ALPOLE researchers win two EU research grants

Drone surveillance could be useful for national park rangers. © Friedrich Reinhard

Drone surveillance could be useful for national park rangers. © Friedrich Reinhard

Devis Tuia and Tom Ian Battin, two laboratory heads at EPFL’s Alpine and Polar Research Center (ALPOLE), in Sion, have obtained funding under the EU’s Horizon program. This funding is intended to sponsor PhD students within a network of doctoral students in Europe, thus enabling professors to embark on high-stakes projects with confidence.

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Doctoral Networks program is set up to encourage PhD student mobility and plays a central role in European research. It finances PhD exchanges, salaries and thesis research across different labs at European universities. In Switzerland, the funding is allocated through the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SEFRI).

Recently, two labs of the Alpine and Polar Research Center (ALPOLE), in Sion, have secured this valuable financial support. They will use the proceeds to conduct further research, attract talent to ALPOLE and send researchers abroad, letting the lab heads look to the future with confidence. The competition for this EU funding is intense, as it funds 13 PhD students per network. ALPOLE stands above the crowd with two professors – Devis Tuia and Tom Battin – each winning a grant.

Devis Tuia. © EPFL

Drones help protect wildlife and control poaching

National wildlife parks play a key role in preserving endangered species and addressing the global environmental challenge. But monitoring, controlling and protecting wildlife over such vast distances have proven to be as complex as it is energy intensive. Not to mention the hefty costs and the hazards to rangers from poachers and from animals that don’t like to be disturbed. Here, drone technology can be a useful tool. Devis Tuia, associate professor and head of EPFL’s Environmental Computational Science and Earth Observation Laboratory (ECEO), has been using drones imagery for years.

“This grant to fund a three-year PhD thesis at our lab will let us focus on our WildDrone project which we, alongside partners all across Europe, in Namibia and Kenya, will launch in January 2023. The wildlife parks in these countries are confronted with major ecological concerns, and we’ve been developing drone technology to help them,” says Tuia. “Besides optimizing drones for specific missions, we’re also working on an artificial intelligence system that can detect the animal populations rangers want to track. Our goal is to create a model that can be reproduced while factoring in the different environments in each park.” The project is led from the University of South Denmark, with partners at MPI Konstanz, the University of Bristol, the University of Munster and others.

Tom Battin. © Alain Herzog/EPFL

Taking a closer look at the glacier microbiome

Tom Battin, head of EPFL’s River Ecosystems Laboratory, takes a keen interest in the ecology and biogeochemistry of mountain rivers. His research group is trying to understand global change impacts on physical, chemical and biological processes in river ecosystems. This kind of research is clearly linked to efforts in the areas of climate change and glacier melting. Tom Battin will use the grant to fund a three-year PhD thesis project carried out by an exchange student in his lab. “The PhD student hired under this grant will work in the Centre of Glacial Biome Doctoral Network (ICEBIO), which is led by the Aarhus University, in Denmark, with partners from Bristol University, the Arctic University of Norway, the University of Innsbruck and GFZ Potsdam, for instance. ICEBIO will study the ice microbiome in the Swiss Alps, Pamir as well as the Greenland ice cap,” says Battin.