University of Jyväskylä

ERC funding to four JYU researchers

The European Research Council (ERC) awarded Consolidator Grants to four pioneering research projects in the Faculty of Mathematics and Science at the University of Jyväskylä. The funding was granted to Academy Research Fellows Anu Kankainen and Anna Kuparinen, and Professors Heikki Tuononen and Mikko Salo. Receiving four ERC grants for the same Faculty is unique and tells about an especially high standard of research. In selecting the projects to be funded, the ERC uses the criterion of excellence, which includes scientific quality as well as the novelty and boldness of the research idea. The projects of Kankainen, Kuparinen, Tuononen and Salo are carried out, respectively, at the Departments of Physics, Biological and Environmental Science, Chemistry and Mathematics and Statistics.

- I am very happy and proud of our researchers’ success. We have managed to recruit young researchers who meet international standards and have high scientific ambitions. Along with the new ERC researchers we are also taking a remarkable leap as a science university, states Henrik Kunttu, Vice Rector of the University of Jyväskylä. Let this success encourage and lead the future applicants to similar success as well, he continues.

How elements heavier than iron are produced in stars

Anu Kankainen
Academy Research Fellow Anu Kankainen
Anu Kankainen’s project investigates neutron-rich nuclei in order to better understand how elements heavier than iron are made in stars. The recent multi-messenger observations from a merger of two neutron stars gave the first direct evidence that they produce elements heavier than iron by a rapid neutron capture process, the r-process. Neutron star observations are expected to increase considerably in the coming years.

- It is exciting to see what kind of observations will be made from mergers of a neutron star and a black hole. Is the r-process more typical or different in them than in the mergers of two neutron stars, and what is the role of supernovae in the production of elements heavier than iron, Kankainen says.

In Kankainen’s project, neutron-rich nuclei will be produced and their masses measured very precisely with modern ion manipulation techniques in the Accelerator Laboratory of the University of Jyväskylä. In addition, long-living excited states known as isomers and their properties will be studied. The research results will help to calculate more accurately and reliably the abundances of produced elements. This is important in order to understand the observations and the process itself, how the elements heavier than iron are created in the cosmos. By the same token, the ERC project will also yield relevant data for testing different theoretical nuclear models and interactions.






External pressures shape fish populations

Anna Kuparinen
Academy Research Fellow Anna Kuparinen
Anna Kuparinen studies the dynamics of aquatic ecosystems, focusing especially on fish populations and the changes thereof caused by fishing, environmental factors and human action.

- Many external evolutionary pressures may alter the phenotypes of fishes as well as affect the growth potential of fish populations and their recovery from excessive fishing, for example. To be able to predict the development of fish populations and estimate their sensitivity to external pressures, such as fishing, we have to understand and be capable to predict the dynamics of the whole food network and the changes affecting it in terms of the species and environment, Kuparinen says.

Kuparinen’s research project aims at understanding of the sustainable use of natural resources. Her research combines and seeks to elaborate the theories of ecology and evolutionary biology. So-called eco-evolutionary dynamics is one of the emerging fields of biological research. Kuparinen intends to take this research up to a whole new level that would consider the whole food web and ecosystem, using the tools of network theory.





New ways to achieve fundamental chemical transformations

Heikki Tuononen
Professor Heikki Tuononen
Many fundamental chemical processes involve the activation of small molecules, such as hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, by transition-metal-based catalysts. The research of Professor Tuononen deals with the recently observed possibility to perform these transformations with main group compounds.

- Small molecules are ubiquitous and inexpensive. The important question is how to effectively transform them into active reagents. Transition metal catalysis is the traditional way, but the most active catalytic elements are rare and expensive precious metals. We are now trying to achieve the same with cheap earth-abundant main group elements, Tuononen explains.

Tuononen’s project investigates the mechanisms by which different main group compounds activate small molecules and how the observed reactivity correlates with molecular structure. This encompasses, for example, compounds that bind carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas whose efficient capture and subsequent use as a chemical feedstock would significantly advance the build-up of carbon-neutral circular economy. While applicability of results is a key factor considered in every aspect of research, another important aim of the project is more fundamental.

- We can use non-metallic elements to build molecules that behave like metals. Understanding how such behaviour emerges is important as it allows new possibilities to achieve familiar functions. And we are not “reinventing the wheel” if the end result is cheaper, greener and safer. 



Mathematics to enhance imaging

Mikko Salo
Professor Mikko Salo
Many imaging methods, such as x-ray and ultrasound imaging, draw on the mathematics of inverse problems. In recent years a number of surprising connections have been observed between different inverse problems.

- Especially mathematical models related to X-ray imaging have come up in the theory of imaging methods based on acoustic waves, electricity or optics. The discovered connections suggest that various inverse problems, which have traditionally been regarded and treated as mathematically different ones, might actually fit into a broader context that has not been understood before, Salo tells.

Salo’s project explores the possibility of a unified theory for several inverse boundary value problems and the potential consequences of such a theory. One of the aims is to achieve in the context of highly nonlinear inverse problems a similar development that has led to a general theory of linear partial differential equations. Mathematical objectives include a solution of the boundary rigidity problem posed in the 1980s, and also a solution of general inverse problems by means of reductions to simpler linear models via pseudo-linearization methods. The theory has potential applications, for example, in detecting faults in concrete structures or in studying the interior structure of the Earth.



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