ERC grants to researchers Laura Cancedda and Agnieszka Wykowska

Valeria delle Cave

IIT won 2 more new scientific projects funded by the European Research Council (ERC) with a total of 3,5 million euro

ERC Cancedda Wikowska testo

The two projects will last 5 years and are led by two young neuroscientists: Laura Cancedda, 41 years old and funded with 2 million euro, will investigate new treatment of Down syndrome cognitive deficits by using  CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing techniques (GenEdiDS project); and Agnieszka Wykowska, 39, awarded with approximately 1,5 million, will study social cognition in interactions between humans and robots, which is a key element for designing future robot “companions”, such as the humanoid iCub (InStance project). IIT has then a total of 15 ERC funded projects obtained in ten years of activity, a third of which led by women researchers.

Laura Cancedda’s award was officially announced today by the ERC, which has selected 314 projects for funding, considering researchers with a scientific experience of at least 7 years, up to 12 years after PhD, and who want to establish their research teams and continue developing a successful career in Europe (Consolidator grant). The ERC evaluated 2,274 proposals, out of which 13.8% have been selected for funding. Among the new grantees, Italian researchers are 38 (ranking at second place after Germans with 50), but only 14 people are active in Italian research centers or universities, out of which only 3 are women, including Cancedda. The total percentage of women grantees is equal to 28%.

Laura Cancedda is a neuroscientist, who studied at the University of Genoa, Scuola Normale in Pisa, University of California at Berkeley (USA), and started working as a researcher in IIT in 2008. She got 34 publications and 2 patents, and in 2016 she became scientist at Dulbecco Telethon Institute. Her project GenEdiDS, funded by ERC, will investigate whether prenatal manipulation of gene networks in neuronal cells, may recover brain development and cognitive deficits associated with Down syndrome. Therefore, Down syndrome is a leading cause of genetically-defined intellectual disability, but currently treatment options are very limited. Cancedda will use CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing to identify new methods of prenatal care and will develop new technological approaches for future applications.

Agnieszka Wykowska is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies interactions between humans and robots, focusing on non-verbal aspects of communication, in particular the ones leading to attribution of mental states such as intentions to humanoid robots. Her project, InStance, was funded by the ERC in September 2016 with a grant for encourage young talented research leader to gain independence and to build their own team and career (Starting grant). Wykowska decided to move her research activities from Technical University of Munich (TUM) in Germany, where she previously worked, to IIT in Genoa, in order to carry out her research program with a focus on the humanoid robot iCub. The main goal of her project is to understand what behavioural characteristics should a robot display in order for the human to infer intentional agency and, as a result, to socially attune with the robot. These elements are fundamental in the development of future robot “companions”.

In its 10 years of activity, the IIT has already won 15 ERC projects, on topics ranging from nanotechnology to robotics, from chemistry to life sciences, and attracting talents from other foreign research institutions and countries. The IIT researchers funded by ERC are: Cristina Becchio (Starting grant), Antonio Bicchi (Advanced grant), Mario Caironi (Starting grant), Laura Cancedda (Consolidator grant), Valentina Cauda (Starting grant, now at Politecnico di Torino), Gianni Ciofani (Starting grant), Francesco De Angelis (Consolidator grant), Paolo Decuzzi (Consolidator grant, coming from USA), Tommaso Fellin (Consolidator grant), Liberato Manna (Starting e Consolidator grant), Iwan Moreels (Starting grant), Teresa Pellegrino (Starting grant), Ferruccio Pisanello (Starting grant), Agnieszka Wykowska (Starting grant, coming from Germany).