Don't stop me now

Multi-million successes in times of cyberattacks and corona


While 2020 has been anything but a smooth ride, it has brought great successes for some. Take for example Dr. Kateřina Staňková and Prof. Yvonne van der Meer. They each secured millions of euros in research funding during UM’s cyberattack. What was that like? And how does the post-Brexit, pandemic reality now affect them as newly-established coordinators of European research networks?

It’s 14 January 2020. While it’s business as usual at most European universities, UM is scrambling to recover from the infamous cyberattack on Christmas Eve. At this point, e-mail services have only been accessible for a week. Other IT systems are slowly starting to regain functionality.

It’s also the deadline to apply for an ITN grant from the European Union: a highly competitive subsidy, intended to create large-scale European research collaborations (‘Innovative Training Networks’) that will train new generations of scientists. Success rates for these proposals are typically well below 10%. Many of the proposed collaborations will never transition from paper to reality, and that’s when the world is roughly normal.

Fast-forward to 26 May 2020. A second, worldwide crisis has reared its ugly head. Against a backdrop of social distancing, travel restrictions and lockdowns, FSE researchers Prof. Yvonne van der Meer and Dr. Kateřina Staňková receive an e-mail from the European Commission – “Dear Coordinator” – announcing that they have beaten the odds: their proposals were selected for 3 and 4 million euros of funding, respectively. 

Securing such prestigious grants while navigating two unprecedented crises… If this were a movie pitch, it would probably face criticism for being implausible and corny. What was it like in real life?

Nightmare after Christmas

“Things were a bit messy for me around Christmas”, Dr. Staňková recalls. “I noticed some people didn’t respond to my e-mails about the proposal. Later I wasn’t sure whether they simply ignored me or did not get the e-mail. It took me 3 to 4 days before I completely moved myself to a different e-mail account. Only then did I start to notice the damage.” 

Meanwhile, Prof. Van der Meer had also noticed something was wrong. “It’s common for ITN preparations to continue during Christmas. I was on holiday, but I did check my e-mails… and figured something was wrong when updates stopped coming through. Of course, a cyberattack was not what I suspected at the time.”

Dr. Kateřina Staňková (left) and Prof. Yvonne van der Meer (right)
Dr. Kateřina Staňková (left) and Prof. Yvonne van der Meer (right)

Pick your strategy

While both researchers managed to retrieve crucial files via back-ups, the cyberattack prevented them from touching base with their collaborators as much as they would have liked. For Prof. Van der Meer, it was the third time the BioBased ValueCircle project was submitted. This allowed her to keep preparations mostly between herself and fellow AMIBM colleague ir. Ermo Daniels. “The last time we submitted the proposal, we scored just below the selection threshold. We thought that if we spent our time improving the project’s identified weaknesses, rather than the scientific content, we might make it. We decided against having big meetings – simply because we were still busy retrieving all the relevant files and contacts ourselves.”

On the other hand, Dr. Staňková and her consortium were about to take their first shot at an ITN grant. “EvoGamesPlus is a continuation of a previous EU-funded collaboration, but this time around we have many new partners.” Last-minute consultation was therefore inevitable. “Five days before the deadline, every day was a heart attack. I may have traumatised another parent while waiting to pick the kids up from school.” She laughs: “He asked me how I was doing. Since telling him about the grant proposal for ten minutes straight, I noticed he doesn’t like to stand next to me anymore. Things didn’t go smoothly, but we managed.” 

Epidemiological writing on the wall

Staňková’s managing paved the way for applied mathematics. “Our consortium is all about evolutionary game theory. We will come up with more realistic mathematical models that describe interactions in nature.” Such models are for instance used to understand human populations and to optimise agricultural pest control. EvoGamesPlus aims to create better methods in general, but will also advance two specific applications: cancer treatment and epidemiology. “But when we wrote the proposal, we didn’t know of COVID-19”, Staňková promises. 

The EvoGamesPlus consortium emphasizes its network status and its thirst for real-life applications. Staňková: “Generally speaking, each participating institution will have one PhD student. However, the students will visit other places to learn new skills and work with real data.” To ensure that theory will in fact meet practice, she has been particularly tough: “If you allow an academic to choose, they will usually send their student to another university. We let everyone select two places on their own, while we selected a third, more practice-oriented location. An organisation with valuable real-life datasets, for instance.”

About EvoGamesPlus
EvoGamesPlus is a collaboration between 14 European institutions and 15 other partners from around the world, including from the US and Brazil. 15 PhD students will learn to master evolutionary game theory through training in mathematical modelling, but also in biology, computational science and data analysis. Apart from developing new mathematical tools, the network will look into cancer therapy and epidemiology as applications. The consortium is coordinated by Dr. Kateřina Staňková, associate professor at FSE’s Department of Data Science and Knowledge Engineering (DKE).

