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Unravelling mysteries of mind and matter

6 February 2017

Light bulb signifying idea

Two very different research projects at Cardiff University have secured EU funds to help unravel little-understood mysteries affecting our planet and the human mind.

Scientists have received prestigious European Research Council Grants totalling €3m to shed new light on earthquakes and human decision making.

It is the latest funding obtained by Cardiff University researchers as part of the EU’s flagship research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020.

Cardiff University has enjoyed a great deal of success applying for EU funds, and academics are being encouraged to continue submitting proposals while the UK remains a full member of the EU.

Cardiff University’s Professor Hywel Thomas, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research, Innovation and Engagement, said: “Securing grants from the European Research Council, which encourages high-quality research in Europe, is a very competitive process so I’m delighted that our important work will benefit from this funding.

“The grants will enable us to carry out meaningful research to enhance our knowledge of the human mind and a little-understood type of earthquake.”

Professor Nora de Leeuw, Pro Vice-Chancellor, International and Europe, said: “It’s very good news that we are continuing to access valuable funding from the European Union for our research.

“Cardiff University’s research is at the forefront of attempting to address major global challenges and we must continue to make the most of the funding opportunities available.”

Talented research leaders

The European Research Council ‘Starting Grants’ are designed to encourage young, talented research leaders to become more independent and to build their careers.

Sign of North American Plate

The grants received by Cardiff University are:

  • Mechanics of slow earthquake phenomena: an Integrated perspective from the composition, geometry, and rheology of major faults (€1.49m): Dr Åke Fagereng, School of Earth & Ocean Sciences,will explore the mechanics of ‘slow’ earthquakes – subtle, quiet earthquakes that can last days, months or even years. Slow earthquakes have recently been found along several major tectonic margins, such as in Japan, New Zealand and west coast North America but remain something of a mystery. Dr Fagereng will combine geological observations with numerical modelling to shed light on this phenomenon.
  • Free the Mind: the neurocognitive determinants of intentional decision (€1.49m): Dr Jiaxiang Zhang, of the School of Psychology, will research how we make simple decisions, such as choosing between cash or card payments. Dr Zhang said: “Using advanced brain imaging methods, we will test whether differences in our ordinary behaviour are determined by structural and chemical properties in our brain. In the long run, this project will help us understand how some diseases take away this fundamental ability in our lives, such as in patients with dementia.”

In addition, the University’s ability to host, and attract, European Research Council Grants has been demonstrated by a study looking at the co-evolution of life and arsenic in our oceans.

Dr Ernest Chi Fru started the research at Stockholm University in Sweden but has since moved to Cardiff University where he will complete the work.

Cardiff University has a proven track record securing EU funds, principally from Horizon 2020; EU Structural Funds, which are designed to narrow wealth disparities between EU countries; and EU education, training, youth and support programme Erasmus+.