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Jordi Sunyer Receives the Title of Honorary Doctor from the University of Hasselt

The ISGlobal and UPF researcher receives an honorary degree for his work on the importance of air quality and green environments in children's cognitive development

Jordi Sunyer doctor honoris causa hasselt
Photo: Prof. Dr. Tim Nawrot, Prof. Dr. Jordi Sunyer, Prof. Dr. Bernard Vanheusden. Hasselt University

The Faculty of Science at the University of Hasselt (UHasselt), in Belgium, has awarded an honorary doctorate to the environmental epidemiologist Jordi Sunyer, a researcher at ISGlobal and professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF). "He is an outstanding academic whose research has had a major impact on society," said Professor Tim Nawrot, who sponsored the doctorate.

This is yet another milestone in Sunyer’s career, who in 2014 won the Goldsmith Prize, the most prestigious award in the field of environmental epidemiology. "That was very special, but now to receive this recognition from colleagues with whom I have worked for years is an indescribable feeling and an immense honour," said Sunyer.


Sunyer, a prominent figure in the field of environmental epidemiology

Sunyer, a prominent figure in the field of environmental epidemiology

According to UHasselt, "Jordi Sunyer is a world authority on disease prevention." In his more than 700 scientific publications, "he shows that good air quality and access to green spaces have an impact on children’s cognitive development. He also studies how PFASs substances can have endocrine and immunological effects in children and founded the INMA birth cohort in Spain, where he has been demonstrating for 25 years that environmental exposures before birth have an impact on health later in life." The Flemish university adds, "Jordi Sunyer also took the initiative to make birth cohorts in Europe even more collaborative. His impact in this field is therefore enormous."

Tim Nawrot points to the worldwide appreciation Jordi Sunyer receives for his research on spatial planning. "His findings have led to governments in several European cities becoming much more committed to greening their city centres," he says. Good spatial planning, with attention to air quality, sufficient green spaces in the city and infrastructure that encourages people to exercise more, creates "a sustainable urban environment that helps to keep the general population healthy," Nawrot concludes.


A doctor whose patient is society

A medical doctor by training, Jordi Sunyer focused his career on prevention after an eye-opening incident in the 1980s in the city of Barcelona, when there was a sudden increase in asthma cases. Together with Josep M. Antó, he was part of the research team that linked this unprecedented rise in asthma to the unloading of soya beans in the city's port, which made it possible to tackle the problem and implement preventive measures in Barcelona as well as in Naples, Marseille and New Orleans. This was a turning point.

Later, a Japanese study linking the consumption of contaminated fish during pregnancy to children born with cerebral palsy opened his eyes to the importance of prenatal exposure, a particularly sensitive period of life. He was one of the first scientists to establish a large birth cohort that took into account environmental factors such as air pollution.

What role does exposure to air pollution play in the development of respiratory diseases? And how does it impact cognitive development? New questions arose, and his team was able to answer some of them: children need to breathe good quality air and enjoy green spaces for their cognitive functions to develop well.

Today, schools in many European cities are being built with this in mind. In this way, his scientific findings have been translated into policy and have contributed to a green revolution in urban planning. "I keep my vision as a medical doctor to try to understand what is wrong with my patient, which is now society, and I try to propose solutions," explains Sunyer.

University of Hasselt celebrates 50 years

Sunyer's investiture ceremony at UHasselt, which also honoured virologist Erika Vlieghe of the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine, is part of the Flemish university's 50th anniversary celebrations, which will conclude on 30 May with a third honorary degree for Queen Mathilde of Belgium.

You can read Jordi Sunyer's honorary doctorate speech here.