Federica Burla wins Minerva Prize physics

The NWO Prize for the best scientific publication by a female physicist has gone to VU and AMOLF researcher Federica Burla (Physics of Living Systems).

11/01/2019 | 3:42 PM

The jury was impressed by her publication about biomechanics in Nature Physics. In the article, Burla describes how body tissues can continue to function despite permanent mechanical stress: thanks to the collaboration between collagen and hyaluronic acid.

The Minerva Prize seeks to draw attention to the work of female physicists. NWO awards the prize once every two years and established the prize to inspire other female researchers. And according to the jury, Burla definitely inspires.

Stretching tissue
Burla works at AMOLF as a PhD researcher in the group of Professor Gijsje Koenderink. She devised an original concept about the adaptation of living tissue to deformation. For this, she took the initiative to contact Wageningen University for a theoretical substantiation of a model system of living tissue.

That collaboration formed the basis for the article in Nature Physics, that was published in February 2019. In this article, Burla describes how tissue can be either soft or firm, depending on what is necessary. That is due to the collaboration between the two most common components in living tissue, collagen and hyaluronic acid. The new insights offer a design principle for artificial materials with programmable mechanical properties. Furthermore, the new knowledge will aid in the research into tissue diseases, such as osteoarthritis, in which the interaction between collagen and hyaluronic acid is deregulated.

Charismatic speaker
Burla is excited to receive the prize: “I am very honoured that my work is seen as inspiration to women in physics. I’m in turn extremely inspired by the women I work with on a daily basis.” The Italian Burla graduated cum laude in 2015 from the University of Milan. Since then, she has been carrying out PhD research at AMOLF.

The jury calls her a charismatic speaker and productive writer. She combines several scientific disciplines, biology and physics in particular, and often collaborates with researchers from other disciplines. For example, she sought collaboration with an oncology group from Paris for another publication.

Minerva Prize
This NWO prize consists of a sum of 5,000 euros and a bronze statue of an owl: the symbol of wisdom of the Roman goddess Minerva, the equivalent of the Greek goddess Athena. Federica Burla will receive the prize during the event Physics@Veldhoven, on 21 and 22 January 2020.

This will be the last time that the Minerva Prize is awarded. It is one of the four NWO prizes in physics besides the NWO Physics Valorisation Prize, the NWO Physics Valorisation Chapter Prize and the NWO Physics Thesis Prize. These prizes will disappear because NWO Domain Science is currently reviewing its prizes policy. A new prize for diversity is expected in 2020.