Academic year 2023-2024

Exploratory study on the microbiological and abiotic characterisation of urban soils

Soils harbour a great deal of life, from bacteria and fungi to tardigrades, woodlice and earthworms. Soil and its soil life deliver a wide range of services. Soil provides water storage and water purification, and a habitat and nutrients for plants, animals and microorganisms, making it indirectly the basis of many ecosystem services. Soil organisms contribute to nutrient cycling, pollution breakdown, food supply, pest control and pollination. Bacteria and fungi often play a key role in many soil processes and provisions of ecosystem services. While we know much about soils in forests, croplands and grasslands, soils in urban environments are still uncharted territory. What we do know, is that urban soils are often sealed and compacted (covered or paved as such that water cannot infiltrate the soil), disturbed and contaminated. How these conditions affect the microbial community in urban soils, is still unknown but important to know, in order to assess whether urban soils are functioning properly and delivering their ecosystem functions optimally. Moreover, soils are an important source of airborne bacteria and fungi, which can influence human health, both in a positive and negative way.

In this multidisciplinary thesis, you will conduct exploratory research on microbial communities in urban soils and its relation with soil abiotic conditions and land use. For this, you will determine the composition and richness of bacterial communities and fungal communities in soil at different locations in the city of Antwerp. The focus will be on urban green spaces, including single street trees, playgrounds, (pocket) parks and road verges. You will combine field work in the city, in collaboration with the City of Antwerp services, with lab work (DNA extraction and sequencing but also chemical analyses), bioinformatics, GIS and statistics. This research constitutes the first step in the development of novel techniques for the improvement of city soils.

Interested in this topic? Get in contact with Karen Wuyts to make an appointment.

Creating green schools: inventory of green and possibilities for greening at school and its effect on kids’ health

The knowledge that air pollution poses a threat to our health isn’t new. Research, however, is still limited to adults, elderly or children with underlying conditions such as asthma. Even though children are a vulnerable part of the population when it comes to exposure to air pollution, research on healthy children is still a gap in literature. Children’s immune system and lungs are not fully developed when exposure begins, raising the possibility of different health responses than observed in adults. They also have a larger lung surface, and breathe more air per mass of body weight than adults and they spend more (active) time outside. Hence, we are interested in the effects that exposure to air pollution has on healthy children. Therefore, a project is already running regarding air quality of Antwerp elementary schools where local school air quality will be linked to the health status of children attending these schools. The focus is set on school environments because children spend a large part of their time in there. Moreover, in the school environment, it is important to be attentive, one of the aspects that seems to be affected by a poor air quality. Along the monitoring of air quality in these schools, we also wander what possible actions schools can take to improve local air quality. One of many advantages of (urban) green is that is improves air quality. Half of the participating schools are situated in the city however, where it is not always evident to integrate a lot of green infrastructure.

This thesis research will involve a pleasant alternation of fieldwork and desk work, with the latter containing the processing and interpretation of your observations in the field. The first part of the research will involve taking an inventory. To do so, you will visit the schools for observations. The inventory, based on your observations, will contain elements such as the amount of green, situation thereof, biodiversity etc. Based on these findings, you will start thinking about possibilities for greening the schools in the second part, which on its turn could result in the formation of recommendations to the schools. You take into account different aspects such as space coverage, practical and financial considerations etc. By comparing results between the different schools, you can create a first representation of the green status of Antwerp elementary schools and take the first steps into greening them.

Interested in this topic? Get in contact with Hanne Hendrickx of Roeland Samson to make an appointment.

Mobile monitoring to minimise air pollution exposure during commuting in the city

Last year, we showed with our citizen science project CLAIRE (Clean Air for Everyone) that the air quality on a slow road with lots of greenery is significantly better than the air quality on a parallel busy road. A comparative study in Flanders has also already shown that the exposure to soot is 300% higher and that of ultrafine dust is 20% higher along a busy road with a lot of traffic compared to a bicycle highway. This shows that we can reduce personal exposure to particulate matter by consciously choosing our route when we travel. However, although mobile monitoring is already used in scientific research, this is limited to cyclists or car drivers and then mainly along access roads towards the city or locations located in the city outskirts. In contrast, there is less focus on the dense urban core, with the specific question of whether conscious choices can also be made when we move around the city.  We ask which routes we best take, how we best get around, and whether there is a difference in exposure to particulate matter when taking the different types of public transportation. The goal of this research project is to compare air quality, more specifically concentrations of fine particulate matter, ultrafine particulate matter and soot, between different locations in the city and while moving with different types of public transportation: train, streetcar, bus and subway.

This thesis research involves a large amount of fieldwork because you will be traveling with the mobile sensors. You will think about interesting places and routes in the city to measure air quality. You take into account feasibility and relevance of the locations, as well as the importance of repeated measurements in mobile monitoring. Together with the promoter and supervisor, you then work out a set-up. You measure air quality with real-time sensors for fine dust, ultrafine dust and soot. You get to know this equipment and learn how to handle it so that you can then go out safely. You will go into the city to measure the routes and locations discussed beforehand. You carry out these measurement campaigns on an independent basis. Using real-time measurements, you will determine the average values and the variation of concentrations of particulate matter, ultrafine dust and soot per measured route, location or type of public transport and you will compare the different locations. Using GIS, you also provide a visual representation of these results and examine the spatial variation. You thus form a picture of exposure in the city, examining which locations or types of public transport have the least exposure and where the differences are.

Interested in this topic? Get in contact with Roeland Samson to make an appointment.