The road to the Nobel Prize? In Europe, ERC grants are one of the avenues. That was the headline in Our University magazine back in October 2021 when Comenius University hosted the Nobel Prize laureate in physics Kip Thorne. On that occasion we wondered whether Slovak researchers even had a chance to win the Nobel Prize. At the time, we introduced the grant scheme of the European Research Council (ERC), established by the European Union in an effort to compete with the U.S. in science by supporting cutting-edge individual research. The scheme was launched in 2007 and twelve ERC grant recipients have since won the Nobel Prize, six received the Fields Medal, eleven won the Wolf Prize, and a number of others received other awards. Research supported by ERC grants led to the filing of 2,200 patents, and grant recipients founded over 400 start-ups.

24. 04. 2023 09.26 hod.
By: Naša univerzita magazine staff

A long wait for success

For a very long time, research in Slovakia had little success in attracting ERC grants. While in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, the number of ERC grant holders at universities and research facilities numbered in the dozens, the chemist Ján Tkáč from the SAS (Slovak Academy of Sciences) was the only successful applicant in Slovakia for over ten years, since 2012. Between 2014 and 2020 the „success rate“ of ERC Starting Grant applications from Slovakia making it to the second round of evaluation was zero, even worse than those of Bulgarian scientists.

Last year, in October 2022, after so many years we heard good news - Elżbieta Drążkiewicz, a researcher hailing from Poland, who works at the Institute of Sociology of the SAS, received an ERC Starting Grant. And in February 2023, we were happy to learn than an ERC grant was also awarded to a researcher from our university. The chemist Michal Májek from the Faculty of Natural Sciences successfully applied in the field of chemical catalysis using piezoelectric materials. „Getting the first ERC grant at Comenius University is great news for our university and an important signal to other universities - that it can be done. It is an immense success, we are proud of our Faculty of Natural Sciences, as well as of Mr. Michal Májek,“ responded CU Rector Marek Števček.

CAPELE project

Michal Májek named his project CAPELE. The project studies the use of mechanical energy to activate organic molecules. In the search for new reactions, it attempts to use a novel method of activating molecules using piezoelectric catalysts. The majority of the project is basic research but it might have potential practical applications in the synthesis of medicines or in materials science. This grant, consequently, opens a new chapter of Slovak research. „I believe that we will succeed in developing new reactions that will be interesting not only from the point of view of basic research, but also in terms of practical applications,“ says Michal Májek.

In case of this research, an immediate answer to the question ‘What is it good for?’ is not really necessary. ERC grants are intended to support research that no one has done before, and for which no specific outputs can be guaranteed in advance. „The ERC wants to push the boundaries of human knowledge. Usually, grant applications are built so that you summarize what you are already doing, or what someone else has done before you, and ask for support to continue that research or to branch off it. An ERC grant application is different. It must clearly show that you want to do something new, although, naturally, you have to prove that it is feasible,“ explains Michal Májek. 

Green chemistry

The CAPELE project research is part of ‘green chemistry’, i.e. chemistry that is friendly to the environment. It strives to develop methods in which the synthesis and production of new compounds have as little negative impact on the environment as possible. Green chemistry also endeavours to use raw materials from renewable sources, to limit the production of waste, avoid the use of toxic, flammable and volatile solvents, and give preference to environmentally acceptable catalysts and biocatalysts. Apart from other materials, Michal Májek plans to use sand as a piezoelectric catalyst in his research. At the Department of Organic Chemistry, where the ERC grant research will take place, green chemistry methods have been successfully developed for years by, among others, Štefan Toma, Radovan Šebesta or Mária Mečiarová.

Ing. Michal Májek, Dr. rer. nat., 
(b. 1987) grew up in Bratislava and both his parents are researchers in the field of chemistry. Even as a high school student, he achieved success in national and international rounds of the Chemistry Olympiad. He graduated from the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague, and completed stays at the universities of Glasgow and St. Andrews in Scotland during his studies. He received his doctorate at the University of Regensburg in Germany, and worked as a postdoc in the U.S. at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Rostock in Germany. Since 2020, he has worked at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Comenius University Bratislava, acting as a member of the Chemistry Section at the Department of Organic Chemistry. He leads the Laboratory of Organic Synthesis Methodology. In his work, he focuses on organic photochemistry, organic electrochemistry, and computer chemistry, or mechanochemistry. One of his interests is the promotion and popularization of chemistry among young people, and he cooperates with the Chemistry Olympiad.

Homecoming with obstacles

In addition to an original idea, the success of the application is also due to the high-profile research biography of the young scientist who has done a lot of his work abroad, has high-quality publications under his belt and whose grant applications have consistently been successful. He is the recipient of a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship, which allowed him to return home in 2020, having spent 14 years at universities and research facilities abroad. He chose the Department of Organic Chemistry of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Comenius University. „During my years abroad, I remained in contact with Professor Radovan Šebesta, we worked together on assignments for the Chemistry Olympiad. I knew that I would have the freedom to do my own research here,“ says Dr. Májek.

His return to Slovak research, however, was rather dramatic. He started working at the faculty in February 2020, and a month later the pandemic broke out. „For two years, I more or less taught and worked from home. Last year, when normal classes resumed, the renovation of our faculty’s premises began, and it is actually still ongoing,“ he says. He first started developing the project for the ERC at his parents' house, because at the time he did not have an internet connection in his flat and the faculty was already in lock-down mode. Last September, he underwent the final stage of an ERC grant application, the dreaded interview before a committee of top experts in the field, online from home. „I didn't have windows or a piece of wall in my office at that time. I also didn't want to risk losing my internet connection.“

Individual grant

An ERC Starting Grant is worth 1.55 million euros over 5 years. The expectation is that for this amount, the lead researcher buys all the necessary equipment and materials, and assembles his or her own research team. Although it is an individual grant, in reality the money will end up on the faculty's account. Therefore, any use of the money is subject to all the rules of public funds management and the related bureaucracy. Dr. Májek's “home” lab is ready to help him. „The Faculty of Natural Sciences of Comenius University considers projects to be an essential part of quality science and research. We have two project centres – one for international and one for domestic projects. We will do everything we can to help Michal feel as little as possible of the infamous bureaucracy, so that he can fully focus on science,“ promised the dean of the faculty, Professor Peter Fedor.

The university is also ready to support any other researchers who would like to apply for ERC grants. We, the management of the university, strive to create conditions that will enable other similar successes in the nearest future." responds CU Rector Marek Števček. As for Michal Májek, his first task will be to assemble a research team. International researchers will certainly be a part of this team since top research teams usually include an international element. He himself obtained his doctorate in Germany where he worked in the team led by a professor who was an ERC grant recipient. „I will certainly involve my students in the project, because I think that working at a research university involves training new scientific talent.“ says the successful scientist.

Lenka Miller, Barbora Tancerová