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Exploring the future: on forensics, robots, humans and more

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Published on Thursday, 25 February 2021

Six new interdisciplinary research projects have received multi-year funding in the context of the Audacity funding instrument of the University’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

In addition to its disciplinary excellence, the University has the ambition to strengthen its interdisciplinary approach, which is instrumental to approach both important scientific questions and large societal challenges. The University’s new Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) is a concrete instrument to support this ambition.

The six newly selected projects focus on forensic genomics, the microbiome of cancerous patients, the workplace paradigm under COVID-19, the EU monetary policy, robotics and automation, and mechanistic data integration for epilepsy treatment.

The common characteristic of the selected projects is their bold approach to solve complex challenges by taking full advantage of interdisciplinary approaches. Audacity aims at overcoming the barriers between scientific disciplines and sectors, and fostering increased collaboration at the forefront of science at the University of Luxembourg.

The following projects were retained in the 2020 funding round and will start throughout 2021.

CRIMTYP: Meet the Unknown – The future of criminal forensic genomics phenotyping

Within the last 15 years DNA sequencing has revolutionised human genetics research. It is now possible to sequence a complete human genome inexpensively and efficiently. New methods open up new opportunities for the so-called Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP) – estimating the externally visible characteristics of a person who left traces of their DNA at a crime scene – as well as studying heritable phenotype changes to solve crimes. FDP may indicate concrete genetic aspects: a sample from the crime scene can offer information about hair, skin and eye colour or age, biogeographical ancestry, geographical origin, kinship, lineage, behaviour or genetic diseases of the potential offender. This revolutionary technique poses unprecedented legal challenges. The interdisciplinary project intends to combine legal and genetics science to explore the future of FDP while protecting citizens’ privacy and fair trial rights.

The project CRIMTYP is led by Prof. Silvia Allegrezza and Dr Patrick May.

CAMEOS: Cancer Microbiome – Emergent Organisation and Stability across scales

Despite the recent breakthroughs in the realms of microbiomes and cancer research, their interface, the cancer microbiome, remains unexplored until now. A growing body of fundamental and translational research indicates that the associated microbiome – the community of microorganisms living on and in the human body – could influence and potentially regulate cancer progression, crucially impacting the choice and efficacy of diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. Using a bottom-up multi-scale experimental approach, CAMEOS pioneers a new line of cross-disciplinary research on cancer microbiome that lies at an exciting interface of physics, biology and machine learning.

The project CAMEOS is led by Prof. Anupam Sengupta and Dr Elisabeth Letellier.

W@W: Wellbeing @ Work

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, research on workers’ fundamental rights and wellbeing was mainly focused on concerns driven by digitalisation, conditioned by the omnipresent automation of working environments and the emergence of new technological forms of work. With the start of the pandemic, the focus has widened. The overexposure to work of essential workers and suspension or confined teleworking of others initiated a radical change in the working paradigm: the workplace as we traditionally knew it unexpectedly disappeared, leaving working people and employers alike without a stable anchor. Policy makers are attempting to address such changes rapidly by considering the introduction of new laws. The W@W project aims to support policy makers with empirical evidence regarding the effects of such changes on the regulation of work and health and well-being of workers across the working-life.

The project W@W is led by Prof. Luca Ratti, Prof. Claus Vögele and Prof. Anna Kornadt.

EMULEG: The Governance of Monetary Policy: The EMU’s Legitimacy Conundrum

The role of European Central Bank (ECB) in monetary policy and in European Union (EU) law and politics has changed fundamentally in the past decade. Similar to the sovereign debt crisis, the ECB is again at the forefront of economic responses in 2020 that are essential to preserve the Eurozone, and the EU itself. While it has so far been successful, the evolution of the ECB's decision-making remains problematic in terms of its legitimacy. EMULEG proposes to re-define the institutional framework of the Economic and Monetary Union. It analyses whether the ECB’s independence is too high in light of the increasing polarisation of opinions on its policies and the growing importance of its decisions, and whether there are better alternatives to rebalance independence and democratic legitimacy.

The project EMULEG is led by Prof. Joana Mendes and Prof. Anna-Lena Högenauer.

TRANSCEND: Transforming autonomous navigation, swarm robotics and construction by encoding data into surfaces

TRANSCEND aims to create the foundation for an infrastructure that does not exist yet, but is needed to keep up with emerging trends in robotics and automation. The long-term vision is to enable safe cohabitation of robots and humans in everyday contexts, from the intimacy of homes to construction sites and busy cityscapes. At the heart are the optics of Cholesteric Spherical Reflectors (CSRs). They reflect invisible ultraviolet (UV) or infrared (IR) light in every direction, which enables detection from anywhere even in visually complex and dynamic environments, without false positives. The project team will coat surfaces with CSR-based fiducial markers — effectively invisible QR codes — that link the physical world to its digital representation, allowing reliable, inexpensive and energy efficient Machine–to-Machine and Environment-to-Machine communication. The technology will assist navigation and real-time trajectory optimisation for robots, robot-assisted construction and responsible deconstruction and recycling, supporting the circular economy.

The project TRANSCEND is led by Prof. Jan Lagerwall and Prof. Holger Voos.

IDAE: Integrative Data Analysis in Epilepsy

Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder characterised by recurrent seizures and a rather heterogeneous clinical appearance. 30% of patients do not respond to available drug treatments. IDEA addresses this challenge by developing new approaches for mechanistic data integration in biomedicine and applying them to heterogeneous data sets on epilepsy to facilitate improved patient stratification – the division of a potential patient group into subgroups. The project uses interpretable machine-learning methods to integrate available heterogeneous data sets of brain dynamics, brain composition and metabolic profiles of diverse genetic zebrafish models to reveal underlying disease mechanisms which will identify a mechanistic genotype-phenotype relation. The team will apply the developed stratification strategy, based on the deep phenotyping of zebrafish, to human EEG data and provide metabolic profile biomarker candidates to be validated in future translational approaches.

The project IDAE  is led by Prof. Alexander Skupin, Prof. Jacques Klein and Prof. Massimiliano Esposito.

 

Audacity is one the funding instruments of the University’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS). The IAS was launched in 2020 with the aim to strengthen the University’s interdisciplinary research and further reinforces its international profile as an excellent research university. Currently, University researchers work on 10 Audacity projects spanning the fields of artificial intelligence, data science, material physics, robotics, law, finance, economics, medicine, microbiology, psychology, politics and history. The next call for Audacity projects will be announced in June 2021.

Building on its strong disciplinary roots, the University uses interdisciplinary research as a catalyst to generate new understanding and innovations to improve the quality of life and society of tomorrow. The Institute is inspired by existing university-based Institutes for Advanced Studies on the international scenery, which are recognised for combining scientific excellence, interdisciplinarity and internationality, and for sharing knowledge and experience with society. As the only IAS in a perimeter of 1000km, the IAS will act as a beacon for research in Luxembourg and the Greater Region.