Six PhD students are lined up and smiling in front of the camera inside a university building

Young researchers play a critical role in Equal-Life, as their research explores novel topics and angles, performs data analyses, and generates essential output for the Horizon2020 project. Extensive communication within the consortium empowers young researchers to make tangible progress and resolve information gaps. This is especially important considering the many different Work Packages in the project. A cohort of eight PhD students and Post-docs from Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland got together in Aachen in December 2023 to hold a fruitful and in-depth meeting on their work. Their research covers diverse topics within Equal-Life such as the health effects of noise, children’s access to urban green spaces, the analysis of biomarker data, the creation of machine learning methodologies, and wider ethical considerations.

The three-day event kicked off with participants introducing their work through short presentations. A subsequent ‘question-and-answer’ session provided the participants with better insights into, and understanding of, the various components of each other’s work. Through exchanging experiences and suggestions to improve research methods, a constructive discussion on the Equal-Life project was facilitated. 

Two PhD students from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) presented the group with specific exercises. Sanne Meijering had everyone draw out a network of all potential environmental exposures experienced by a girl growing up in an underprivileged  environment. Through intuitively describing the exposome in this assignment, the PhD students came to consider diverse types of exposures and how they interrelate. Finally, the exercise widened into a discussion on the concept of the human exposome. The group came to a consensus on considering the exposome as a way of thinking about the environment and health, rather than having to agree on one exact definition. Sammie Jansen introduced the framework of Responsible Research and Innovation and raised the subject of societal responsibility within research. This encouraged the participants to reflect on the societal impact of their research and the larger Equal-Life project. Experiences were exchanged, for example on collecting data responsibly and communicating with stakeholders. 

Being part of such a large interdisciplinary project is inspiring, but the scope and complexity of the work can make it challenging for individual researchers to fully understand − and to successfully link up to − the work of others. The young researchers, who are especially new to this field and complexity and work on in-depth pieces of the larger project, share a feeling of working on different islands. Physical meetings like this one in Aachen, with in-depth discussions as well as social activities, are thus very valuable to connect with one another and create a sense of ‘togetherness’ within the project. The participants left Aachen with an increased understanding of the Equal-Life project and strengthened collegial ties to continue their PhD research.


Zhiyang Wang (University of Helsinki) & Sammie Jansen (RIVM)