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Figures that matter. That is theme under which the Vrije Universiteit Brussel will award seven honorary doctorates on Tuesday, April 2; two of which to a duo. Figures that matter were the terrain of the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling who died in 2017 and whose son, Ola Rosling, and daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, have completed his worldwide bestseller Factfulness (2018). Karine Chemla (France) is a historian of mathematics, Freddy Van Oystaeyen is a Belgian pioneering mathematician, Padmanabhan Seshaiyer (US) is also a mathematician, but above all a champion and pioneer of better STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). Brian Durie is a world authority in Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and is, together with his wife Susie Durie, founder of the International Myeloma Foundation. Finally, there are honorary doctorates for the Dutch physicist and science communicator Robbert Dijkgraaf and political cartoonist Gerard Alsteens (GAL).
“For the VUB this academic year is dedicated to the beauty, power and wisdom of science,” says VUB rector Caroline Pauwels. “We confirm this in the presentation of the honorary doctorates, which we relate to figures, data and research results that matter. The figures and drawings of GAL also matter. They encourage us to think critically. “
The French Karine Chemla is a historian of mathematics and sinologist. She is familiar with both Western thinking (including the work of mathematicians Leonhard Euler en Michel Chasles) and Eastern thinking: as a sinologist. Through her focus on mathematics in her historical, cultural and philosophical context, Karine Chemla is a true bridge figure between the alpha and beta sciences. In her work she approaches mathematics as a cultural given that we must understand as such. Her work is relevant for historians and philosophers, for archaeologists and art scientists, and also - in her role as a sinologist - for linguists and literary scholars.
Karine Chemla is, amongst others, research director at the Center national de la recherche scientifique. She was nominated by the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy.
Freddy Van Oystaeyen
Freddy (Fred) Van Oystaeyen is a mathematician and emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Antwerp. Freddy Van Oystaeyen was one of the key figures in mathematical research in Flanders over the past half century. He is a world expert on non-commutative algebra and geometry, and has steered this subject forward. His contributions not only benefited his own university, but also the other universities in Flanders, certainly including the VUB. His research also has an important aesthetic component. New developments in mathematics are very often based on aesthetic considerations. Mathematicians experience that beauty as one of the strong holders of their discipline.
Freddy Van Oystaeyen was nominated by the Faculty of Engineering.
Padmanabhan Seshaiyer (US) is professor of mathematics at George Mason University. He has a great interest in mathematics education in primary and secondary schools in the US and abroad. He is director of the STEM Accelerator Program and of COMPLETE (Center for Outreach in Mathematics Professional Learning and Educational Technology). In recent years Prof. Seshaiyer has launched a series of educational programs to guide the interest of students and teachers in STEM studies at all levels. He has won numerous prestigious awards and is in high demand as a speaker (including two TEDx talks, the latest of which is The M in STEM). Prof. Seshaiyer is also actively involved in international STEM collaborative projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Padmanabhan Seshaiyer has been nominated by the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences
Brian Durie and Susie Lavitt Durie
Brian Durie (US) is a world authority in the field of multiple myeloma (Kahler’s disease, bone marrow cancer) and related diseases. With his scientific research he is at the foundation of the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities, which have led to a significant increase in life expectancy following the diagnosis of multiple myeloma. Without international collaboration and the exchange of data and accommodating patients in joint clinical trials, this success would not have been possible. Therein lies the extraordinary merit of Brian Durie. In addition to his own scientific contributions, both on a fundamental and on clinical levels (with 450 scientific publications), he founded the International Myeloma Foundation (IMF) with his wife, Susie Durie, as a promotional force. Thirty years ago this non-profit organization set itself the goal to inform patients and to involve them in the knowledge about their illness, but also to encourage doctors worldwide to work together to develop best practice guidelines. The IMF also supports research into the origin of multiple myeloma. This organization today operates globally.
Brian Durie and Susie Lavitt Durie were nominated by the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy.