Shared sustainable values

Multi-disciplinary training and industry collaborations play a similarly important role in the BioBased ValueCircle consortium, which will set out to accelerate the transition from an oil-based economy into a sustainable, bio-based economy. 

“The philosophy behind the BioBased ValueCircle network is similar to that of our institute”, explains Prof. Van der Meer. As the project’s coordinator and scientific co-director of AMIBM, she is quick to point out the similarities.  “We have a unique approach to the so-called value chain of bio-based materials. At AMIBM, we look at the entire process: starting from bio-based raw materials to the molecules you can make from it, to the materials you can create from there and what applications those materials have. The consortium will do the same, but now with other universities and companies involved. Those collaborations reach far: all of the PhD students who will be trained within the network will spend half of their time doing research in industry.”

Van der Meer: “BioBased ValueCircle does two other things you don’t usually see in this type of project. First of all, we integrate biology into the entire programme. Materials science tends to focus on chemistry and on product engineering, but if you start to use bio-based raw materials, you need knowledge of biology – which tends to be left out. We will train people with an integral vision. Furthermore, we are going to develop a common language and methodology. To inspire each other and exchange ideas, especially across all the different disciplines and actors involved in bio-based materials and circular economies, you require that shared language.”

About BioBased ValueCircle
14 institutions will join forces as the BioBased ValueCircle consortium, which is set to train 12 PhD students in an industrial doctorate programme – of which 7 will be enrolled in a UM PhD – in all aspects of developing bio-based products. This will help to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, circular economy: BioBased ValueCircle aims to speed up the product development process and foster cooperation between all scientific disciplines involved. The consortium is coordinated by Prof. Yvonne van der Meer and Prof. Stefan Jockenhövel, scientific directors of the Aachen-Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials (AMIBM).

Public-private matchmaking

Mutual inspiration can also be a challenge for public-private partnerships. Prof. Van der Meer: “The key is to make sure both parties benefit. Universities tend to have other goals than corporations – publish a lot, show a PhD thesis of great quality – which you need to unite in one project.” Laughing: “I think it came quite naturally, but we still need to prove this in real life. At AMIBM, we’re used to public-private projects, but that usually means the PhD student stays with us and visits the company once in a while. Them spending 18 months in industry, in an industrial doctorate, is new to us. I think it will be a lot of fun for the PhD students to work in both worlds.”

Dr. Staňková: “We wanted to have industrial partners as well, because they often deal with real data. Working on a theoretical model without an application is great, but nobody will really listen to you. We asked potential private partners: what are you dealing with, what are your problems? It’s a sort of bargaining when you think about it. Our private partners will also be closely involved with the training of our PhD students. For instance, they are part of the steering committees of individual PhD students to protect us academics from wandering to purely theoretical grounds. We want to train individuals who can spread their knowledge, and who will also have a bright future.”

A third grant to UM
Within the same round, a third grant was awarded to UM for the 'MINDSHIFT' project (Mechanistic Integration of vascular aND endocrine pathways for Subtyping Hypertension: an Innovative network approach for Future generation research Training).

CARIM researcher Koen Reesing and the institute’s former director Thomas Unger made a successful effort to secure the grant. Unger will continue to be involved in the project, in which Reesink will collaborate with ERC programme manager Tara de Koster.

Dr. Kateřina Staňková and Prof. Yvonne van der Meer

Post-Brexit Zoom realities

While both researchers are optimistic about said future - and rightfully so - there is no denying that things are slightly different than they anticipated back in January.

“These two subsequent crises are a bit of a shame”, Prof. Van der Meer acknowledges with a flair for understatement. “Now that the proposal has been granted, we again have to use workarounds for its implementation. Our new experiences with online meetings and teaching come in handy. We already had a pre-kick-off meeting via MS Teams and while I’m not unhappy about how that went, I don’t think it’s a feasible long-term solution. It’s still better to have complex discussions in person. And while I can conduct my research from home, my colleagues need a lab space – there is only so much you can do online.” 

Dr. Staňková is also hoping to transition back to real-life meetings. “Our starting date is flexible. We’re trying to delay it as much as possible, hoping we can meet in person for the kick-off. However, the European Commission may bring the date forward because we have UK partners who are affected by the Brexit. If there was no COVID, I would of course try to meet the consortium in person, but now we have to do it via Zoom. It is what it is – just like the cybercrisis, there is no other option than to adjust to it. With such a great team, I have no doubt it will work out.”

Text and photograph Yvonne van der Meer by Dieudonnée van de Willige
Photographs Katerina Stankova and Tapijnkazerne by Joey Roberts

EvoGamesPlus and BioBased ValueCircle are Innovative Training Networks (ITNs) funded under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions framework of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. EvoGamesPlus has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 955708.

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