Interview with ERC Starting Grant Winner Dr Nicholas Kurinawan

Categories: EU-ASEAN relations

Tags: ERC | ASEAN grantees

In early September 2019, four hundred and eight early-career researchers were awarded European Research Council grants. The highly coveted funding will help individual scientists and scholars to build their own teams and conduct pioneering research across all disciplines. The grants, worth in total € 621 million, are part of the EU’s Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020. The Starting Grants will help the selected scientists build their own research teams, creating an estimated 2,500 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other staff at the host institutions.

Joining the ranks of ERC awardees was Dr Nicholas Kurinawan, a graduate of National University of Singapore and currently Assistant Professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. Nicholas was awarded the prestigious ERC Starting Grant for his work on dissecting the dynamics of the physical interactions between cells and the extracellular matrix. He and his team will develop ways to mechanically manipulate cell behaviour using dynamic substrates and materials.

EURAXESS ASEAN caught up with Nicholas to find out more about him and his research.

Hello Nicholas! EURAXESS is an initiative that supports mobile researchers. Can you share with us the different stops of your research career so far?

I was born and raised in Indonesia. After completing high school, I moved to Singapore for an undergraduate study at the National University of Singapore, majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in Physics. Then I stayed in Singapore for a PhD atthe NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering (NGS). In the PhD project, I developed multiscale characterization tools, based on spectroscopy and micromechanics, to study cancer metastasis.

For my postdoc, I wanted to enrich my knowledge on the behavior of biopolymers inside (cytoskeleton) and outside the cell (extracellular matrix), so I took up an offer from AMOLF, a physics-oriented institute in Amsterdam. Part of this postdoc period was supported by a personal Marie Curie Fellowship, which gave me a lot of independence to personally direct where my research was going. In 2015, I became an assistant professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering of Eindhoven University of Technology. My current research integrates what I know about the cell, cytoskeleton, and extracellular matrix to understand cell response to biomaterials and to translate the insights for new regenerative medicine approaches.

Your research career has taken you to different places across the world. How has mobility helped you develop your career?

The most important benefit of mobility that I felt is the chance to experience a variety of scientific settings. Different groups in different countries have different ways of working, priorities, communication and leadership styles, publishing strategies, etc. All of these are shaped by the context, such as local culture, expectations, institutional responsibilities, and personalities. You only get glimpses of these in normal research collaborations, but you have to be inside the system for considerable periods to start to understand the underlying reasons and rationales. In research you have to work with a lot of people coming from various backgrounds, so understanding these can really help not only career-wise but also in making personal connections with your colleagues.

You have been awarded an ERC Starting Grant to work on a rather fascinating topic. Can you tell us a little about it and what you are setting out to achieve?

The basic premise is that cells are physical entities that have to physically interact with their environment, be it the natural extracellular matrix, biomaterials, or medical devices. Lately, there is a growing appreciation of these physical interactions, and a lot of effort is being spent to examine the effect of substrate structural and mechanical properties on various cell behaviours. However, most of these studies are ‘static tests’, whereas it is known that the extracellular matrix and biomaterials can dynamically alter their properties. My project will address this gap by investigating the dynamic physical interactions between cells and their environment, using a combination of smart materials, cell manipulations, and computational modeling. The outcome is expected to yield a novel toolset to spatiotemporally control cell–materials interactions for directing tissue regeneration.

What encouraged you to apply for this specific grant?

The ERC Starting Grant specifically encourages high-risk-high-gain projects that have the potential to revolutionize a scientific field. This is precisely the nature of my research idea, which does not fully match the criteria of many other funding instruments. The amount of funding is large enough and flexible enough to build a critical mass to make the idea happen, which is especially useful for an early-career PI. Moreover, it is a highly prestigious grant that can really help my career in the future.

What single piece of advice would you give young researchers beginning their careers in ASEAN?

Find a niche. Find a subject that is uniquely your own, given your scientific background and interests. This may mean staying away from ‘mainstream’ or ‘hot’ research fields, but it will not only prevent unnecessary head-on competition with other, perhaps more established researchers, but also provide interesting opportunities for collaborations in the future.

Thank you Nichoals and good luck with your project!