Hans Rosling (posthumous), Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
Hans Rosling (1948-2017) was a Swedish doctor and professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institutet (Stockholm) and director of the Gapminder Foundation. Rosling’s research, amongst others, focused on the link between economic development, agriculture, poverty and health in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He was a consultant to the WHO, UNICEF and various aid organizations. In 1993 he was one of the founders of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Sweden.
In 2006 Rosling made an international breakthrough with his TED talk The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen. Through the use of innovative animations, he explained how the world was showing progress in many ways, even in the poorest countries. With his son, Ola Rosling, and his daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation. Gapminder developed software that converts international statistics into moving, interactive and entertaining graphs. Rosling was above all a dismantler of common myths and an advocate for a life attitude of possibilism; the conviction that we can make the world a better place through knowledge and science.
Together with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Hans Rosling wrote Factfulness, which appeared after his death in 2018 and became a worldwide bestseller. Ola and Anna Rosling continue the work of Hans Rosling. With the honorary doctorate, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel wants to reward the work of three people who made an important contribution to the dissemination of a fact-based world view, of critical thinking and of the conviction that we can make the world a better place through science.
Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund have been nominated by the University for commendable social services.
With his exceptional efforts in science communication, physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf invariably brings the power and beauty of science to the attention of the general public.
Dutchman Robbert Dijkgraaf is a professor at the University of Amsterdam. His field is theoretical physics. He has been director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (US) since 2012 where his office was once the workplace of Albert Einstein. Robbert Dijkgraaf is a valued scientist in his field. He works in the field of particle physics, and more particularly in string theory and quantum gravity, for which he received the Spinoza prize.
Robbert Dijkgraaf is highly active in popularizing science. He is, amongst others, a columnist for NRC Handelsblad, co-presenter on the television program Hoe? Zo! and was a guest on Zomergasten on VPRO. He is also a regular guest on the television program De Wereld Draait Door.
Robbert Dijkgraaf has evolved into a true ambassador for science. He personally sees science as something that is or should be accessible to everyone.
In his role as ambassador, however, he is concerned about the way people look at science in society today. He advocates an optimistic view of the future and a belief in the resilience of man to tackle the problems of the future with the help of science.
Robbert Dijkgraaf was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Raboud University in Nijmegen in 2013. The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is the first Belgian university to award an honorary doctorate for social merit.
Gerard Alsteens (GAL)
Gerard Alsteens (1940) or GAL is one of the longest working and best-known political artists in Belgium.
GAL studied at the painting and graphics department of the Sint- Lukas institute in Brussels. He would later also become a lecturer. Gerard Alsteens established his reputation as a cartoonist and political draftsman between the 1960s and 1980s with cartoons in De Nieuwe and De Zwijger. When De Nieuwe went bankrupt, he switched to Knack where he has been the house cartoonist since 1983.
His drawings are usually sharp and confrontational, with a clear message. By reflecting current events in high-profile images, he encourages people to think (critically). His drawings often represent direct indictments against particular events, situations or politicians.
In 2004 GAL suffered an eye embolism that severely impaired his vision. In spite of this he managed to resume his work with the help of a number of technical aids. This only shows how driven Gerard Alsteens is, even at his current advanced age.
GAL’s commitment to freedom and freedom of speech, which he has expressed through his cartoons over many years, fits the values of our university perfectly. GAL is critical when he has to, as funny as can be and always avoids any prejudice.
GAL shares his love for Brussels with the VUB. He has, on several occasions, indicated that he would not want to live anywhere else than in Brussels. He sees Brussels as a kind of laboratory; a touchstone for the reality of the future.
Gerard Alsteens has received many awards and honorary titles during his long career. The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is the first university to award him an honorary doctorate.
The formal presentation of the honorary doctorates will take place on Tuesday, 2 April at 11 am in Aula Q at the Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering Campus (Etterbeek campus), at Pleinlaan2 in 1050 Brussels.