Utrecht University: Three UU researchers nominated for Wetenschapstalent Prize 2021

An impressive number of three scientists from Utrecht University have been nominated for the Wetenschapstalentprijs (Science Talent Prize) for 2021. Science journal New Scientist awards the prize each year to promising and talented young scientists from the Netherlands and Flanders. From 20 April to 3 May 2021, you can vote for your favourite researcher on the New Scientist website. So allow us to introduce the talent!

Our world is changing, and we are losing biodiversity every day. But imagine yourself in a tropical rain forest, surrounded by an unbelievable variety of species. Some are everywhere you look, while others only occasionally come into view. But what determines whether a species is common or rare? How does that change from one place to another, or over time? How will climate change influence these patterns? And what will happen to our biodiversity? These are the questions that Dr. Edwin Pos studies with the help of field work, mathematics and models. His knowledge and application of these techniques are needed now more than ever, in our age of global change and decreasing biodiversity: how many species are we losing due to deforestation, for example, and how can we best maintain or restore these systems? And how can we utilise that knowledge in the Netherlands and around the world? In his role as Scientific Director of Utrecht University’s Botanic Gardens, he not only studies these questions, but also develops new lines of research and education, works on maintaining and expanding botanical collections, and sharing that knowledge with society.

“In practice, that means sometimes I get to pretend I’m Indiana Jones: collecting data during adventurous expeditions in the Amazonian jungle, then spending days (and sometimes nights) using a school board and complex mathematical approaches to understand the data and those collected by others,” Pos illustrates.

While the Netherlands is famous for its floods, the research by hydrologist and drought expert Niko Wanders shows that we might need to change our ideas about the country. Drought is a fascinating, current and urgent issue. The world is increasingly confronted with droughts, with often major consequences for society, but we don’t really understand how droughts occur and how much damage they can cause. In his research, Wanders aims to understand how and where droughts occur, especially as a result of climate change. What effect do human activities have on drought? How much rain is needed to make a drought go away? How can we predict droughts?

“To better predict droughts, I develop models that predict when we’ll be faced with a drought up to several months in the future. Or, on the other hand, the long-term consequences of climate change. Together with Rijkswaterstaat and other partners, I identify where potential droughts might occur, and how we can reduce those problems in the future. The results of that research are currently being used to draw up Dutch policy for the Delta Programme and Rijkswaterstaat,” he explains.

To better understand the climate on Earth today and in the future, it is crucial for us to identify how the climate has reacted to changes in the geological past. Until now, the climate of major warm periods has mainly been studied using time frames of thousands or millions of years, but the most important variations in our climate occur from season to season. Paleo-climatologist Dr. Niels de Winter (Utrecht University/Free University of Brussels) therefore develops techniques for studying climate changes at the seasonal scale in the geological past. To create these reconstructions, he uses fossilised shells, as well as living cockles, oysters and mussels.

“Until recently, scientists thought that seasonality decreases in a warmer climate, but our most recent research shows that seasonal differences continue, which leads to more extreme conditions, such as scorching summers. Fossil shells record even finer variations, at scales of days or even hours. In the future, it might even be possible to study weather patterns in the past to learn more about extreme weather and seasons on a warmer Earth,” De Winter explains.

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