Life sciences high on the UGent priority list

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Interdisciplinary research is a top priority for Anne De Paepe, Chancellor of Ghent University in Belgium. Even if it means tearing down walls that have existed for decades or longer. “It is the only way forward ensuring impactful research,” the chancellor states.

Anne De Paepe is the first female chancellor at Ghent University, and she plans to make a difference. She is also head of the Center for Medical Genetics at the University Hospital in Ghent. “Our university should continue to combine research and education. It’s a unique partnership that is indispensable in our continuous quest for innovation and leadership.” A duo interview with Anne De Paepe and Ignace Lemahieu, Director of Research.

Committed to an interdisciplinary approach

“Our interdisciplinary approach should be interpreted in its broadest sense: more collaborations with other universities, increased internationalization, and restructuring of our own university. We need to move away from ‘one faculty or one group of researchers tackling one problem’. Bringing different types of expertise together and jointly pursuing broader themes and issues will allow us to increase performance and quality. As a university administration, we must adapt university structures and focus on achieving these broader goals to create the right environment. We must stimulate colleagues to build networks both in and outside our university, crossing faculty boarders and collectively tearing down these structural constraints,” Anne explains. “We should aim at forming larger, multidisciplinary research units, without a strictly demarcated structure, which would stimulate collaboration and create new opportunities.”

Anne De Paepe doesn’t like to linger in the past. In her recent book Durf Denken. Durf Dromen (Dare to Think. Dare to Dream) she quotes Albert Einstein:

The future interests me far more than the past, as I intend living in it.

Building clusters means making choices

Ignace Lemahieu, a physical engineer specialized in medical imaging and signal processing, joined the department of research affairs 13 years ago. He is in charge of the research policy and valorization of the university. “We excel in different research domains. Life sciences and biotechnology is one of them. The investments of both the VIB and the Flemish government demonstrate that clusters work. The nextstep for us is to bring the different UGent and UZ Gent life sciences research groups together in a largermultidisciplinary research unitby joining forces and combining expertise in genetics, immunology, and cancer research with environmental and industrial biotechnology as well as plant biotechnology. The life sciences ecosystem in Gent has grown beyond our academic borders. The university’s science park houses a variety of companies, including UGent and VIB startups as well as international companies, which are seeking a stimulating environment in which to grow and prosper. We are continuing to grow and attract more international researchers and students, which is also one of our priorities. Today, three-quarters of our professors are UGent alumni. So we still have a few challenges to conquer! We need to open our doors to the world. Embracing diversity and excellence are important keys for the future of our university.”

The chancellor steps in: “It is quite unique to excel in such a broad spectrum of life sciences areas. We should capitalize on that and continue to build, evolve, and expand this important cluster as well as reinforce our efforts to attract international brains and remain continuously focused on excellence. I am convinced that such a model allows people to develop their talents better and respond quicker to new research and education needs. We are committed to take it even a step further and include an interdisciplinary approach; crossing borders and combining different capabilities will also increase performance and quality.”

It is quite unique to excel in such a broad spectrum of life sciences areas.

Fundamental research is key

Anne and Ignace agree that keeping a good balance between fundamental and applied research is essential. “The university must remain at the center of fundamental research. It is that simple yet not always an easy exercise. Today, government funds tend to swing toward applied research, stimulating collaborations with industry. Don’t get us wrong, this is also very important, and we cannot bring an innovative therapy or drug to the patient without industry collaborations; however, we shouldn’t neglect fundamental research. It is part of our legacy, and it has proven to be the best barometer for prosperity in our region. If a university doesn’t handle this as a top priority, who will? Although our government agrees, we keep a close eye to ensure that the balance is kept.”

Ignace Lemahieu: “Grants for fundamental research are in high demand. Due to budget restraints, only 15% of FWO applications are granted. That’s only half of what’s considered acceptable on an international level! The number of applications are increasing, especially for Ph.D. researchers, but funding is struggling. Therefore, we continue to urge the government to take the necessary actions.”

Education and research should enhance one another

Anne De Paepe is extremely committed to making a difference. She feels that technology can have a fantastic impact on both education and research: “Blended learning with increasing digital interaction between students and teachers replaces passive knowledge exchange. Smaller groups, docents employing modern technologies, increased individual interactions with students: it’s a challenge for many of us, but it’s a great way to enhance communication and collaboration. Our goal is to grow an interdisciplinary education system and develop young adults ready to tackle a broad spectrum of challenges at the bachelor level, zooming in on more specific topics during their masters. Everybody is very positive about this approach; although, it’s not being implemented as fast as I would like.”

Anne De Paepe ends on a pragmatic note: “We need to rationalize. Within our own university to be sure, but also in Flanders. Maybe we don’t need a professorship for every tiny topic; we could join forces and build capabilities that cross university borders as well. We all agree on paper, but how we can actually implement this, remains a bit of a challenge. But I will rally! We are working with taxpayers’ money. We owe it to society to deliver excellent and fully-equipped students and world-class research while keeping our budgets in line.”