ERC portrait: Prof. Dr. Helle Ulrich, Franziska Hornig and Katharina Zeller

Ein grünes Blatt wächst in einer Glühbirne

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With her ERC project, Prof. Dr. Helle Ulrich investigates a DNA repair system which contributes to the prevention of cancer and ageing processes. She is supported in project management by the EU liaison officers Katharina Zeller and Franziska Hornig at the Institute for Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz.

The project in brief

  • Acronym und titel: DAMAGE BYPASS: Mechanistic analysis of DNA damage bypass in the context of chromatin and genome replication
  • Principal Investigator: Prof. Dr. Helle Ulrich
  • Research coordinators: Franziska Hornig und Katharina Zeller
  • Host Institution: Institut für Molekulare Biologie, Mainz
  • Funding line and call year: Advanced Grants 2012
  • Panel: LS1
  • Website
  • Contact

Fotografie von Professor Helle Ulrich Prof. Dr. Helle Ulrich

Describe your scientific project in three sentences

DNA repair mechanisms protect the genetic material in our cells from damage, which can come from environmental sources and reactive metabolic products. These mechanisms thereby contribute to the prevention of cancer and the delay of ageing processes. The objective of this project is to investigate the DNA damage bypass, a repair system that guards against the occurrence of genetic alterations during genome replication. Using cellular and molecular biological techniques in the model system yeast, we will analyse how this repair system is activated in the cell and how its fidelity is regulated.

What makes your project excellent?

The processing of DNA damage during genome replication has thus far been analysed using classical genetics methods. Using these approaches, conclusions about the factors involved could be drawn only indirectly from the characterisation of genetic defects, or from biochemical analyses of single components and their activities. While genetics provides little mechanistic information, biochemistry can offer insights on the molecular level, but is also limited when it comes to investigating the regulation of the cellular repair system. Our project aims to connect both aspects, using cell biological approaches to follow the effect of DNA damage tolerance in the context of the living cell. This will enable us to elucidate the control mechanisms which govern the activation and fidelity of the DNA damage response and to describe their interaction with chromatin, i.e. changes to the structure and dynamics of the genetic material itself. Our goal is to observe these processes in real-time for the first time using high-resolution microscopy.

How do you as a scientist benefit from the ERC project?

The ERC grant allows me to conduct a large-scale project spanning several years. The long-term grant makes it possible to establish novel technologies in my lab, e. g. genomic analyses and real-time microscopy, and thus to pursue riskier approaches which may not lead to publications straight away.

What was the biggest challenge during the preparation of your proposal?

A general problem associated with long-term project descriptions is that it is difficult to illustrate a wide and visionary perspective in the short space available in a research proposal without neglecting the necessary details. Another challenge is to find a convincing balance between “safe” aspects based on promising preliminary work and riskier approaches with a high potential to break new ground.

How did you learn about the ERC?

The ERC is widely known in the field of molecular biology; ERC grants are considered as proof of quality, and strategies for applying for them are regularly discussed among colleagues.

What advice would you give to researchers who are planning their first ERC proposal?

For the ERC application, it is helpful to have a look at other (successful) proposals, even if they are on a topic not too closely related to your own research. In addition, comments from peers and colleagues can help to make your proposal clear and convincing. However, the most important piece of advice is probably to take enough time to develop your own ideas for a truly novel, inventive project. Time and work invested here are well spent in any case, as they allow you to think about the direction your research will take in the following five years. And finally, writing the application can be a good opportunity to get a clear idea of the feasibility your own research plans and exactly how they would be implemented.

Franziska Foto von Franziska Hornig Hornig and Katharina Zeller

How do you support researchers with their ERC proposal?

If researchers do not contact us themselves regarding ERC opportunities, we try to identifyFoto von Katharina Zeller suitable ERC candidates at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) and approach them actively. Then we discuss together at which point of their career an ERC application makes sense and what can still be achieved before that to further promote the researcher’s competitiveness. In case they wish to apply, we inform applicants about the most important ERC guidelines, assist them in the process of proposal writing and provide input especially on the administrative elements. We also support them with the submission of the proposal on the Participant Portal.

What advice would you give to researchers who are planning their first ERC proposal?

You should seek advice at an early stage. As an introduction to the subject, we recommend participation in one of the many available informational events, like the annual event on the Mainz campus. This can be complemented by personal guidance from the local EU liaison officer or the ERC national contact point (NCP). The EU advisors have seen many (successful) proposals and have extensive experience in their preparation. Through these various sources of information, applicants have access to suggestions and advice on how to improve their own proposal.

What advice would you give to EU liaison officers who have little experience with ERC grants?

You can participate in training offered by the ERC NCP. There you will receive basic information on the ERC programme and get in touch with other EU liaison officers creating their own network of EU advisors. In addition, the ERC offers occasional workshops in Brussels. There you will receive first-hand information, get to know ERCEA staff members, and gain insight into the work of the ERC.

What are the main pitfalls of proposal submission and project implementation?

For proposal submission, the time pressure before the deadline can become a problem. But only a mature proposal can be successful! In case of changes during the implementation of the project, e.g. to the work plan, you should contact and inform the ERC Project Officer as early as possible. This will help to reduce problems later on, e.g. with the reimbursement of costs.

How did the ERC NCP support you in proposal preparation?

For ERC applications we like to make use of the proposal check service offered by the NCP. You cannot get enough support for such important proposals. In addition, we regularly offer local informational events in collaboration with the NCP. At these events, potential applicants can get an overview of the programme and exchange views with successful applicants.

What is the significance of ERC grants in your institution?

It is widely accepted that receiving an ERC grant is an indication of scientific excellence. IMB is a young research institute, which opened in 2011. All three of our scientific directors are counted among the select group of ERC grantees. The institute benefits from the reputation of the ERC grants, which helps to attract more excellent researchers.