorana fermions in superconductors

Qubits, the building blocks of a quantum computer, do not usually move. This is problematic in the development of a topological quantum computer because these work by exchanging qubits – a process known as ‘braiding.’ With his ERC project, Beenakker aims to find out whether these qubits can be made to move with the aid of a superconducting material.

The idea is that this could be achieved by applying a voltage pulse to an insulator across a superconducting wire. This will cause a qubit pair to start moving at great speed along both edges of the superconductor. Each of these ‘flying’ qubits is a Majorana fermion. The expectation is that the braiding will take place at the point at which two Majorana fermions meet. No one has yet managed to braid Majorana fermions, so these flying qubits might just be the secret to realising the topological quantum computer.

Joke Meijer: how to preserve a healthy biological clock in modern society

Our homes, our offices, our cars and our cities all emit light. This large amount of artificial light is influencing the biological clocks of all living creatures, sending puzzling signals of when we should be active, and when we should stay in bed. Many severe health disorders are consequences of this change – diabetes, sleep and mood disorders, immune and cardiovascular diseases – but with her new ERC Advanced Grant, Meijer hopes to get us back to sleeping healthily.

By understanding the biological clock of diurnal animals, like us, and comparing it to nocturnal animals that respond to light cues in the opposite way, she will try to reprogram our rest patterns. Her results will deeply improve the lives of the people most vulnerable to sleep disorders: not only the elderly and patients in intensive care, but also nurses, doctors, bus drivers, shift workers and anyone who has ever battled with the alarm clock. 

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