Excellence Awards honour best and brightest of Flanders’ scientists


The Foundation for Scientific Research has announced the recipients of its Excellence Awards, which recognise outstanding contributions to science every five years

From the stars to our eyes

The Foundation for Scientific Research (FWO) has announced the winners of the prestigious Excellence Awards. Winners are selected by an international jury every five years. Known as the Flemish Nobel Prizes, they are the highest honour the region bestows on scientists.

Three of the Excellence Awards laureates this year are professors at KU Leuven, and two come from the life sciences research institute VIB.

Astrophysicist Conny Aerts (pictured) has won the Excellence Award for Exact Sciences. She is a professor at KU Leuven and a pioneer of asteroseismology, the study of the internal structure of stars. She has developed rigorous mathematical models to detect and identify non-radial stellar oscillations (repetitive movements) within stars.

The FWO award is the icing on the cake of a long string of recognitions for Dr Aerts, including two of the EU’s ERC Advanced Grant and the 2012 Francqui Prize, known as the Belgian Nobel Prize. She was the first woman to win the Francqui Prize in its 79-year history. She is also the first woman to win the Excellence Award in Exact Sciences.

Eliminating fossil fuels

Wout Boerjan of the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology has won the Excellence Award in Applied Sciences for his ground-breaking research into the structure of lignin, found in plant tissues. His work to engineer plant cell walls that are easier to convert to fermentable sugars has been seminal in advancing the progress of plant biomass, a replacement for limited fossil fuels. This has been instrumental in paving the way to a sustainable bio-economy.

“I am honoured to receive this award,” says professor Boerjan, “which would not have been possible without the great efforts of my team and the excellent research environment provided by VIB and Ghent University. In addition, it is great that my team can contribute to achieving a more sustainable society.”

We are supported by a good research and biotech climate in Flanders, which can compete with the best in the world

- Professor Bart Lambrecht

Another VIB-UGent researcher, Bart Lambrecht, was awarded an Excellence Award, this time in the category Fundamental Biomedical Science. Part of the Center for Inflammation Research, professor Lambrecht was recognised for his outstanding work in pinpointing the function of the immune system in various lung diseases such as asthma and viral infections.

Also a physician, Lambrecht is one of few clinicians who bridge the gap between immunology research and applications in patients. In doing so, his work on the basic mechanisms of inflammatory diseases has led to several new drug candidates. Dr Lambrecht is also the winner of an ERC Advanced Grant and the Francqui Prize.

“I am very proud of this award, which is the result of years of hard work by a very dedicated team of colleagues at VIB and Ghent University,” he says. “We are also supported by a good research and biotech climate in Flanders, which can compete with the best in the world.”

KU Leuven professor Guy Boeckxstaens of the Department of Translational Research and Gastroenterology Disorders has won the Excellence Award in Clinical Biomedical Sciences. The winner of numerous national and international awards, including two ERC Advance Grants, Dr Boeckxstaens has devoted his career to advancing treatment of gastrointestinal disorders.

His research has identified interactions between the nervous system and the immune system in causing disorders in the gastrointestinal tract. His findings have improved diagnosis and treatment for diseases such as gastroesophageal reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, dyspepsia and chronic constipation.

Finally, Johan Wagemans, the chair of KU Leuven’s Department of Brain and Cognition, has won the Excellence Award for Humanities and Social Sciences. With a background in both psychology and philosophy, professor Wagemans has contributed invaluable research to the study of visual perception, especially shape, object and scene perceptions.

Dr Wagemans has also studied visual perception in people with autism, schizophrenia and cerebral visual impairments as well as in the field of arts and sport – useful to understanding referee calls.

Launched in 1960, today the Excellence Awards come with a €100,000 prize. Researchers cannot apply for the award themselves but are nominated by peers from Belgium and abroad. An independent jury of international scientists screens the nominations and selects one laureate in each area.

The award ceremony will be held in December in the presence of King Filip. The laureates will then receive their prize money and a unique work of art created especially for the occasion by famous Flemish sculptor Tom Frantzen.

Photos, from top: ©KU Leuven, Peterschreiber.media/iStock/Getty Images Plus