2021 Student Awards winners announced

Awards for Best Master's Thesis and Exceptional Extracurricular Achievements

The winners of the 2021 Student Awards were announced by Margot van der Starre, Vice President of Utrecht University's Executive Board, during the Opening of the Academic Year on Monday 6 September. 

Best Master's Thesis 2021

Robin Verstraten
Photographer: Angeliek de Jonge

The award for Best Master's Thesis 2021 goes to Robin Verstraten for his thesis entitled ‘The fractional Langevin equation’. New analytical techniques have led to the discovery of a new state of matter: the Time Glass. This will allow us to 'build bridges' between the fields of fractional calculus, glass and non-stationary quantum dynamics and can help us describe other new materials. The discovery may also help us to solve 'open' problems, such as the liquid-to-glass transition during the production of glass. According to the jury: ‘Robin's fascinating research shows that we can apply this complex formalism of fractional calculus to unify and describe many different states of matter, such as liquid, glass, marginal glass and even the recently discovered Time Glass, through a single equation.'

Jury's opinion

According to the jury, Robin has managed to summarise an incredibly complex subject in an accessible way. ‘Despite being highly specialised, the thesis is well written and carries the reader along through the use of clever examples.’ The jury also deemed the results to be extremely impressive from a mathematical perspective.

Despite being highly specialised, the thesis is well written and carries the reader along through the use of clever examples.

Nobel Prize winner and originator of the Time Crystal concept, Professor of Physics Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was also impressed. Wilczek lauded Robin's work as 'truly fascinating'. Remarkably, Robin has already been invited to speak at a conference in which no students have ever participated. The outcomes of Robin's thesis were published in the form of a Letter in Physical Review B this May. Robin is currently working as a PhD student at Utrecht University's Institute for Theoretical Physics, under the supervision of Prof. Cristiane de Morais Smith.

A difficult path after diagnosis

Robin's academic career has certainly been no easy ride. ‘To be honest, my school career seemed more like an obstacle course at times’, he explains. Robin was initially diagnosed with autism, although this conclusion has since been partially refuted. The winner: ‘Most people didn't really see a place for me anywhere. I hope this goes to show that you can achieve a lot if you focus on your talents rather than your limitations. It's great to be able to focus on problems that almost no one un-derstands. I'm also really glad that Utrecht University now has a Studying Without Limitations platform, where students with a disability can find help and support.’

Rubik’s cube champion

Robin is not just a passionate and talented researcher. He has also won the national Rubik’s cube championship. ‘I'm really looking forward to the speedcubing competitions. It's always a lot of fun, so I hope we can get back to that again soon.’

Exceptional Extracurricular Achievements 2021

Daan Roovers
Daan Roovers

This year, two winners instead of one will receive the award for exceptional extracurricular achievements: Daan Roovers and the ‘The CO2 Assistant’. ‘An exceptional decision in exceptional times’, the jury emphasised.

‘Both nominations are of an exceptionally high quality and are so dissimilar that it was difficult to compare them,’ the laudation notes. This marks the very first presentation of a joint award, a historical event that reflects our current times according to the jury. 

Both nominations are of an exceptionally high quality and are so dissimilar that it was difficult to compare them.

Daan Roovers has made great efforts to improve student housing policies. The CO2 Assistant' group successfully advocated a greater focus on climate change and sustainability in the medical curriculum. Both issues relate to urgent and imminent problems with a great impact on society and the lives of every student. The jury notes that both initiatives are of very high quality, started out as small-scale projects and have already shown the potential to expand.

Groepsfoto De CO2 Assistent
The CO2 Assistant

The jury was particularly impressed by the fact that both Daan Roovers and the 'The CO2 Assistant'' group remained driven to continue their work during these challenging times. More than enough reasons, in other words, to name both initiatives winners of the Exceptional Extracurricular Achievements Award 2021.

Improving student housing policies

Soon-to-be-graduated Molecular & Cellular Life Sciences Master's student and future PhD candidate Daan Roovers effectively and strategically united various parties at the local and national level in an effort to raise awareness of the need for better housing policies for students and other societal groups. 

A greater focus on climate and sustainability in the Medicine curriculum

If the global healthcare sector were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter in the world. In addition to CO2 emissions, there is a huge challenge in the field of medical waste. 'The CO2 Assistant' is committed to integrating the theme of climate change and sustainability - and the social role of doctors in this area - in the curriculum of Medicine at Utrecht University. The group also tries to achieve this in medical courses elsewhere. In addition, the group wants more education about the effects of climate change on health.