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ERC Starting Grants: Four Scholars and Scientists Awarded Grant Funding

A neuroscientist studies what happens in the brains of male nightingales while they sing.

Dec 18, 2017

Sweetly sings the nightingale...

In late spring, when a male nightingale starts looking for a mate, his voice is the only thing that matters. Males compete for the females’ favor in the dark of night. But the singing competition that erupts among multiple males sounds less like a duel than like a well-rehearsed duet.

Extraordinary singers: Male nightingales do not fight musical duels with their rivals. Instead, they sing along with them like in a duet.

Extraordinary singers: Male nightingales do not fight musical duels with their rivals. Instead, they sing along with them like in a duet.
Image Credit: wikipedia/Andreas Eichler/ Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.de

“Like in a conversation between two people, one male listens to the other’s song before answering,” explains neuroscientist Daniela Vallentin. “The second male can even repeat the same song. That means he heard exactly what his rival sang before him.” If nightingales could speak, they might say something like, “Pfft! Anything you can do, I can do, too.”

This is highly unusual among birds. Zebra finches and budgerigars, for example, do not display duet behavior. They don’t care what the competition is singing; they simply try to drown it out. Vallentin plans to use the funding she has been granted by the European Research Council to find out, at a neuronal level, why that is different in nightingales, and what exactly happens in their brains at the time

At New York University, where Vallentin worked with zebra finches before, she co-developed a tiny measuring device weighing just 1.6 grams that she attaches to the heads of young birds. An electrode as thin as a hair is implanted in a certain area of the bird’s brain, where it allows researchers to “listen in” on the activity of individual nerve cells and the neurons that carry signals between them, called interneurons, while the bird listens to his rival’s song, processes it, and then responds. “This is absolutely painless for the animals, and it doesn’t adversely affect them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t sing at all,” Vallentin points out.

Nightingales are the only birds that sing at night. There are clearly tactical reasons for this, since the females, who return to Europe from West Africa in the early summer, migrate at night. “The males’ singing allows them to locate potential partners,” Vallentin explains. Each male nightingale has a repertoire of some 200 complex verses, each of them two to four seconds long and all species-specific. While they belt out their arias in the night, the female – who cannot sing herself – perches silently in the bushes. In most cases, she favors the dominant singer, while the loser moves on.

Vallentin, who has headed the “Neural Mechanisms Underlying Vocal Learning in Zebra Finches” Emmy Noether Junior Research Group at the Institute of Biology at Freie Universität for a year now, plans to raise eight to ten nightingales by hand from the age of just a few days old next spring. This species of birds nests on the ground, particularly preferring high stinging nettles, and lays four to six eggs.

“We plan to go to nesting sites that are in danger, such as those near off-leash dog areas or garbage cans, and take one chick from each nest.” The researcher will perform a saliva test to find out whether the chicks are male. “We will hold a strip of blotting paper up to each bird’s beak for a moment and then analyze the secretions in the lab.” To be able to tell the nestlings apart later on, the down on each one’s head will be given a different “style” beforehand.

In the lab, recordings of nightingale songs will be played back to the birds starting at the age of three weeks. “In the beginning, they just listen and learn. We call this the sensory phase. After about five months, they start practicing themselves,” Vallentin explains. To be able to simulate a singing competition in the lab and study it, Vallentin is currently developing a robot bird that is capable of learning and will answer the nightingales as another bird would do in nature. During the competition, the neuroscientist will “listen in” on the nerve cells involved as they work.

Vallentin, who studied at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Technische Universität Berlin, actually started out as a mathematician and wound up in neurobiology by chance. “A project was looking for someone to teach math to rhesus macaques. I thought it was exciting.” She wrote her dissertation at the university in Tübingen, on the subject of neuronal representation of quantities in primate brains. She started working with songbirds later on, at the medical center at New York University (NYU).

Once nightingales have found a mate, incidentally, they wait until sunrise to start singing, like all other birds. Whether their songs have a meaning beyond their melodious sound – and if so, what it is – is unknown.

By Catarina Pietschmann

Writing across Borders

Re-situating Palestinian Literature

The history of Palestinian literature as a history of fragmentation: Arabic language and literature scholar Refqa Abu-Remaileh is interested in literature that transcends concepts of nationhood, studying Palestinian writers around the world. She was born and raised in Jordan herself. After studying at the University of British Columbia and at the University of Oxford, she initially worked in Berlin and Marburg as an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellow and a postdoctoral fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

For her new project, Abu-Remaileh will be building both a research team and an interactive digital platform – both highly unusual in literary studies. The European Research Council (ERC) is supporting the innovative project for a period of five years with one of its prestigious ERC Starting Grants. Next year, Abu-Remaileh will begin tracing and re-situating the literary production and reception of Palestinian culture.

Past research has focused primarily on works from certain areas or periods. In her project, Abu-Remaileh plans to consider Palestinian literature from different regions and periods together. The authors’ biographies illustrate her cosmopolitan approach: Mahmoud Darwish, for example, lived not only in Haifa, but also in Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Tunis, Paris, Amman, and Ramallah. But the texts themselves also tell a tale of life between worlds: In Emile Habibi’s 1974 novel The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, the protagonist, Saeed, embodies the paradoxical situation of Palestinians in Israel.

