Twelve Veni grants

No less than twelve talented young researchers from TU Delft have been awarded Veni grants by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

The grants will enable the scientists to spend three years developing ideas and conducting research. In September it was already made known that seven Delft researchers would receive a Veni grant. Another five have now been added: The subsidy amounts to a maximum of €250,000 per researcher.

With his Veni grant, Wouter van der Wal (AE) intends to develop a computer model that can calculate the sinking of ice caps. In order to predict future rises in sea levels accurately, we need to know exactly how fast the land ice is melting in Greenland and Antarctica. This is very difficult, because satellites cannot distinguish between ice caps that are melting, and ice caps that are sinking.

Rutger Hermsen (AS) will investigate how a heterogeneous environment can influence or accelerate evolutionary processes. Spatial aspects are important to evolution. Nonetheless, most mathematical models of evolution fail to address this perspective.

The research of Dr Roland Tóth (3mE) focuses on data-driven model learning for nonlinear dynamic systems.

Dr Amir Zadpoor (3mE) aims to develop computer programs that will allow scientists and physicians to better understand skeletal disorders, such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

Amelia Barreiro (AS) also received a Veni for her research proposal, ‘Quantum Transport in Novel Heterogeneous Layered Materials’. However, she had already accepted a Catalan ‘Beatriu de Pinos’ grant and therefore turned down the Veni grant. 


In the 21st century there really is no place for engineers who steadfastly maintain that they have no responsibility for the technologies they design or perfect, argues TU Delft’s former Rector Magnificus, Professor Jacob Fokkema.
“Yet at the same time, I do not believe that engineers are entirely responsible for the way in which their technology is used,” the professor adds. “What I think is important is that they ask themselves exactly how the design or the technology on which they are working contributes to the welfare of society and the environment.”

Prof. Fokkema believes that students should be trained to ask questions like: ‘What is permitted or not permitted when conducting tests with the end-users of my product?’ Or, ‘What are the potential social consequences of the technology I work with?”

To help budding engineers and researchers contemplate and answer such questions, the university organises the Mekel Prize, an annual essay competition that challenges students to write cleverly and convincingly on a subject of their choosing involving ethics and science and technology. The Mekel Prize, which comes with 1,000 euro cash prizes for the winners, is named after J.A.A. Mekel, a TU Delft professor who, as a member of the Dutch resistance during WWII, was executed by the Nazis in 1942. “It’s only appropriate that this man’s ethical courage be honoured with this award,” says Prof. Fokkema, adding that the Mekel Prize for BSc and MSc students is awarded every year, and once every two years to PhD essays. “This year is one of those special years when PhDs can also submit essays.”

In today’s world, technology and research projects are becoming increasingly complex and the social standards higher. “Ethical questions arise in all technological fields, from biotechnology and civil engineering to electrical engineering,” Prof. Fokkema says. “For one researcher, the question could arise in the area of sustainability or health, while for another safety is the key issue. But whatever the case may be, nobody can avoid thinking about the ethical aspects of their work.”
Prof. Fokkema believes it’s important for PhD candidates and students to devote significant attention to ethical issues during their research, as this not only allows researchers to understand themselves better as researchers, but also ensures that social debates won’t get stuck in generalities. “Politicians for instance are usually extremely inclined to focus on only one aspect of a technology,” the former rector explains. “Nuclear power plants are either an environmental disaster or an absolute economic necessity. As engineers, we can promote the nuances and show that a technology has more than one aspect to it.”

As the university’s rector, Prof. Fokkema chaired the Mekel Prize jury, noting that he took great pleasure in reading the submissions and was always pleasantly surprised by the essays’ high quality and the diversity of topics. In 2008, Sergio Carrasco-Martos, an MSc student, won the Mekel Prize for essay on space missions to places like Mars, in which we risk contaminating other planets with micro-organisms from Earth, and vice versa. Taco Broerse, an MSc Aerospace Engineering student, also won the award for his essay entitled, ‘Google in China’, in which he considered the ethics of Google’s internet censorship policies in the People’s Republic of China.

Also in 2008, Daan Schuurbiers, whose specialist area is biotechnology and society, won the award for PhD students. “His topic was very relevant to me in my role as rector,” Prof. Fokkema recalls. “All universities have signed a code of conduct for academic practice, and obviously you want this to be at the forefront of the researcher’s mind, rather than just lying around gathering dust. Schuurbiers came up with an interesting proposal: inspired by the practice at a US university, he suggested that research groups should discuss such things as each other’s ethical boundaries in the context of their research.”
Last year’s Mekel Prize was awarded to Christiaan Rademakers for an essay entitled, ‘Safety issues in the use of medical equipment’, in which he argued that current medical devices fall into one of three categories: communication problems within the hospitals; poor communication between medical device manufacturers and hospitals; and the users’ poor knowledge of the equipment in question. “Technology plays an ever greater part in the medical sector, and it’s important to consider issues such as safety and think about ‘how to make things better’.”

Although he no longer chairs the jury, Prof. Fokkema will continue reading the essays with great interest in the years ahead: “I really would advise all TU Delft undergraduates and PhDs to compete for the Mekel Prize. Many PhD candidates for example are confronted with ethical questions during the course of their doctoral research. An essay allows one to examine these questions.
“Perhaps some students are now thinking, ‘Where will I find the time to write an essay?’ But I want to offer them another approach: incorporate the essay as a chapter in your thesis. A thesis will only benefit if PhD candidates show that they’ve also devoted attention to the ethical aspects of their research – and this is also true for undergraduates. You not only train yourself in the contemplation of ethical questions, but your reward might also include a really great prize.”  

If you are interested in competing in this year’s Mekel Prize, please submit your essay, written in English and before the January 21, 2011 deadline, to Henneke Filiz: h.c.filiz-piekhaar@tudelft.nl or platformethiekentechniek-tbm@tudelft.nl

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