2021 Student Award nominees announced

Utrecht University is proud of its students who achieve something remarkable, either as part of their studies or elsewhere in their lives. Each year during the opening of the academic year, the Rector Magnificus therefore presents two Student Awards: the Student Award for the Best Master’s Thesis and the Student Award ‘Exceptional Extracurricular Achievements 2021’. The names of the students who have been nominated for these prizes have now been announced.

All nominees

The three nominees for the Best Master’s Thesis are: Aline Hernández, Lukas Arts and Robin Verstraten. The two nominees for the Student Award ‘Exceptional Extracurricular Achievements 2021’ are: Daan Roovers and ‘De CO2-assistenten’ (The CO2 assistants), a group of medical students.

Nominees for the Best Master’s Thesis 2021

Robin Verstraten
Photographer: Angeliek de Jonge

Robin Verstraten

  • Thesis title: The fractional Langevin equation
  • Masters: Theoretical Physics and Mathematics
  • Graduated: July 2020

The behavior of glasses has been puzzling researchers for many centuries. Although your windows are clearly solid, under the microscope they look nearly identical to a liquid; it is somewhere between solid and liquid. 

Now, imagine a material that spontaneously switches back and forth between solid and liquid phases before it freezes to its final solid form. This new "time glass" behavior naturally emerges for particles subject to a friction affected by both its present and its past velocities. This was the outcome of his research into the use of fractional derivatives within quantum physics. 

By a natural extension of the theory of liquids, Robin was able to describe not only liquid, but also the glass, time glass, and marginal glass in a unified theory. By using new analytical techniques, he has unveiled a novel state of matter, the time glass. In this way Robin managed to build bridges between the fields of fractional calculus, glasses and non-stationary quantum dynamics. In May 2021, these results have been published in Physical Review B (the largest dedicated physics journal) as a Letter, reserved for particularly important and accessible results.

This could allow for the description of even more new materials and could help in solving open problems such as the liquid-to-glass transition, used in all glass manufacturing.

Lukas Arts

Lukas Arts

  • Thesis title: Heart rate as a predictor for burnout
  • Master: Computing Science
  • Graduated: August 2020

Burnout is coined as the 21st century's black plague and was recently even further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although omnipresent, so far, the objective measurement of burnout showed to be an unsolved challenge. Lukas’ thesis solved this challenge, using Artificial Intelligence (AI)-induced wearable biosensors, which allow continuous monitoring of our bodies without any discomfort.

Lukas' research resulted also in a patent application on an AI-technique that determines user's overall health. For its validation, data of over 2500 people (including clinically diagnosed burnout patients) from six different ethnic backgrounds was used.

Another outcome was an AI-technique to classify heavily distorted, ambulatory ElectroCardioGrams (ECG). It significantly outperformed all state-of-the-art algorithms in a thorough validation process that used three highly contrasting datasets containing over 130 people who suffered from arrhythmia to seizures.

Furthermore Lukas developed a signal processing technique, that is more than hundred times faster than the current state-of-the-art. This brings computationally expensive applications such as brain-computer interfaces, remote cardiovascular monitoring, adaptive noise-cancelling within reach of real-time practice. The technique was validated and benchmarked against five other techniques, using artificially generated data, human electroencephalography (EEG) and  in-vivo rodent extracellular Local Field Potentials.

This work is currently under review with Nature Computational Science.

Aline Hernandez

Aline Hernandez

  • Thesis title: Images that Leap in the Dark: Feminicide Photography and Necropolitics of Gender in Contemporary Mexico
  • Master: RMA Media, Art and Performance Studies
  • Graduated: October 2020

Aline's thesis concerns the impact of journalistic depictions of women in Mexico who have been murdered by extreme and systematic gender violence. Such violence is one of the biggest challenges that Mexico faces in terms of human rights violations.

Approximately 11 women are killed on a daily basis. Since 1985, over 63,564 women have been murdered, often after having been brutalized and raped. Their bodies are left behind on the crime scene, or dumped like garbage. Photographs of (parts of) their bodies circulate widely in popular media and on the internet. 

