Veni-grants for seven TU/e researchers

August 3, 2023

3D printing of buildings, quantum communication security, AI in education, and models to study aneurysms among the topics to receive NWO funding.

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Photo: Rob Wolfs

Seven early-stage TU/e researchers have been awarded a Veni grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO), which is aimed at researchers who have recently obtained their PhDs. Pepijn Moerman, Kathrin Hövelmanns, Mirunalini Thirugnanasambandam, Rob Wolfs, Rianne Conijn, Dinesh Krishnamoorthy, and Clemens Dubslaff will each receive a grant worth 280,000 euros to conduct research over the coming three years.

Pepijn Moerman: Fake sticky cells to study cell motion

For cells to transition from a shapeless clump into a living plant or animal, the cells need to move by pushing their respective neighbouring cells out of the way in a process that can be referred to as cell sorting. Cells can also stick to each other, and this can affect the cell rearrangement process. Currently, it is unknown how changes in the stickiness of cells might affect cell movement.

For his Veni project, Pepijn Moerman (department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry) is aiming to create an experimental model consisting of fake cells with controllable stickiness in order to learn more about the role of adhesion on cell motion. “My goal is to learn more about adhesion in the cell sorting process, which is important for both healthy tissue development and also influences the spreading of tumors.”

Moerman is hoping that a quantitative understanding of the influence of cell stiffness and cell-cell adhesion on sorting, and the conditions that prevent effective sorting could be used to develop drugs or treatments to stifle the spread of cancer cells by targeting the inherent stickiness of these cells.

Kathrin Hövelmanns: Towards meaningful security proofs for quantum-resistant communication

Recently, there has been a significant push towards the development of large-scale quantum computers. Fundamentally and critically, such computers work differently in comparison to classical computers and could break the cryptographic security protections used on the Internet today. This could have serious ramifications for applications such as credit card transactions, access control, e-government, and for the exchange of sensitive information such as medical data or military secrets. 

For her Veni-funded project, Kathrin Hövelmanns (department of Mathematics and Computer Science) will contribute to making the internet ‘future-proof’. “We need to rethink how we determine if a cryptographic building block is secure and which of several potential solutions works best,” notes Hövelmanns.  

The project will advance the cryptographic theory informing decisions related to the protection against future quantum computers. “It’s all about hedging against the devastating impact quantum computers could have on how we protect sensitive infrastructures like our banking services,” says Hövelmanns. “It is an honour to receive this funding amid so many talented peers in the field. I’m grateful to NWO for this opportunity to research secure communication in a world where quantum computers are more than a theoretical possibility.”

Mirunalini Thirugnanasambandam: Models to monitor abdominal aortic aneurysms

An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a bulge in the aorta, which is the artery that transports blood from the heart to the abdomen. If such an aneurysm were to burst or rupture, this can lead to serious complications for a patient.  

In the age of digital twins and point-of-care ultrasound, new opportunities for the early detection and monitoring of AAAs are emerging. To better predict the growth and rupture risk of AAAs, it is important to create a growth and remodeling (G&R) model based on individual changes in the geometry of the aneurysm.  

In her Veni-funded project, Mirunalini Thirugnanasambandam (department of Biomedical Engineering and postdoctoral fellow at Catharina Ziekenhuis in Eindhoven) is aiming to build a novel prediction platform to evaluate AAA growth. She will do this by calibrating a G&R model using clinical ultrasound images. “It will allow for the patient-specific prediction of the micro- and macro-structural changes that accompany the evolution of an aneurysm,” says Thirugnanasambandam. “Added to this, we’ll use a bioreactor model to validate the predictions.” 

For Thirugnanasambandam, the project is noteworthy. “This project paves the way for a future where personalized AAA management could become commonplace in primary healthcare. This can simultaneously improve the quality of life for patients, and reduce the burden on the healthcare system. I am thrilled to receive this grant, and I am glad that NWO also shares my enthusiasm for this research.” 

