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Blind Date: from radiation to diversity    Jan 23, 2019

Blind Date: from radiation to diversity
Jan 23, 2019

One table, two chairs. That’s all it takes to have a good conversation. We brought together two scientists from different fields to talk about their research, insights, and passions. What soon follows is a conversation about the rush of discovery, futuristic nuclear power plants and diversity.


Wouter: “I am Wouter Schroeyers, a professor at the faculty of Industrial Engineering Sciences and my research mainly focusses around natural radioactivity.” 

Patrizia: “My name is Patrizia Zanoni and I am a professor at the faculty of Business Economics in the group of behavior, communication, and linguistics. My research focuses on diversity, hard to find any radioactivity there (laughs).

Wouter: “There could be some unexpected connections lurking around the corner. For example, one of our research projects revolves around how people think about nuclear technology, which is behavioral sciences."

Patrizia: “That’s right, we investigate the interaction between something and the way people perceive and experience it.


Wouter: “We are looking at how we can safely reuse residual material originating from the oil/gas-industry or metal processing companies, which contains high natural radioactivity. We call it residual material or side-products rather than waste, as the latter can make reuse quite difficult.

Patrizia: “That is a nice example of how important perception is!

Wouter: “Indeed. We look at natural radioactivity that has been present in raw materials since the creation of the earth but can get concentrated in residual materials during the industrial processes to the point that it’s above the legal limit. A nice example is Radon, a radioactive noble gas that can accumulate in rooms with poor ventilation due to its presence in construction materials and which can cause lung cancer."

Patrizia: “We are studying diversity, mainly in a work-related context. We investigate how social interactions form at work between people with different shapes, colors and backgrounds and how these differences might lead to inequality. Diversity is, just like Radon actually, naturally present. Due to the media, it might seem like it only recently came into existence but that’s not the case. Only, today we are much more aware of the influence of differences on the interaction between people.

Wouter: “What kind of research methods do you use for these type of studies?

Patrizia: “We mainly use qualitative methods. We go to the work setting and observe social interactions as they occur, with special attention to the role of power and inequality. This can be quite labor intensive, since it’s good practice to integrate observations with interviews, documents, and (digital) communication.


Wouter: “For me, it’s the variety. There are so many aspects to this topic, which keeps it interesting for me. In addition to this, we were also able to be part of a lot of pioneering research within the field.

Patrizia: “For me, it’s the intellectual kick that keeps me going. Again and again, you get new insights into how our world and society works. My research also allows me to look at our everyday reality from different points of view.

Wouter: “I really expected that you were going to say that you like the diversity of your research!

Patrizia: “That’s indeed the case. I think I speak for both of us when I say that we are intrigued by what our research topics have to offer, whether it is radiation or differences between people. However, the intellectual kick and being intrigued are not enough. What’s also important to me is having an impact. You don’t want to have the feeling that it’s all for nothing.


Wouter: “I studied chemistry at the LUC (the former name of UHasselt) and am from Limburg myself, so I have always felt a great deal of sympathy towards UHasselt and its educational DNA. I feel at home here."

Patrizia: “UHasselt gave me a unique opportunity to which I simply couldn’t say no. I was able to start doing research and educate students about diversity as well as, at a later stage, create an interuniversity master on Gender and Diversity. It makes me very proud and grateful to know that I have played a role in putting UHasselt on the map."

Wouter: “Indeed, you are really encouraged at our university to build something as well as work together with industry and knowledge centers, like the study center for nuclear energy. As a result Belgium is on the forefront of dealing with radioactive waste and the development of a new generation of nuclear power plants, something that few people know. These type of projects create a lot of jobs and interesting thesis subjects, giving me a great deal of satisfaction. Yet it remains difficult to communicate about them due to the negative opinion in the press towards nuclear energy.


Patrizia: “What would you still like to do in the coming decade?

Wouter: “I would love to find out if low doses of radiation have an influence on the human body. I would also like to see Radon appear in the indoor air pollution studies of our University. And if I may really fantasize for a moment, then I would love to study how to improve the living conditions of astronauts who are exposed to cosmic radiation (especially if we would like to live on Mars some day). But what would you do?

Patrizia: “I would love to write a book. But with my current agenda, it’s quite hard. You really need to be able to focus on the creative process over a long time, which unfortunately is not possible for me at the moment.

Wouter: “I recently published a book together with 90 international partners, so I might be able to help out a bit (laughs).