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Four Generous Grants from the European Research Council

Young Researchers at Freie Universität Win ERC Starting Grants

№ 224/2017 from Aug 21, 2017

Four researchers at Freie Universität Berlin have won ERC Starting Grants. The grants were awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) in amounts up to 1.5 million euros over a five-year period. The winning projects at Freie Universität are in the fields of Arabic studies, computer science, neuroscience, and political science. With the ERC Starting Grants the European Research Council supports promising early-career researchers at an early stage in their career.

With her ERC Starting Grant, Arabic literature scholar Dr. Refqa Abu-Remaileh is investigating the history of Palestinian literature since 1948 in a comprehensive model. Computer scientist Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Mulzer explores the algorithmic complexity of problems in algorithmic and discrete geometry. The neural bases of the song of nightingales are being investigated by the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group leader Dr. Daniela Vallentin, and political scientist Prof. Dr. Christian Volk aims to develop a theory of political protest in democracy.

Brief Descriptions of the Projects

Dr. Refqa Abu-Remaileh, Fellow, Forum Transregional Studies, and Arabic Studies, Department of History and Cultural Studies, Freie Universität Berlin: Country of Words: Reading and Reception of Palestinian Literature from 1948 to the Present.

With her ERC Starting Grant Refqa Abu-Remaileh proposes a deep and thorough study of Palestinian literature as an early and on-going case of literary displacement. She aims to find new ways to account for and analyze texts, literary production, and reading publics that challenge and lie outside conventional conceptions of the nation-state. The project will seek to trace connections, disconnections, and transformations across dispersed Palestinian literary communities of writers and readers over time. The focus will be on identifying, tracing, and elaborating key and/or turning point moments of the Palestinian literary and cultural experience. A novel approach will be developed to merge textual analysis with reception theory and reading practices to be applied to Palestinian literature as a "literature-of-a-nation." By doing so, the project aims to introduce methodological innovations that can expand horizons beyond textual and national analyses toward interdisciplinary models that contend with the multi-faceted and unconventional dimensions of the Palestinian case, and generate a richer and more nuanced history of its literature. Particular challenges arise due to the lack of scholarly precedents, and many primary and secondary texts have been damaged, scattered, or lost. The research findings, including digitized sources and audio interviews, will be published via the project's online platform.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Mulzer, Theoretical Computer Science, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Freie Universität Berlin: Complexity Inside NP – A Computational Geometry Perspective.

Geometric algorithms are everywhere. They calculate the fastest route to work, find the location of the next cash machine, or assess the similarity of patterns. However, not all practical tasks have algorithms that work as fast and precisely as needed. Is this due to limited understanding, or are there deeper obstacles that prevent further progress? Wolfgang Mulzer aims to examine these questions by looking at classic problems concerning geometric path finding, pattern recognition, and mesh generation. He will investigate whether there are any deeper relationships between seemingly different algorithmic tasks. That would mean that a faster algorithm for one particular task leads to faster algorithms for many other tasks. Furthermore, he will consider tasks for which a good solution is mathematically guaranteed to exist, but science has no known way to find it efficiently.

Dr. Daniela Vallentin, Behavioral Biology and Neurosciences, Emmy Noether Junior Research Group Leader, Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy, Freie Universität Berlin: Neural Mechanisms Underlying Vocal Interactions in Duetting Nightingales.

When people talk animatedly with friends, they talk alternately, sometimes even at the same time, or they add something to the previous speaker's sentences. They must simultaneously plan a series of words they want to say and listen to other speakers. Such a flexible reciprocal exchange presents the human brain with a difficult task, and the underlying mechanisms are not known. This project aims to investigate the duet song of the nightingale to cast light on the basis of communication. In order to control the behavior of the nightingale as much as possible, the natural rival will be replaced with an interactive song-singing robotic bird. Neuronal activity in the brain of the bird is measured while the nightingale communicates with the robot. Previously, Daniela Vallentin was able to show in the zebra finch, a songbird that does not communicate in duet, that there are two types of nerve cells in the brain that play an important role in switching between listening and singing. Using a special recording device, the activity of both cell types is measured during listening and singing. It is hoped that the findings will show what mechanisms are involved that enable nightingales to sing their precise duet. It is expected that important mechanisms will emerge that are also present in humans, which allow them to communicate with the surrounding world.

Prof. Dr. Christian Volk, Center for Politics and Law, Department of Political and Social Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin: Protest and Order. Democratic Theory, Contentious Politics, and the Changing Shape of Western Democracies.

The aim of this project is to analyze the relationship between political protest and the political-legal order of modern Western democracies. Christian Volk assumes that political protest is not only a by-product of the changing shape of modern Western  democracy, but is a central driving force of the change of form itself, as today's protests call into question basic premises of modern democratic order. He examines the issue of how the political and legal order influences the development of the protest, how and in what way political protest challenges the political and legal order of modern democracies, and the extent to which possibilities and dangers arise for democratic coexistence. He is striving to reconstruct a general democratic-theoretical determination of meaning in present-day political protest movements. In doing so, Volk and his research group will combine research on social movements with political theory and philosophy.

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