The past year was a particularly fruitful scientific one for the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. VUB made the news more than 300 times with research from all its academic sections – you’ll find a selection below.
Lots of sitting and little sleep
The inevitable common thread throughout the year was the Covid-19 pandemic, a time of “cuddle contacts” – one per family – the rule of four for having visitors to your home, strict rules for travelling with quarantine, testing and a Passenger Location Form, a ban on non-essential shopping and compulsory teleworking. The campus was empty and many first-years barely had a chance to meet their fellow students.
In that context, it was almost a relief to read something other than corona news. Although that didn’t always cheer you up either. On 12 January, Nature Climate Change published a study on the incidence of extreme drought to which VUB professor Wim Thiery contributed. The number of people affected by extreme drought is expected to double by the end of the 21st century. Thiery and his fellow researchers calculated for the first time, with the help of the GRACE satellite, the amount of land water stored globally, a measure for potential extreme drought areas.
Doctoral student Yanni Verhavert calculated that teaching staff at universities and secondary schools were in danger of becoming sick from too much sitting down as a result of the lockdown. Yet, despite the fact that professors and teachers spent up to 14.5 more hours per week sitting in their chairs, they also moved around for an hour more each week.
While VUB researchers were mapping the lung damage of Covid patients using AI, the Brussels Universities Cross took place on 5 February without an audience. The live coverage on television was the only way for many VUB staff to see the campus in real life. Professors and university authorities were anxious about the exams of all those self-reliant students, but the results turned out better than expected, research showed. As a result of so much homeworking, absenteeism dropped to a historically low level but many people slept less during the second lockdown.
Mangroves and floods
At the end of February, a team of geologists led by VUB professor of geochemistry Steven Goderis came up with unique proof that the dinosaurs did indeed die out 66 million years ago as a result of the impact of an asteroid in Mexico. They discovered dust remnants from the asteroid in the Chicxulub impact crater.
Life recovered exceptionally quickly after the impact and many new species emerged. It’s possible that the mangrove forests on the islands to the east of the African continent were also affected by the impact. A genetic study by a team of VUB biologists show that those mangrove forests – crucial for local ecosystems – came from the east.
While mangroves are meant to almost always have their feet in the water, this is rather an undesirable situation in our villages and cities, usually due to excessive rainfall. To be able to do something about this in the long run, VUB hydrologists created the FloodCitiSense app and appealed to citizens to collect data on flooding that would help them to anticipate problems in the future.
Culture and fungi
Citizens participating in research has become a real craze. The cultural sector has always been involved in this, because having no visitors is what keeps them awake. That’s why VUB researchers, in cooperation with publiq and several other universities, monitored cultural participation during the pandemic. The emphasis was on new forms of cultural participation that – unsurprisingly – mainly take place online. At the end of March, there was also important news in cancer research: people with aggressive brain tumours may in future be better helped with new forms of targeted immunotherapy, thanks to research by cancer specialists Prof Kiavash Movahedi and Prof Jo Van Ginderachter (VIB-VUB), among others.
On 1 April, and this was no joke, VUB geologists led by VUB alumnus Dr Matthias van Ginneken published interesting news about an as-yet-unknown meteorite impact over Antarctica, 430,000 years ago and thus practically yesterday by geological standards. “Impact” is perhaps not the right word, as the meteorite exploded just before it reached the Earth’s surface, mowing down everything in a radius of several kilometres around the explosion with the force of countless atomic bombs.
When such a drama takes place in a built-up area, it’s all about clearing up afterwards and disposing of the rubbish. Not if it’s down to Elise Elsacker of the Architectural Engineering and Microbiology research groups, though. She investigated how we can build sustainably and circularly with fungi in the near future. That kind of building technique was certainly not on the agenda in the days when the ancient burial mounds were raised in various nature reserves that Nandy Dolman of the VUB research group HARP investigated. She wants to see if we can restart those old funerary traditions and if reforestation can be done in one movement. You can hardly get more circular than that. And we remain in the circular ideology with wind farms in the North Sea, which should reduce maintenance costs using AI developed at VUB.
Wines and prizes
We Belgians are not only notorious beer drinkers, we also enjoy a good glass of wine. According to most people, our Burgundian traits are in sharp contrast to the healthy sandwich that’s popular with our northern neighbours at lunchtime. This didn’t prevent doctoral student Rob Blijleven from delving into the history of wine trade and consumption in the Netherlands between 1670 and 1970, and establishing that the Dutch also enjoy a glass on occasion. While the Netherlands is usually too cold to grow its own wine, that was certainly not the case 78 million years ago, when we and the Netherlands lay under a vast shallow warm sea with average temperatures that would now give climatologists nightmares. Contrary to what one might think, research by Dr Niels de Winter (VUB research group AMGC/Utrecht University) showed that even in those days there was serious seasonal temperature variation: summers were very hot and winters noticeably cooler. De Winter was doubly honoured in 2021: he received the EOS Pipet and was nominated for theNew Scientist Science Talent award.
