VUB geologist nominated for New Scientist Science Talent 2021

Wednesday, April 21, 2021 — Geologist Niels de Winter, a researcher at the VUB research group AMGC and Utrecht University, was nominated for the title of New Scientist Science Talent 2021 today. Readers have until 3 May to vote for the winner via the magazine’s digital ballot box. The 15 nominees were chosen from more than 50 candidates. De Winter: “I am extremely happy with the nomination. Apart from the fact that it is recognition of my work as a researcher, it is a good opportunity to express my passion for the climate. After all, it is my personal mission as a climate expert, vegan and young scientist to seize every opportunity to make people aware of their impact on climate, environment and biodiversity.’

Niels de Winter obtained his PhD from VUB in 2019 with research on techniques for high-resolution climate reconstruction. His postdoctoral research is funded by the FWO and the European Commission (Marie Curie grant, Horizon2020). He published seven of the nine chapters of his PhD as first-author papers in international peer-reviewed journals, and worked out a total of 23 publications in five years. His research has been awarded two Early Career Scientist Awards: the Steven Cohen Prize in 2017 and the Outstanding Early Career Scientist Award (EGU, 2020) and has regularly had media coverage, sometimes worldwide.

De Winter on his research: “To better understand the Earth’s climate system now and in the future, it is crucial to find out how climate responded to change in the geological past. Unfortunately, until now, this climate has mainly been studied on a geological timescale - thousands to millions of years - while the most important variations in our climate actually occur on a seasonal scale. In my research, I am developing techniques to study climate changes precisely at this scale. For these reconstructions, I use chemical and microscopic analyses of fossil shells. They record the conditions of their environment, like the rings of a tree. I also grow live cockles, oysters and mussels to better understand shell growth. So my research lies at the interface of biology, geology and chemistry.

“The most innovative aspect of my research is the scale of past climate reconstructions. My reconstructions allow us to study the effect of global warming on extreme seasons and even weather conditions, something that was previously impossible. Predicting these aspects of climate change is very important, because these extremes are one of the greatest threats of global warming. In addition, we can measure very local climate conditions and therefore understand much more precisely how and why climate change has different effects in different places on earth.

“The application of this research goes beyond climate, however, as fossil shells also record other conditions of seawater, telling us more about the marine ecosystem in which they lived. We have even been able to show that in the distant past, the year had more days, which is important for astronomers studying the Earth-Moon system. In short, it is interdisciplinary research with multidisciplinary applications.’

The jury this year is chaired by VUB particle physicist Jorgen D’Hondt and director of the Rathenau Institute Melanie Peters. The other members of the jury are Jeroen de Ridder (chair of the Young Academy in the Netherlands), Sylvia Wenmackers (co-chair of the Young Academy in Flanders) and Jim Jansen (editor-in-chief New Scientist). Following the New Scientist creed - ideas that change the world, or our view of it - the jury applied three criteria on which they assessed the scientists: research impact, research originality and science communication with the general public. After the ballot box closes, the jury will choose the three finalists from the five candidates with the most votes. The award ceremony takes place during the New Scientist Live: Science Talent event on Thursday 10 June in De Balie in Amsterdam. The keynote speaker of the evening is virologist Ab Osterhaus. The New Scientist Science Talent 2021 wins a trophy and a prize of 2,500.