Two VILLUM Investigator grants celebrated in style

In spring 2017, two top researchers at Science and Technology – Professor Jens-Christian Svenning, Department of Bioscience, and Professor Bjørk Hammer, Department of Physics and Astronomy – were each awarded one of the newly established VILLUM Investigator grants. These provided funding for the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World, and a research project called Machine Learning in Atomistic Structure Determination, respectively. The awards were officially celebrated on Thursday 9 November in the Main Hall, Aarhus University, with lectures followed by a reception.

2017.11.10 | Christina Troelsen

Professor Jens-Christian Svenning will spearhead the new Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World, with a grant of DKK 40 million from the VILLUM FOUNDATION. (Photo: Lars Kruse, Aarhus University)

Professor Bjørk Hammer has been granted DKK 25 million for a research project called Machine Learning in Atomistic Structure Determination. (Photo: Lars Kruse, Aarhus University)

Jens Kann-Rasmussen, Chair of the Board of the VILLUM FOUNDATION, is pleased that the grants were awarded to two top researchers at Aarhus University, and he looks forward to seeing the results. (Photo: Lars Kruse, Aarhus University)

Hardly anyone would have spontaneously thought of linking the research area of biodiversity with studies of atomic structures. However, this was the case when the two VILLUM Investigator grants were celebrated. And there were a number of good suggestions regarding what the two research fields have in common. They are both very complex, they embrace great diversity, and they are concerned with human existence on Earth in one way or another. We will come back to that.

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen opened by thanking the VILLUM FOUNDATION for their great faith in awarding the grants. The researchers have virtually unrestricted freedom to use the funds in whatever research area they are passionate about and, according to the rector, thus is exactly the right recipe for achieving outstanding results.

Jens Kann-Rasmussen is Chair of the Board of the VILLUM FOUNDATION, and he is pleased that the grants could be awarded to two such accomplished researchers. Great faith also means great expectations, and he is looking forward to keeping up with the research projects in the coming years and seeing the results.

Biodiversity under pressure

The population of the world is expected to increase to 11 billion people this century, at the same time that human-induced climate changes are affecting the world we live in at an ever-increasing rate. How can we maintain the Earth’s biodiversity under these conditions? This question is the driving force behind Professor Svenning’s research project – Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World – which has been granted approximately DKK 40 million by the VILLUM Investigator Programme.

The research will be carried out within the framework of a newly established centre – the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World (BIOCHANGE) – in collaboration with colleagues at the Department of Bioscience. Professor Svenning is director of the centre, which also includes Signe Normand, Alejandro Ordonez Gloria and Felix Riede, as well as other colleagues at the Department of Bioscience.

Artificial intelligence will find atomic structures

At present, 200 million unique chemical compounds are known. By calculating the number of possible atomic structures that can be formed, however, there is a potential for discovering new compounds that can possibly be widely used in future materials. But how do you find a smart way to get to the right combinations of atoms without having to go through them one at a time? Professor Hammer will enlist the help of robots in his research project – Machine Learning in Atomistic Structure Determination – which has been awarded DKK 25 million by the VILLUM FOUNDATION.

The research project is concerned with using artificial intelligence to recognise atomic structures and identify the chemical compounds that can be used. Computer power will thereby make it possible to work with and understand far more complex problems than previously.

Common names: technology

In conclusion, Professor Niels Ole Bubandt, School of Culture and Society – Department of Anthropology, addressed the difficult task of explaining what links the two very different research areas being celebrated at the same time.

His suggestion for a key word was ‘technology’. Technological development has made us humans what we are today. Technology has enabled us to achieve deep insight into the world around us, right down to the atomic level. However, at the same time – ironically enough – it was technology that led to the Anthropocene, where human impact on the world and the climate has put pressure on nature and biodiversity.

Read also:

Big data – when reality acts as an experiment (in Danish only) (09.11.2017)

DKK 65 million granted to two researchers at Aarhus University (20.03.2017)



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