Science for Sustainability Graduate Programme

The Science for Sustainability Graduate Programme (GPS4S) boosts the sustainability research at Utrecht University by funding PhD positions in the period 2022-2027. The GPS4S will train eight excellent PhD-students who have written their own research proposal. The research projects will address challenges in the field of sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective. All projects supported by supervisors from two different departments and in some cases even two different faculties.

Current PhD projects

The first four PhD-students in of the S4S Graduate Programme have started their project in the autumn of 2022. The other four projects are starting in September till November 2023. The research projects, which were designed by the excellent students themselves, will address societal challenges in the field of sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Improving carbon dioxide conversion with sunlight

    Marianne Bijl

    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.

    Making solar cells more efficient

      Ayla Dekker

      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.

      Biodiversity in lowlands of Western Europe

      In lowlands of Western Europe, biodiversity loss has been dramatic. Effective conservation and restoration are hampered by limited knowledge of baseline conditions and developments of vegetation prior to and during agricultural intensification in the past. With her research, Catrien Hoffman aims to fill this knowledge gap by reconstructing biodiversity trends in agricultural landscapes in this area before, during and after agricultural intensification over the past 500 years.

      Hoffman will conduct this research in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team that combines expertise in the fields of environmental biology, and geology. Catrien Hoffman graduated from the Master’s programme Environmental Biology.

      Developing sustainable insecticides with a zombie-making fungus

        Robin Jonkergouw

        PhD candidate Robin 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 his research, he will combine largely unexplored fungus-insect biology with revolutionary tools for analysing proteins.

        Energy-efficient computers

        • T.M. (Tim) Kamsma MSc

          PhD Candidate
          Science - Physics - Theoretical Physics (ITF) - Cond-Matter Theory, Stat & Comp Phys

        The energy consumption of computers is responsible for around 10 percent of the global electricity demand, and this is projected to grow dramatically over the coming years. Neuromorphic computing - inspired by neural networks in the brain - shows great promise for more sustainable methods of computation. The fundamental building blocks of neuromorphic chips are memristors, which can mimic synaptic connections between neurons. Tim Kamsma will research different types of memristors, and the circuits that can be built with them to pursue energy-efficient methods of computation, by combining knowledge from disciplines such as physics, mathematics and neuroscience.

        News article: 'First experimental proof for brain-like computer with water and salt'

        Tim was invited to the NOS & NTR Kennis & Co podcast to talk about his choice for this program at Utrecht University and his research on computers built with water and salt that work like our brain, which might well be much more energy-efficient than current computers.

        Listen to the Kennis & Co podcast (Dutch)

        Shaping human-wildlife coexistence

        How can we achieve food security and biodiversity conservation in areas shared between people on the one hand and animals damaging crops on the other? According to Ronja Knippers, we need to steer human-wildlife interactions from conflict to coexistence. In order to achieve this paradigm shift, we need to deepen our knowledge of the influence of human perception on wildlife tolerance, the influence of the availability of food on the damaging of crops, and the influence of the abundance of humans and wildlife on the wildlife’s perception of being hunted.

        This study will present an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Faculties of Science and Geoscience. Ronja Knippers graduated from the Master’s programme Environmental Biology.

        New shapable gel to passively cool buildings

        • G.H.A. (Geert) Schulpen MSc

          PhD Candidate
          Science - Chemistry - Debye Institute for Nanomaterials Science - Physical and Colloid Chemistry

        Inspired by characteristics of white beetle scales, Geert Schulpen will investigate whether a new, shapable gel, called bijel, could be an effective coating for passive radiative cooling. The scales of white beetles have been found to possess more efficient cooling properties than current state-of-the-art coatings. Passive temperature regulation is essential for reducing energy consumption, and the new coating could be used on the outer walls of buildings to reflect large amounts of sunlight.

        The research will be particularly interdisciplinary, as it combines the chemistry and physics of anisotropic particles with interfacial assembly, and the analysis of the material's optical properties." Geert Schulpen graduated from the Master’s programmes Experimental Physics and Nanomaterials Science.

        Extending the lifespan of antibiotics

        • B. (Bryan) Verhoef MSc

          PhD Candidate
          Science - Physics - Theoretical Physics (ITF) - Cond-Matter Theory, Stat & Comp Phys

        Bryan Verhoef

        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.