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Prestigious EU funding for UiT researcher

Researcher Balpreet Ahluwalia at Department of Physics and Technology has received a Prestigious ERC Starting Grant. Only three other Norwegian scientists have achieved the same.


Vibeke Os 23.08.2013 15:30   (Last updated: 23.08.2013 15:41)

The great achievement of Dr. Balpreet Singh Ahluwalia were celebrated with cakes and flowers, here he receives congratulations from UiT pro-rector Kenneth Ruud whom also received this prestigious funding two years ago. Photo: Vibeke Os

Optical sensors developed for earth observations finds new applications in development of nanoscope for studies of liver cells.
At Institute of Physics and Technology at UiT physics has for several decades been working with optical techniques for measuring the state of the earth related to environmental issues and studies of Aurora Borealis. Now this research is merged with studies of liver cells and their ability to filter components from our blood, contributing to knowledge and technology development for human health.

UiT Success in Tough competition for EU funding
Dr. Balpreet Singh Ahluwalia, Dept. of Physics and Technology (DPT), has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant. This is a prestigious project funding from the European Research Council.

The project is entitled “High-speed chip-based nanoscopy to discover real-time sub-cellular dynamics”. The total budget is approximately 16 mill NOK distributed over an 5 year period. The funding will give Ahluwalia the opportunity to build a strong research team, consisting of two PhD-students, two scientists (post-docs), MSc-students and himself. Ahluwalia originates from India and has been studying and working in Singapore, UK and USA before he came to Tromsø in 2007.

The criteria of selection for the ERC Starting Grant are scientific excellence of the project and a proven track-record for the candidate. As it is an attractive, long term funding scheme, it attracts a large number of excellent applicants from all over Europe and the competition is tough. In 2013, the call received 3329 applications, 287 projects were funded, while Norwegian researchers received only 3 projects.  The project of Ahluwalia is the only one in Norway granted from the Physical Engineering panel. So far 16 ERC Starting Grants has been rewarded Norwegian researchers, UiT have received 2 such grants, both to the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Exciting combination of physical and medical research
The project is multi-disciplinary and requires knowledge about optics, nanotechnology, microscopy and cell biology. It is based on established research on optics and sensor technology at the Dept. of Physics and Technology represented by Olav Gaute Hellesø, as well as liver cell research at the Dept. of Medical Biology, represented by  Bård Smedsrød and Peter McCourt.

The technology of integrated optics will be used to make an optical chip for super-resolution microscopy. This combination is called chip-based optical nanoscopy. It will provide a tool to image the sub-cellular dynamics of a living liver cell in real-time. It is believed that the liver fenestrations, which are nano-holes present in liver cells, open and close dynamically. This leads to nano-filtration of waste materials, such as cholesterol, from our blood.

It is not possible to study living cells with an electron microscope and existing optical microscopes cannot resolve the nano-holes or are not fast enough to study their dynamics. The liver is an important organ for removing waste material from the blood, but it is also an obstacle for medicines that must pass through the liver to reach other parts of the body.

The project will provide new fundamental knowledge about the filtration process on the nano-level and may thus give an important contribution to medical research. Chip-based nanoscopy has been filed for patenting by Ahluwalia and co-workers.