Also recognised were photographers Stephan Vanfleteren and his colleague Dirk Braeckman, who received their honorary doctorate for services to society during the Theater aan Zee event, hosted by VUB rector Caroline Pauwels.
Winning prizes is of course a goal for our top athletes, too. It’s clear that good coaching is important. Nathalie Rosier of VUB’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences set up an innovative model to significantly increase the chances of succeeding as a top athlete. To excel as a university and as a region will require more than a guidance model. That’s why VUB is investing in Green Energy Park, an innovative business park where research and development go hand in hand with sustainability and high-tech activity.
Elementary particles and gender inequality
Neutrinos are extremely elusive, ultra-light elementary particles that are almost impossible to capture. Nevertheless, VUB professor Nick van Eijndhoven will do so in the next few years with his Radio Neutrino Observatory Greenland (RNO-G), a pioneering project that uses a new method to detect cosmic neutrinos with very high energy by means of radio antennas 100 metres under the ice. Van Eijndhoven is also a partner in the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an enormous telescope dug into the Antarctic glacier that can also detect the presence of neutrinos.
Much closer to home, Ynske De Neve, master’s student in communication sciences at VUB, looked at the state of gender equality in the Flemish film industry. Not so good, the research shows: women report infantilisation in the way they are addressed, structurally female-unfriendly systems and the accompanying abuse of power by male colleagues and bosses. So there is work to be done.
In August, the pandemic took a short break, and VUB did everything in its power to start under code green restrictions, in the vain hope that freedom was finally in sight. That freedom would also re-energise the capital’s tourism sector. However, a study by VUB, commissioned by Innoviris,the Brussels Institute for Research and Innovation, revealed that there are hijackers in the sector: almost half of the homes on Airbnb in Brussels are offered by “investors” and “professionals” and they are heavily concentrated near tourist attractions and in the European quarter.
Great graduation ceremonies and great numbers of students
One of these attractions is the world-famous Grote Markt. It was on this iconic spot that the graduating students of Brussels’ universities received their diplomas. Philosophers graduating from the Grote Markt will surely know where their predecessors drew their inspiration from and that a long and fascinating Arab tradition ensured important writings were brought to us by Eastern thinkers in the deep Middle Ages. In the history of philosophy, there is no longer much evidence of this: a study by Koert Debeuf of the Institute for European Studies at VUB indicates that the origin of this Eurocentrism lies in the 18th century, when a more universalistic approach turned into a Eurocentric one, after which the Christian philosophical traditions in particular were highlighted.
What was the situation with women in philosophy at that time, you might wonder? Hopefully better than that of women in IT today. To help remedy this, VUB has launched a postgraduate programme called Women in IT (which will also be accessible to men). Male dominance in IT may one day melt away, we hope, like glaciers all over the world due to climate change. VUB’s Ice and Climate Research Group, headed by Professor Philippe Huybrechts, wants to go to the Alps at the end of next summer to measure the mass balance of the Morteratsch and Pers glaciers, using drones rather than dipsticks as was done for centuries. The data collected will be used to make glacier models and to map climate change.
What is not melting but growing is the number of students at VUB. Statistically, one could even say that the number of students is inversely proportional to the disappearance of the ice masses. And this has been the case for eight years. It’s a reason to dream of more. Those dreams can be quite disappointing, especially if you have to share your bed with a snorer. Some consolation is that you are not alone: it’s estimated that half of the world’s population snores to a greater or lesser extent, according to doctoral research by Miche De Meyer. And that’s not without victims, certainly not if it takes on pandemic proportions. Just like that damned coronavirus, which continues to shake the world, forcing the university to teach remotely again and even postpone St-V celebrations.
Energy and innovation
Yet there is also good news for VUB: Green Energy Park is becoming more real with the construction of the ambitious Smart Village Lab, where research will be done on the unstoppable energy transition. Furthermore, EUTOPIA, a European alliance of universities in which VUB has a prominent presence, is gaining critical mass and expanding to include more members. We see this diversity as a strength and a driver of an innovative view of 21st-century European education and research, says rector Caroline Pauwels. With EUTOPIA we are building the university of the future.
While winter is descending on Brussels and the consultative committee examines yet stricter Covid measures, while the winter solstice is behind us and the days are gradually getting longer, at VUB we are already dreaming of the long summer days when butterflies flutter around merrily and the heat lies like a blanket over campus and city. According to interesting research by Thomas Merckx, from the new research group Global Change Biology, those butterflies may also be real city dwellers, with their own habits of planning and yes, their own big-city habits. Butterflies in the city have a longer flying season than their counterparts in the countryside. This applies to both butterflies and moths. While butterflies in the countryside begin their long winter early, either as a chrysalis or in a dark corner, in the city they frolic around happily for much longer, guided by their genes, before finally opting for a period of lethargy and rounding off the year.
Thank you, media
Researchers at VUB might dream of hibernation too. However, they mostly remain alert and active in their efforts to develop original knowledge, to conduct innovative research, to create a better world and to share that knowledge with the world, thanks to the media.