Science
Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Fun, exciting, and far-fetched

How to finance your shower thoughts

Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková
A Dutch Research Council (NWO) XS grant of 50,000 euros may just be the thing you need to get that weird research idea you had in the shower off the ground. With this grant, UG scientists create PFAS-eating bacteria and try to find out why people refuse to participate in surveys. ‘It’s a bit like dreaming.’
13 March om 9:25 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 March 2024
om 12:10 uur.
March 13 at 9:25 AM.
Last modified on March 13, 2024
at 12:10 PM.
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Door Marit Bonne

13 March om 9:25 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 March 2024
om 12:10 uur.
Avatar photo

By Marit Bonne

March 13 at 9:25 AM.
Last modified on March 13, 2024
at 12:10 PM.

Gosia Włodarczyk-Biegun’s computer contains a Word file labelled Pomysly. It’s Polish for ‘ideas’ and unsurprisingly, the file contains a long list of ideas. It’s a chaotic, expansive file that she uses to jot down every single idea that comes to mind. Sometimes, she’ll get an idea on a nature walk, or during a talk with a colleague. ‘My husband recently asked me why there are no flasks that can expand during cell culturing, that way we don’t have to transfer cells as often. I had never thought of it that way.’

Some of these ideas can be classified as ‘mad’: they might be fun, but their chances of success or applicability are small. But those just so happen to be the ones the assistant professor can’t let go of. Like the idea she had for repairing the tissue network in a human eye, for example.

‘And then in 2020, I saw the call for the NWO XS grant and I went back to my Word document’, she says. She happened upon an idea about bio-ink, a printable material that can be used in tissue restoration. Not just any bio-ink, either, but a whole new type, which would form a gel during the printing process, making bio-printing more precise and effective. But whether it would actually work remained to be seen.

Great need 

It’s ideas like these that the grant was made for, says Diede Oudshoorn, programme coordinator for the NWO XS grant for the exact and natural sciences. It’s a small amount, no more than 50,000 euros, specifically earmarked for ideas that are ‘out there’. ‘We’ve noticed that the academic community has a great need for this particular grant’, says Oudshoorn. Because the application process has relatively few criteria, researchers, including post-docs, are allowed to be truly creative.

When you get a grant, you get momentum in your research

Włodarczyk-Biegun received the grant, and it turned out to be exactly what she needed. ‘When you get a grant, you get momentum in your research’, she says. ‘Suddenly we could try out if gelling bioinks worked. And we were able to find a proof of concept.’ 

Now, nearly four years later, she has enough of a basis to know how to conduct her research, and she has a greater chance of getting larger grants in order to continue. ‘It was so inspiring, those new ideas, and it made us wonder, what more can be done? This grant is ideal for ideas that are far-fetched, a bit like dreaming.’ 

Serious issue

Assistant director of research methods Marieke van Gerner-Haan found this, too. She also had a mad idea that could be used to solve a serious issue. Social scientists often use surveys for their research, but they struggle with non-respondents: people who refuse to take the surveys. ‘I thought, maybe it’s time to go back to basics’, she says. ‘We should be asking those non-respondents why they didn’t want to participate.’

Until then, no one else had thought of trying this, but in February of last year, she was awarded 50,000 euros for the idea. She’s currently in the process of finding participants for her study, looking mostly within her own network. She hopes the results will help the field by decreasing the number of non-respondents.

Associate professor of biomolecular chemistry Clemens Mayer was also given an XS grant for his idea in April of 2022: he wanted to create bacteria that eat pesticides. ‘The problem with pesticides is that they are difficult to degrade’, he says. ‘Specifically, one type of molecule: the organophosphates, which are abundant in pesticides.’

So, he thought, what if we make pesticides easier to degrade and apply a little molecular biology trick that speeds up the degradation of these organophosphate connections? By making the pesticides essential to fast-growing bacterium E.coli’s digestion, you should be getting bacteria that clean up contaminated soil. 

Setback 

As can be expected of crazy ideas, they’re not always successful. Van Gerner-Haan is currently on her third attempt. The first time, the non-respondents refused to participate in the study, which was to be expected. 

It was so inspiring, those new ideas

After that setback, she joined a study on noise pollution. ‘But it was a very local study, so many of the residents were willing to fill out the survey. So then we didn’t have any non-respondents to work with.’

Mayer’s research hit a snag when it turned out that E.coli already used organophosphates in its digestive system. ‘Our efforts did not really provide an advantage in degrading the targeted organophosphates’, he says. 

PFAS

Nevertheless, one mad idea could just lead to another one. Even though pesticides didn’t work, perhaps the principle could also be applied to the even more harmful substance PFAS, which are present in non-stick coating on pans, as well as rain gear, and pesticides. The molecules in PFAS have a very strong chemical bond, the carbon-fluorine bond, which makes them hard to decompose.

PFAS materials are synthetic, with the exception of the toxic fluoroacetate in plants, which is probably there to deter herbivores like cows from eating them. ‘But evolution is a fascinating thing, and it seemed that the microbiome in the cow’s gut adapted to this toxin’, Mayer explains. ‘Bacteria were actually able to break this carbon-fluorine bond in the molecule, using an enzyme. It’s one of the simplest organic reactions.’

This then led to his latest crazy idea, for which he was awarded another NWO XS grant last December: a PFAS-eating bacterium. 

Mayer and his team are using the approach they did with the pesticide eaters, by attaching the enzyme recipe to E.coli’s DNA. After a while, the number of bacteria will have grown enough for them to ‘feed’ them PFAS chains to see if their plan worked. ‘It was not necessarily a bold idea, but it was a good idea with a lot of potential’, says Mayer. 

Executable

But how do you even start this kind of innovative and daring research? ‘You have to start with an idea, obviously. Just something that you want to explore further’, says Oudshoorn. It could be an idea that comes to you in the shower, or on a random Friday afternoon.

The writing style is really important

You then have to summarise your idea in two pages and submit it, after which everyone who’s submitted an idea before gets to look at it. ‘Because it’s only a small grant, we didn’t want the application process to be too difficult.’ The others will read your proposal, write a few sentences of feedback, and rank the proposals.

‘The most important thing is that your idea is executable’, says Oudshoorn. He says this is not the same as feasible. ‘The difference lies in the fact that in an executable plan, you do what you’ve suggested, whereas feasible suggests it will actually work.’ 

Wow factor

What’s the determining factor in getting the grant? ‘Make sure to keep your target audience in mind’, all four academics say. Oudshoorn recommends exploring the breadth of the research field rather than the depth. 

‘You need to take a bit of distance from your science’, adds Włodarczyk-Biegun. ‘Don’t write it in a traditional way but use some storytelling to make it fascinating.’ She also recommends emphasising the idea’s ‘wow factor’.

‘The writing style of your proposal is really important’, says Van Gerner-Haan. It’s also a good idea to run the idea by your colleagues to see how it comes across. 

‘The worst thing is if you don’t get your ideas across’, Mayer confirms. You have to go quite far outside your field to see if you have a shot at the grant. ‘It is most difficult to know either nothing or everything about a project.’ 

But most importantly, make sure you enjoy the process. ‘It is a fun grant because you look at your research from a different perspective’, promises Włodarczyk-Biegun. ‘If you’re not going to have fun, don’t apply for it.’

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