21 professorships to foster interdisciplinary research (21ZAP Initiative)

In 2017 Ghent University’s Board of Governors decided to allocate 21 new professorships (“21ZAP”, in which ZAP is the abbreviation for Independent Academic Staff at Flemish universities). Instead of simply distributing these new positions across the 11 faculties, they were to be allocated based on an open call identifying strategic opportunities in a collaborative environment.

Existing consortia could apply for up to three extra professorships to be embedded in their consortium, depending on their respective needs and opportunities. Ten proposals were selected based on the following criteria:

  • the consortia must demonstrate earlier collaboration and a commitment to further intensify this, involving at least two faculties
  • the core of the proposal can be research-oriented, education-oriented, service-oriented or a combination of these
  • the research carried out by the consortium demonstrates high academic impact
  • the ambition in terms of research and/or education demonstrates clear potential for societal and/or economic impact
  • the new professorships should enrich the existing interdisciplinary environment, resulting in a strong, effective and sustainable team
  • the new professorships and corresponding new expertise to be developed should present an added value to Ghent University in general

In May 2018, the Board of Governors fully endorsed the panel’s proposal and approved the launch of these 21 professorships. From June 2018 onwards, the vacancies for these professorships are being advertised.

Meet the ten consortia and their professors


Against the backdrop of key scientific and ICT developments (biobanks, predictive genetic research, precision medicine, health wearables, AI, big data, interoperability of IT systems, public use files, data mining, …), related role-changes for patients and healthcare professionals, the proliferation of health-related data and new data protection and research data management frameworks, the Metamedica Platform conducts interdisciplinary, high-profile research in health privacy, health law and bioethics, involving and relevant for clinicians, lawyers, ethicists and ICT specialists. It also provides education and services to (future) clinicians and health care professionals.


Central to the project is the observation that there is an increasing degree of interconnectedness and of complexity in many societal systems. This poses challenges for governance, risk, robustness and resilience. Whereas traditional economics starts from a static world in equilibrium, data-driven complexity economics can deal with a dynamic and interconnected world. Novel interdisciplinary research approaches and educational lines are mandatory to cope with this new reality and address the challenges.

Refugee studies

Studying the multiple, complex and interrelated social consequences of forced displacement and fleeing urges to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, whereby the innovative research findings also form the basis to build highly relevant educational initiatives and to create far-reaching impact in diverse societal contexts.

Public health, sociology, and ethics of the end of life

Numerous medical and societal developments have led to increasingly steep challenges for health professionals in the care for patients at the end of life and their families. This program will complement clinical and health services paradigms with relevant sociological, public health and bioethical perspectives on issues relating to palliative and end-of-life care, communication and decision making.

The inflammatory gut-brain axis

The term gut-brain axis refers to the communication between the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the brain, linking intestinal functions including the microbiota composition, with emotional and cognitive functionality of the brain. While both human and rodent data support that the GI tract affects the health of the central nervous system, not much is known about the mechanisms of this gut-brain axis communication. Moreover, unravelling the disturbance of the gut-brain axis in gut inflammation associated neurological disorders, might result in the identification of innovative therapeutics for these diseases.

  • Promotor: Roosmarijn Vandenbroucke
  • 21ZAP professors: Debby Laukens, Vanessa Vermeirssen
  • www.ggig.be

Leveraging biopharmaceutical R&D

Biopharmaceuticals are pharmaceutical products of biological nature, most often proteins, and their use in medicine is rapidly expanding. Ghent University harbors vast expertise in the molecular biotechnological aspects of pharmaceutical protein research and is now investing in research on protein drugs for delivery through non-injectable routes, in computational protein design and in production process/formulation science.

  • Promotor: Nico Callewaert
  • 21ZAP professor: Xavier Saelens, Hristo Svilenov, Ahmad Reza Mehdipour

Auditory neuro-engineering

Age-related hearing deficits entail an important social, economic and health-related problem. The Ghent Auditory Science Platform (GASP) is a tight collaboration between half a dozen of research groups from the faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences, Engineering and Architecture, and Psychology and Educational Sciences conducting joint research in auditory science. The aim is to bridge the gap between machine listening and medical interventions at the auditory neurological level by boosting a new research field that results in personalised devices directly influencing neural processing of sound signals for perfect quality of hearing experience.

Precision medicine in rare diseases

RARE-MED is a multidisciplinary consortium for basic and translational research on precision medicine for rare diseases, to address missing heritability using systems genetics and functional genomics, to facilitate disease modelling using CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing of aquatic model organisms (zebrafish, Xenopus) and of cellular systems, to introduce new gene therapies based on antisense oligonucleotide- or CRISPR/Cas9-based genome editing.

  • Promotor: Elfride De Baere
  • 21ZAP professors: Sarah Vergult, Kris Vleminckx, Frauke Coppieters
  • Twitter: @RAREMED1

Monitoring with unmanned aerial vehicles

Whereas the rapid technological advance on UAVs has facilitated commercially available UAV platforms, their full potential in applications is yet to be reached, especially in monitoring and remote sensing applications of terrestrial agricultural and natural ecosystems. One key aspect will be automation, which encompasses real-time flight planning based on image analysis and streamlining of the data processing chain. Another key aspect will be adapting and interpreting the imaging process to and for specific applications, based on state-of-the-art crop and ecosystem research.

Urban waste and circular economy

This interdisciplinary setting addresses sustainable chemistry and circular economy from a promising socio-technical perspective on two emerging upcoming chemical areas. Besides the inter- and transdisciplinary research, there will be also a focus on education innovation to train the ‘chemist or engineer of the future’ by the implementation of socio-technical imaginaries, multiperspectivism and sustainability politics.

  • Promotor: Kevin Van Geem
  • 21ZAP professors: Erik Paredis, Georgios Stefanidis, Thomas Heugebaert