Biology par excellence: UGent

Nieuws | de redactie
10 februari 2009 | Ghent University (UGent) not only obtained a ‘top group placement’ in mathematics in CHE’s 2007/2008 excellence ranking, but the biology department of the Belgian institution was also rated as ‘excellent’. What is their secret recipe? “That’s hard for me to say,” says prof. Wim Vyverman, “I have that typical Belgian modesty.” Eventually though, he came through. "A new group of young scientists and teachers has emerged with an outspoken innovative approach. Their work has got a more interdisciplinary approach and a strong focus on key themes in modern day research."

In comparison with other European universities, Ghent University is relatively young. Though Ghent, situated in Flanders – the Dutch speaking region of Belgium – was one of the richest and powerful cities in medieval Europe, it had no university until 1817. Nowadays, Ghent is the largest student city in Belgium. The university alone attracts over 30.000 students, contains 11 faculties and over 130 faculty departments. “Pluralism, a critical mind, independence and a strong ambition of internationalisation are UGent’s core values”, according to rector prof. Paul van Cauwenberge in his preface of last year’s annual report.

Biology education and research

The biology department is part of the faculty of sciences. 273 bachelor students and 143 master students follow courses in a wide range of biological disciplines, centred around Ecology, Evolution, Functional Biology and Biodiversity. The single bachelor and various masters place the organism in focus, whether considered as a member of a species (Biodiversity), as an interacting partner with its environment (Ecology), as the result of an evolutionary process (Evolution) or as a functioning entity (Functional Biology).

Research at the department is fundamental in nature and is carried out, with the help of state of the art facilities, by 12 research groups. They have a strong expertise in taxonomy and systematics, aquatic (both marine and freshwater) and terrestrial ecology, as well as evolutionary morphology, developmental biology and physiology. Furthermore, the department holds significant collections, it has a museum of zoology, a botanic garden, a herbarium and a diatom culture collection. These play an essential role in the training of biology students and in the support of various research programmes.

Specialists in every field

“I am proud that our department of biology is excellent, and I find it hard to provide one single explanation for it, but I’ll give it a try”, says aquatic ecologist prof. Wim Vyverman. Once a student at UGent himself, he went to work as a postdoc in Australia for a couple of years before returning as a researcher to the place he left as a student. Currently he is director of the laboratory of Protistology and Aquatic Ecology as well as head of the board of studies.

Vyverman: “I think one of our specialties is that we can offer our students such a good broad basis in biology because we have specialists in every field of education. Furthermore, our students have a lot of freedom to follow their own desired path as there are many majors and minors to choose from. We have many good research groups with a leading role in several disciplines and which are internationally well-respected.

In their excellence ranking CHE highlighted the many publications, citations and highly cited authors the UGent biology department has. According to Vyverman one of the reasons for the high ranking is the fact that since a few years a new group of young scientists and teachers has emerged with an outspoken innovative approach. “Their work has got a more interdisciplinary approach and a strong focus on key themes in modern day research. That’s why their publications are very popular and highly cited.”

Internal competition

“If I have to pinpoint another reason for the many citations I think it’s because the quality of the UGent publications has increased over the years”, Vyverman goes on to explain. “Nowadays there is a healthy internal competition between the research groups to deliver the best research, the best publication possible. This definitely has improved our overall level of quality when it comes to our research and writing about it. Because of the increased quality of research we can attract more talented foreign researchers and over the years more and more international students have come to UGent to get a phd in biology. And with these foreign talents we are able to keep increasing our level of quality.”

“What we are working on right now is to get more students involved in research from an earlier stage. That’s our main focus. But we are also working hard to developing programs for students to prepare them for a commercial career. We feel the need to do this because we’ve noticed that more and more students are opting for a job in the business sector and it seems that there is a great demand for them”, says Vyverman.

UGent internationalisation

Ghent University is a strong participator in European Union (EU) mobility projects and international cooperations. Since the beginning of the Socrates-programme, Ghent has signed bilateral agreements with more than 400 European institutions and it is a member of 11 international organisations. Furthermore, it has established a China and India Platform in order to develop better initiatives for better cooperation – educational as well as research-orientated – with Chinese and Indian institutions.

In the academic year 2007-2008, Ghent University sent 550 of its students abroad and hosted approximately 800 international students within the framework of an exchange programme. Ghent University was twice awarded an Erasmus Prize (1989 and 1994) and was mentioned as 1 of 20 Erasmus Success Stories by the European Commission in 2007.

At the biology department 9% of the staff comes from abroad, 14% of the doctoral students are international students and 12 % of the master students. “Our bachelor courses are in Dutch, but the masters can be followed in English, depending on the curriculum the student takes”, says Vyverman, “and every year more Belgium students go to study elsewhere for a year or half year. We encourage that. Right now, for students who don’t want to leave for such a long time we are looking for the possibility to make it more easy for them to follow one specific course abroad for a short period.”

Erasmus Mundi and cycling classes

The UGent biology department is also partner in two Erasmus mundus master programs. These programs bring together some of Europes leading universities and research institutes and is offered by a network of several international partners. Students are able to follow the Erasmus Mundus master in marine biodiversity and conservation as well as the master in nematology, both in which UGent is the coordinating university.

For exchange students who come to Ghent there is a special post-academic program in ‘low countries studies’ which will help them to understand the culture. Also, UGent offers free language courses to learn Dutch. Upon arrival the students from abroad are interviewed by a special international relations officer, who will guide them during their stay if necessary. The personnel department offers assistance to all foreign researchers in fulfilling administrative formalities and finding accommodation. For students and researchers from developing countries the university organises a welcome day and various practical information sessions about traffic and safety, health and hygiene. Cycling classes are optional.

Here you can find a UGent guide with more information about Ghent and the university.

For more information on CHE’s excellence ranking click here. A Dutch analysis of the CHE ExcR can be read here.

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