Four excellent students design unique sustainability research

Interdisciplinary and focused on societal challenges

Making solar cells more efficient, and developing sustainable insecticides with a zombie-making fungus: as of September, a second group of PhD candidates will start their research funded by the Science for Sustainability community at Utrecht University. The projects, which they designed themselves, will address societal challenges in the field of sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective. The first group of PhD candidates started precisely one year ago.

Read more about the new research projects below.

PhD candidate Ayla Dekker

Making solar cells more efficient

Solar cells and other devices that convert light into electricity are not very efficient. This stands in the way of large-scale applicability. Fifty percent of the energy loss is caused by a mismatch between certain characteristics of sunlight and the material that is used to build these devices. In her research, Ayla Dekker aims to design a new material that can improve their efficiency by overcoming this mismatch. The new material does so by reshaping sunlight, so that a larger part of the sunlight (i.e. more wavelengths) becomes available to the device, and can be converted into electricity.

Dekker graduated from the Master’s programme Nanomaterials Science at Utrecht University. Her research project combines expertise in both physics and chemistry.

PhD candidate Marianne Bijl

Improving carbon dioxide conversion with sunlight

The use of sunlight to convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into useful chemicals is promising with a catalyst called titanium dioxide. The efficiency of this catalyst, however, is limited due to loss of energy to heat. In addition, the catalyst cannot efficiently utilise visible light, which means that only a small fraction of sunlight is used. PhD candidate Marianne Bijl wants to enhance the performance of titanium dioxide by overcoming these two main weaknesses, using colloidal nanoparticles.

Bijl graduated from the Master’s programme Nanomaterials Science at Utrecht University. Her research project combines expertise in both physics and chemistry.

Developing sustainable insecticides with a zombie-making fungus 

PhD candidate Romy Jonkergouw will investigate whether certain fungi (entomopathogenic fungi) that cause deadly infections to insects, can function as an alternative to unsustainable insecticides. Specifically, Jonkergouw will explore the insecticidal potential of certain proteins (effectors) of the zombie-making fungus Ophiocordyceps that target promising receptors (G-protein coupled receptors) of an insect’s cell. The identified fungal proteins and insect targets could form the basis for new, biodegradable insecticides.  

Jonkergouw graduated from the Master’s programme Infection & Immunity at Utrecht University. In their research, they will combine largely unexplored fungus-insect biology with revolutionary tools for analysing proteins.

PhD candidate Bryan Verhoef

Extending the lifespan of antibiotics

Bryan Verhoef wants to learn more about how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, so that the lifespan of existing antibiotics can be extended. He aims to build a computer model of bacterial colonies developing resistance when they are exposed to the antibiotic. The model can then be used to study how specific factors, such as spatial structure of the colony and inhomogeneous exposure effect the development of resistance. The spatial structure of bacterial colonies refers to the way in which individual bacteria are distributed in space within the group they reside. When inhomogeneous exposure occurs, different parts of the bacterial colony are unevenly subjected to the antibiotic.

Bryan Verhoef graduated from the Master’s Programme Theoretical Physics at Utrecht University. His research takes place at the interplay between physics and biology.