Can you describe what you do?
We are professors at KU Leuven, working in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and more specifically in the Institute of Nuclear and Radiation Physics. Our working space located in Leuven is in the Arenberg Science Campus, where research, teaching and scientific service are the three pillars of our job: we develop new techniques, prepare experiments and afterwards analyse our results. We lead together a group of some 15 people consisting of doctoral students, post-doctorates and technicians, performing experiments in nuclear physics. More than half of our group have come from abroad for a short residency. As experimental nuclear physicists, we investigate how the nucleus of an atom is made from its building blocks of protons and neutrons. Our research is an international endeavour, bringing us to accelerator centres all over the world, like Geneva’s CERN: we typically spend one to two months abroad for experiments, meetings, workshops and conferences. This international context is certainly one of the advantages of our job, but the main drive always comes from the science itself. Designing and performing experiments addressing fundamental questions, such as how matter came into being, or how subatomic matter interacts, is fascinating. In addition, doing that together and with an ever-renewing group is stimulating.
How do you perceive Leuven?
Leuven is for us first and foremost a university city – and KU Leuven is our home. We started our studies here, and although we lived for extended periods throughout Europe and Northern America, our heart still lies here. The University has an attractive profile, is a member of LERU (League of European Research Universities), and is situated in the top hundred ranking of different international universities. It attracts many foreign students and researchers, and clearly, their decision to attend KU Leuven is influenced by the city. Recently we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our academic institute, and we asked former foreign alumni to share their impressions of their stay in Leuven. Many commented on the lively, welcoming atmosphere at Leuven. Furthermore, Leuven’s scale makes it greatly accessible, with everything your body and soul could ever desire within biking distance.
From here, you can really see what Leuven is all about: a medieval university town perfectly finding its place in the present and future.
How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
Both of us come from a small village, so being at Leuven as a student opened up the world to us. It also meant returning back home was out of the question. Leuven does not care about your family background, and neither does KU Leuven. This attitude creates many opportunities, ready to be taken.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
The City could and should integrate the University more into its daily life. Taking Arenberg Science Campus as an example, it’s quite isolated from the city due to two barriers: the Ring and Celestijnenlaan. It’s still an excellent place for a picnic in the park, or walking and biking – and why not, with some modifications a future spot for cultural and science outreach activities. For instance, there’s a small amphitheatre in the park that’s currently completely deserted. We’re working on a thematic cycle track between the universities and cities of Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, in honour of Professor Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), the founder of the Big Bang theory. Along the cycle path, links will be made through the different disciplines of the faculties of sciences of both universities, all relating to the Big Bang and the development of our universe until now.
To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Leuven?
Strolling through the city on a Saturday. Hiring a bike on a Sunday, tour the three abbeys: Keizersberg with its user-friendly bike elevator and great view over Leuven, Vlierbeek Abbey and its tavern In Den Rozenkrans, and the Park Abbey. But if we had to choose only one place, it would have to be the bell-tower of the University Library – even if it’s not an easy one. From here, you can really see what Leuven is all about: a medieval university town perfectly finding its place in the present and future.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
Leuven’s got its own alternative scene, arguably spear-headed by local legend Gosse who’s been running The Ideas Factory for three decades now. Furthermore, there’s an almost mythical picture of the so-called Leuven music scene which was glorious during the ‘70s and ‘80s. If interested, make sure to check out the documentary.http://fys.kuleuven.be/iks/ns/home