Can you describe what you do?
In a way, not much has changed since my student years: I still live in Leuven and bike to work every day. But instead of sitting on the hard benches of the university lecture halls, I’m now standing in front of classrooms, teaching genetics and industrial microbiology. Besides teaching, I spend most of my time in my laboratory, where I lead an international team of motivated PhD students and senior scientists who are using yeast to discover more on human cells and genetic diseases; and also in finding new strategies to generate superior industrial yeasts to make better beer, chocolate and biofuels.
Clearly, receiving a top-level education here in Leuven has shaped my career as a scientist and opened many doors.
How do you perceive Leuven? In your view, what kind of city is it? What would you say is its main appeal as a city?
Leuven combines all the positive parts of large, thriving cities with the charm and laid-back nature of a typical medieval Belgian town. And like many of Belgium’s best cities, Leuven mixes beautiful architecture with a relaxed approach to life, revolving around its many bars and restaurants – most of which have outdoor seating that seems to be used irrespective of the season. What sets Leuven apart from other small Belgian cities is without any doubt its University, which generates a constant influx of young and creative minds. Thanks to the international reputation of Leuven University, and the body of international students and staff members having grown immensely over the past decades, lifting Leuven’s status from a provincial city to a true international hub. I very much enjoy all its ethnic restaurants, supermarkets and culture. Secondly, Leuven is arguably also the capital of the beer world, with the global headquarters of AB InBev, the world’s largest beer company; as well as a slew of smaller craft breweries in the vicinity. And last but not least, everything is walkable and cyclable – even the beautiful, hilly Walloon countryside is only a short bike ride away.
What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
Clearly, receiving a top-level education here in Leuven has shaped my career as a scientist and opened many doors. The international reputation of the University helped me get a job as a research fellow at MIT, the world’s leading engineering school, and later as a lecturer at Harvard University. Working at MIT and Harvard made me realise that actually, the research level here in Leuven is every bit just as good as in those prestigious, expensive institutions. So, after spending six years in the US, I did not have to think twice when an opportunity arose to return to Leuven to take up a combined professorship at the University and the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB). Moreover, the training and personal network that came with it over the years has enabled me to set up my “dream team” of scientists here in Leuven. Who else can say that they study the origins of cancer, whilst simultaneously work on improving Belgian beer?
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
I would like to see even more green in the city centre, with more inviting parks and even more contact with the river Dyle which runs through the heart of the city. I must admit that I am also not the biggest fan of what the City is doing with the area around the train station, nor the old industrial area around the canal. The latter especially seems like a missed opportunity to keep the charming old industrial buildings intact. I’m afraid that the new, shiny apartment blocks that arise today will feel like an ugly ghetto in 20 years’ time.
If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what/where would it be?
The best way to explore Leuven is definitely by bike; and definitely not with a trip to a museum, but rather by mingling with locals in the many bars, cafés and colleges. I would start with at lunch at the ViaVia world café in Heverlee, and then ride to the city centre through the Arenberg Science Park, which is arguably the most beautiful science campus in the world. From there, we would continue the journey to the centre of town via the Groot Begijnhof, a fantastic UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, the medieval houses are so well preserved that some foreign visitors mistake it for a museum and stick their cameras into the houses of the people who actually live there. I have been told by some of my students who lived in the Begijnhof that this can be quite annoying, especially when you are trying to relax in your bathtub! From there, we go through Parijsstraat and Mechelsestraat to visit the best independent shops in the city, before stopping at Oude Markt for a cold beer. The Town Hall, the University Halls, Hogeschoolplein, Pope’s College and Premonstratensian College are next, followed by dinner on a restaurant terrace. After dinner, my guests would have the choice of a few hidden secrets, that most tourists would miss: cocktails on the rooftop bar of the M-Museum, a quick hike through the Klein Begijnhof and to the top of Keizersberg park for a nice view of the city, or a longer walk to the beautiful Park Abbey, making you forget that you are less than a mile away from the bustling city centre.
I like to believe that passionate students, alumni and faculty like Pieter De Somer help to create a positive vibe, and make Leuven what it is today.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
A good example would be Pieter De Somer, a world-class scientist who also served as rector of the university between 1968 and 1985. De Somer is known as one of the best teachers, scientists and managers in the University’s long-standing history. One anecdote always captured my imagination and served as an example for what it means to be passionate about science: it is said that when De Somer purified a yet unknown molecule from human blood, he investigated its action by injecting it into his own arm, showing that it activated an immune response. I like to believe that passionate students, alumni and faculty like Pieter De Somer help to create a positive vibe, and make Leuven what it is today.kuleuven.be/verstrepen