Newsflash Faculty of Science: AI and occupational risks, communication about ocean issues, and more

Quick updates

At Utrecht University’s Faculty of Science, we are committed to keeping you informed about the latest developments, breakthroughs, and achievements that shape our academic landscape. In this newsflash, you will find quick, bite-sized updates on a range of topics that we wish to share with you in addition to the other, more extensive articles in our newsfeed.

Why do media focus more on ocean plastic research than on research about ocean and climate change?

Did you notice that ocean plastic research is more prominent in the media than research on ocean climate change? Why is this the case? This question sparked the research of Aike Vonk that was published today in the Journal of Science Communication.

Research visualisation
Visualisation of research Aike Vonk

In her research, Vonk and colleagues discovered that universities and other research organisations communicate about ocean plastic research with more elaborate framing, compared to ocean climate change research. In other words, press releases on ocean plastic research more often contextualized the research by addressing problems, identifying causes, proposing solutions, and providing moral evaluations. It is highly possible that these differences in framing influence the media representation of both scientific topics. Follow-up research should be conducted to test this hypothesis.

In addition, Vonk found that narratives were mainly employed to humanize science and portray scientists, rather than to emphasize the social dimensions of ocean issues. We know that the incorporation of social dimensions in press releases helps to engage the audience. Therefore, press releases on ocean related issues could be improved by including these dimensions.

AI system supports research on occupational risks

Work sometimes comes with health risks, such as exposure to asbestos or constant noise. To investigate these risks, work descriptions are collected and standardized by experts using classification systems. However, this process is expensive and demands a lot of time and expertise. 

To relieve human experts, researcher Mathijs Langezaal has developed an AI system using 812,552 work descriptions that automatically classifies such descriptions according to various international guidelines. A precision score is assigned to each classification, which experts can use to determine which codes need to be reviewed and potentially improved. This speeds up the process while ensuring accuracy. The AI system outperforms both experts and other available tools. This means that research on occupational risks can proceed more quickly and accurately, ultimately leading to safer work environments and a reduction in work-related fatalities.

Het AI-systeem presteert beter dan zowel experts als andere beschikbare tools. Hierdoor kan onderzoek naar beroepsrisico’s sneller en nauwkeuriger verlopen, wat uiteindelijk leidt tot veiligere werkomgevingen en een afname in werkgerelateerde sterfgevallen.

WomenNetPhysics: the first Dutch conference about women working in physics

Although universities are trying their best to attract more female physics students, still only about one in four students is female. This means that women who choose physics often end up in the minority throughout their careers.

On March 22, Utrecht University will host the very first conference in the Netherlands about women working in physics. WomenNetPhysics is a networking event for anyone interested in the role of women in physics, no matter where you are in your career – whether you're a student, academic, or industry professional. Read more and register.

Expression of genes, and developmental age

A paper by Utrecht University researchers Abraham van Eijnatten and Basten Snoek and colleagues from Wageningen UR has been selected as a Feature for the February issue of the journal G3: Genes|Genomes|Genetics.

In the paper, the researchers explore the genetic regulation of the expression of genes, which plays a crucial role in the development of organisms and their adaptation to changing environments. Most genes code for proteins, biological molecules with specific functions. When the expression of a gene is up- or downregulated, the production of the corresponding protein increases or decreases, potentially impacting the physiological state or behaviour of an organism. In a statistical method known as expression Quantitative Trait Locus mapping (eQTL mapping), gene expression levels are related to specific regions within an organism's entire DNA set, the genome.

By using gene expression data of young Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes, Van Eijnatten and colleagues find that many regions of the genome that affect the expression of genes are linked to variation in ‘developmental age’. This complicates the interpretation of eQTL experiments, where researchers are interested in the effects of certain treatments on gene expression. Van Eijnatten: “The speed at which individuals develop is variable. Even if organisms are of the same chronological age, they might still differ in their ‘developmental age’, potentially causing changes in the expression of thousands of genes. That is why we recommend researchers conducting eQTL experiments to correct for variation in developmental age. In our paper, we show both a way to do that and offer an improved interpretation of eQTL mapping patterns.”