Rob Wolfs: Just press print – 3D printing of safe and sustainable buildings

3D Printing of buildings can provide an answer to the housing shortage and the sustainability challenge in the construction industry. But how should buildings be designed to be safe and sustainable when the behaviour of printed materials is more complex than traditional materials and existing design rules no longer apply for 3D-printed buildings?  

For his Veni project, Rob Wolfs (department of Built Environment) is seeking to develop a novel multi-scale approach to predict the behaviour of 3D printed structures, and enable faster construction with less material. “I’m aiming to address the complexity of 3D concrete printing across various time- and length-scales, through the use of both numerical modelling and experiments.”  

In the long run, Wolfs hopes that this project will help in the more efficient and faster production of buildings while concurrently decreasing the amount of material used. “This is exactly what our construction industry needs right now,” notes Wolfs. “It is a great recognition to receive this grant, which will allow me to take a big step forward in the research field of 3D concrete printing.” 

Rianne Conijn: Human-centered artificial intelligence in education

Artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly available for automated instruction and feedback in education. However, in such settings, these technologies have not yet reached their full potential, and even lead to negative side-effects when it comes to meeting educational goals. Therefore, it is important for students and teachers to understand and trust AI algorithms to interact with them in the most effective way in the classroom.

For her Veni project, Rianne Conijn (department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences) plans to make AI systems more accessible and effective for students and teachers in higher education. “My project will combine insights from human-computer interaction and explainable AI to determine how the inner workings of automated writing evaluation systems can be explained to ensure transparency and to support the teaching and learning of academic writing,” says Conijn. “I see this funding as an exciting boost to my personal research line.”

Clemens Dubslaff: Lazy decision making for scalable verification and system explanation

Formal verification methods such as symbolic model checking are a cornerstone for improving reliability of computing systems. However, due to exhaustively exploring all system executions, existing methods do not scale well and barely provide explanations of the verification results.  

For his Veni-funded project, Clemens Dubslaff (department of Mathematics and Computer Science) will tackle both limitations, developing a new data structure to model lazy decision making by decision diagrams.  

With such decision diagrams, an exhaustive analysis can be avoided by lazily refining relevant decisions only. This potentially unlocks new limits on scalability of symbolic model checking and provides new opportunities for explanation, e.g., through causal reasoning on relevant refinements. 

Dubslaff: “This Veni grant gives me the opportunity to shape a challenging research line that connects new verification theory and practical explanations towards reliable and understandable computing systems of the future.”

Dinesh Krishnamoorthy: Making autonomous systems work together

As the world around us becomes more interconnected, many societal applications involve several decision-making agents interacting in a shared environment, such as connected vehicles and collaborative robotics.

Coordination of autonomous agents that use different decision-making techniques is not well understood. By bridging the scientific domains of distributed optimization, Bayesian optimization, and feedback control, the Veni project of Dinesh Krishnamoorthy (department of Mechanical Engineering) aims to develop a novel abstraction that makes autonomous agents using different decision-making techniques compatible for coordinated actions.

This will enable autonomous agents using different decision-making techniques to take collective actions, thus addressing an important practical need arising in several crucial societal applications.

Krishnamoorthy: “With the Veni grant, I can accelerate my research in developing collaborative decision-making tools for smart infrastructure systems with diverse entities, and propel my research career forward.”

About NWO Veni grants

Veni is an individual science grant, part of the NWO Talent Programme, and aimed at researchers who have recently obtained their PhDs. They will conduct research within the full breadth of science.

The 188 grants from the 2022 Veni round are divided between 26 grants at ZonMw, 23 at Applied and Engineering Sciences (AES), 69 at the Science Domain, and 70 at Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH). The projects receiving funding therefore focus on a wide variety of topics: from river deltas on Mars to future-proof general practitioner care, and from the crusades of Louis IX to flying robots for maintaining offshore wind turbines. Each grant is worth up to 280,000 euros, and it will allow the laureates to further develop their own research ideas over the next three years.

Media contact

Barry Fitzgerald
(Science Information Officer)

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