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Three MU researchers awarded five-year research grants by Czech Science Foundation

The Czech Science Foundation (GACR) will support three JUNIOR STAR projects from January 2024. Grants were also awarded to three researchers from Masaryk University.

Three scientists from Masaryk University Michal Zajaček, Klára Marečková and Martin Lang (from left) received JUNIOR STAR grants.

A grant worth 25 million Czech crowns over the next five years, the opportunity to build their own scientific team and focus on new areas of research – these are the benefits awaiting the winners of the JUNIOR STAR competition organised by the Czech Science Foundation (GACR): Michal Zajaček from the Faculty of Science, Klára Marečková from CEITEC MU and Martin Lang from the Faculty Arts.

The JUNIOR STAR competition is organised by the GACR for the fourth time this year. It is aimed at top researchers at the beginning of their careers who have come to the Czech Republic from abroad or who have significant international experience. “The competition is a unique opportunity for budding researchers to become scientifically independent and benefit the Czech Republic with research in new areas. We are very pleased that, thanks to the competition, Czech science is attracting scientists from prestigious international universities, such as those in the US, UK, Norway and Germany. We believe that these researchers have the potential to answer important questions in their fields and to build new teams that will benefit Czech science,” said Petr Baldrian, President of the GACR.

Michal Zajaček works at the Department of Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics at the Faculty of Science. He won the competition with his project entitled Stars in Galactic Nuclei: Interactions with Massive Black Holes. “The grant is a kind of recognition of more than a decade of research in astrophysics. Our project deals with the study of galactic nuclei, which is an increasingly important topic these days. It focuses on the study of the centres of galaxies, which are currently known to contain not only at least one supermassive black hole, but also dense gas, dust and stars. And it is the influence of the last component – stars – that is neglected in standard models of galactic nuclei. Over the next five years, the team will therefore focus on investigating how stars can influence the activity of supermassive black holes. The project will combine advanced numerical models with precise observations of galactic nuclei using space-based and ground-based telescopes. The aim will be to show that stars, or their compact remnants, are not only orbiting the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Galaxy, but are also present around the cores of other galaxies,” says Michal Zajaček.  

Klára Marečková works in the Milan Brázdil Research Group at CEITEC MU and at the First Neurological Clinic of the Faculty of Medicine. The GACR awarded her project entitled Prenatal Programming of the Brain and Child Behaviour: New Insights into Mechanisms of Intergenerational Transmission. “I am very excited about the award. It will allow me to fully dedicate myself to prenatal programming research over the next five years, to maintain and expand my current team, to recruit new graduate students, and to strengthen relationships with international partners. My current 4-year grant from the Czech Health Research Council (AZV CR) ends in December, so the timing of the JUNIOR STAR award is perfect for our entire team. The aim of the ChiBra project is to identify mechanisms that explain the relationship between maternal mental health during pregnancy and the brain and behaviour of the child. We will focus on the role of inflammatory markers and accelerated ageing, and show what other environmental factors may influence the impact of maternal mental health. Using neuroimaging, epigenetic and behavioural data on cognition and mental health, the project will provide a better understanding of prenatal programming, provide a long-term perspective on child development and enable early prevention,” explains Klára Marečková.

Martin Lang is the head of the Laboratory for Experimental Research on Religion at the Faculty of Arts. He received a grant for his project, The Computation of Religious Devotion: How the Solidification of Supernatural Beliefs Affects Normative Models of Mind. “I am grateful for the award, especially because it will allow me to fully employ specialists from other disciplines. The CREDO – Computing Religious Devotion project aims to describe and experimentally document how religious devotion permeates cognitive processes in decision-making. Religions permeate the lives of billions of people around the world and are believed to play a fundamental role in moral behaviour. However, we do not know how religious devotion affects decision-making processes – for example, whether people make slow, reflective decisions that take into account the particular norms of a given religion, or whether decisions are made quickly and intuitively. In this project, we will focus on developing computational models of the human mind, specifically incorporating religious piety in various ways. We will then test the predictions of these models using both laboratory and field experiments with different religious populations. Through this approach, we hope to gain a better understanding of the processes that underlie moral decision-making in religious people. We also plan to inform current debates on the moral dimension of artificial intelligence, such as self-driving cars,” Martin Lang suggested.