In her thesis, Aline addresses the performativity of these pictures: what is it that these pictures do? Are they part of the problem and responsible for the continuation of the violence against women? Or can they also be a means for political mobilization against this violence? What prevents, or allows for, these photographs to become a site for social exchange, a tool for change? What forces do these photographs have to negotiate with, and struggle against, in order to have a positive political impact?

Aline brings together archival material, contemporary photojournalistic images, and feminist activist performances in her analysis of the culture of reception of feminicide photography. Her thesis weaves together concepts from a diversity of disciplines, including performance studies, photography theory, political philosophy (necropolitics/biopolitics), and gender studies.

Nominees Award Exceptional Extracurricular Achievements 2021

Daan Roovers

Daan Roovers

  • Molecular & Cellular Life Sciences (MCLS) Master's student.
  • Exceptional achievement: improving student housing policy at local and national level.

Organising sufficient affordable housing for students and young adults in Utrecht and other student cities is a major challenge. Daan Roovers has campaigned at local and national level for better housing policies for students. 

A few years ago, Daan started as the chair of BoKS, the SSH tenants' organisation which represents the interests of all 18,000 SSH tenants in various student cities, including 13,000 in the Utrecht region. He negotiated with SSH (which is the major Dutch student housing organisation) and the municipality of Utrecht, among others, on how they could contribute to better availability, affordability and sustainability of student housing together. 

During his time at BoKS, Daan became increasingly convinced that students should stand up for their interests to a much greater extent, stating: ‘Niets over ons, niets zonder ons’ (‘Nothing about us should be discussed without us’). The student housing shortage makes young house hunters vulnerable to exploitation by private landlords. This development has financial consequences on a personal level, but it also harms the accessibility of higher education in our country, according to Daan. 

In the autumn of 2020, together with a tenant representative studying in Amsterdam, he founded a national organisation for student tenants, the Landelijk Overleg Studenthuurders (LOS). LOS now represents the interests of 93,000 tenants, one fifth of all students living away from home. His vision and goal is to join forces at national level and address current issues, such as shortages, continued growth and fair rental policies, and to let students themselves contribute to solutions for the problems related to student housing.

‘De CO2-assistenten’ (Medical students)

  • De CO-assistenten is a group of medical students: Arte Groenewegen, Carola Kußerow, Anne Simon, Koen Krommehoek, Floris Triest, Deli Issa, Marijn Negenborn, Caroline Lekkerkerker, Jochebed Rovers, Jonne Feitsma, Lieke Noij, Amber ten Buuren, Jopke Janmaat, Sara Henkemans. 
  • Exceptional achievement: garnering structural attention for climate change and sustainability in the medical curriculum.
Groepsfoto De CO2 Assistent

The climate crisis has serious consequences for both individuals’ health and for healthcare. Yet the healthcare sector itself is also a major polluter and therefore contributes to health problems. If the global healthcare sector were a country, it would be the fifth largest in carbon emissions (i.e. CO2 emissions) in the world. In addition to carbon emissions, there is a huge challenge in the area of medical waste – which has become even more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The group calling themselves De CO2-assistenten (The CO2 assistants) comprises fourteen medical students committed to integrating the theme of climate change and sustainability – as well as the social role of doctors in this respect – into the medical curriculum at Utrecht University. But they are also trying to do so in medical schools elsewhere.

De CO2-assistenten believes that – given their role in society – doctors should take responsibility for a clean and therefore healthy movement. This all starts with awareness, and the education sector is the right place give this shape. This is why De CO2-assistenten is actively seeking contact with lecturers, programme committees and other high-ranking individuals at the Faculty of Medicine and UMC Utrecht to promote greater attention for sustainability in the curriculum. For example, they are providing support to lecturers at all medical schools with an information sheet on integrating sustainability into their teaching activities. They are also seeking out international collaboration, for example with the International Federation of Medical Students' Associations (IFMSA). 

Finally, they are working with other students at their Faculty to make sustainable improvements to their own teaching building, which can involve anything from promoting the use of sustainable coffee cups and of waste reduction in practical teaching activities to using Ecosia as a search engine on Faculty computers.