To bring stories like these to life, the digital project is slated to include excerpts from difficult-to-access texts and the authors’ biographical information, along with an interactive map and a timeline showing literary events, plus letters, illustrations, and photos. Abu-Remaileh hopes to gain access to private collections in the Middle East and Europe. “During the process, it will be just as important to identify where the gaps are as it is to try to fill them,” the scholar says. The methods used for her project could serve as a model for working with other diaspora literatures; the Jewish experience is also relevant. Abu-Remaileh is trying not to continue the fragmentation, but instead to grasp the simultaneity of cultural production beyond national borders.

By Catarina von Wedemeyer

Times of Protest

“Powder” project studies how new movements change our political order

The start of this century may go down in history as an era of protest. All over the world, new movements of various political stripes formed in the 2010s. There was the “Occupy” movement, which occupied public spaces in New York, London, and Frankfurt, among other places, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007/08. There was the Arab Spring, in 2011.

Austerity measures enacted during the European debt crisis were met with a wave of protest in different forms, such as the “Indignados” in Spain and the “Oxi” (“No”) movement in Greece, which was a direct response to the cuts imposed by the country’s creditors. Populist movements also arose on the right, including the Monday demonstrations by Pegida in Germany. There were protests by refugees in places like Berlin’s Oranienplatz and in the northern French port city of Calais. And in addition to traditional street protests, this period also saw the emergence of digital protest on a massive scale and in many forms.

Christian Volk, a professor of political science at the Otto Suhr Institute at Freie Universität Berlin, plans to spend the next five years studying how these new movements are organized and what opportunities and risks they hold for Western democracies. POWDER is the title of the project for which Volk has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant: “Protest and Order. Democratic Theory, Contentious Politics, and the Changing Shape of Western Democracies.”

“Each of the new movements poses specific challenges for Western democracies,” Volk says. “They are changing the structures under which policy is made.” Protests by unregistered migrants, for example, cast doubt on the idea of citizenship as a prerequisite for political action. Volk explains that digital protest allows people to publicly voice their opinions anonymously. At the same time, fundamental principles of the political order have become negotiable. “Right-wing movements like Pegida are breaking with the fundamental values of Western democracy, which is founded on pluralism,” Volk explains. Left-wing movements, by contrast, question the nation-state and its boundaries: “These movements aim to create a cosmopolitan counter-public.”

Volk plans to hire four doctoral candidates for his project. Each will be tasked with working on one of the project’s four main points: self-organized protests by migrants, digital protests, right-wing movements, and left-wing movements. The doctoral candidates will study the movements not just by analyzing documents – meaning studying all available publications and online discussions – but also through participatory observation. And that means one thing first and foremost: going to demonstrations.

“We want to understand exactly how these movements work internally,” Volk says. He cautions, however, that the project also goes beyond that. “We also want to study exactly what it means that these different cultures of protest have arisen in our democracies.” Protests, Volk explains, have often been the driving forces behind sweeping political change in the history of Western democracy. “If we understand today’s protest movements, we will be in a better position to understand the faces of our democracies tomorrow.”

By Dennis Yücel

The Difficult Search for Exact Algorithms

Start-up financing for computer science team

Geometric algorithms are all around us. They are used to map out the fastest route to get to work, find the closest ATM, and compare similar patterns. But algorithms that work as quickly and accurately as desired – or required – are not known for all practical applications. A team headed by Wolfgang Mulzer, a professor of theoretical computer science, is tackling this challenge within the scope of the ERC Starting Grant awarded to him for his project “Complexity Inside NP – A Computational Geometry Perspective.” The core team is made up of four people; specialists from other countries are also involved.

“For many problems, we don’t know any algorithms that work efficiently even with very large inputs,” Mulzer says. “Why that is the case is an open question.” He thinks two potential causes are possible: “It could be that the applications are simply difficult as such, but it might also be the case that we don’t yet understand the problem properly.” To grasp how algorithms can be programmed more efficiently, this means the first step for Mulzer and his team will be to go to the root of a problem. “We need to understand first what makes a problem difficult. As soon as we have explored that, we can develop tailor-made solutions for the tasks we really want to resolve,” he explains.

As examples of practical problems that are to be solved with geometric algorithms, Mulzer cites the task of finding similar geometric patterns or answering the question of how far apart two persons can be inside a geometric labyrinth. Mulzer and his team are studying these kinds of classic problems in route finding, pattern recognition, and grid generation. “We aim to study, for example, whether different difficult problems in route finding are interrelated.” If so, it would mean a fast algorithm for a certain problem could lead to fast algorithms for many other challenges. But that’s not all: “We also plan to consider tasks for which a good solution is mathematically guaranteed, but researchers do not know any way to find it efficiently.”

Ideally, it should be possible to harness the insights that Mulzer hopes to glean in terms of geometric route finding for other applications as well. “For example, advances in working with large volumes of data and developments in computer graphics and robotics are conceivable,” he explains. The funding provided by the ERC will run for up to five years, meaning until 2022. Even without a crystal ball, Mulzer makes a definitive prediction for the future: “Algorithms will shape our lives even more in 2050 than they do today.”

By Carsten Wette