Isala at a festival: The big award ceremony in Linz!

Now, 3.5 years after the start of our Isala project, we already achieved many milestones: more than 6000 women participated, we found more than 10 types of bacteria, almost 3000 vaginal bacteria were cultivated in the lab, a team of more than 25 researchers and so on. And we keep on growing! Isala was awarded the Grand EU Prize for Citizen Science (be sure to check our previous blog). This prize was officially awarded last month at the ARS Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria! The ARS Electronica Festival is a place where artists, scientists, developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and activists come together from all over the world. In short, a breeding ground for new ideas and insights, with the focus in 2023 on the topic: “Who owns the truth?”. Join us on this amazing trip! 😊

The ARS Electronica Festival, which took place from September 6 to 10, took over the entire city. In every street, you saw something that had to do with the festival. For example, there was a large canvas on the central market square on which various projections could be seen in the evening. However, the heart of the festival was in the PostCity Hall, a former postal sorting center that was now used as an event location. Interesting tours were given here, there were fun workshops, food trucks, information stands (see Picture 1), music, shows and much more, actually there was something for everyone. Three enthusiastic researchers from our lab, Leonore Vander Donck, Caroline Dricot & Joke Van Malderen, accompanied by Professor Sarah Lebeer, represented the Isala team in Linz and stayed there from Tuesday 5 to Friday 8 September. We talked about the Isala research and our results with other researchers, artists, developers, visitors, etc. Actually, with everyone! 😉

Picture 1: Two enthusiastic researchers of the Isala team at the Isala information stand at the festival.

After our exploration of the festival grounds on day 1, day 2 was centered around the main reason for our trip: the official Citizen Science Prize award ceremony! This prize, awarded for the first time by the European Commission, recognizes outstanding initiatives that put research, innovation, engagement and creativity at the service of our society, thereby strengthening individuals and communities. We were praised with Isala for several reasons. First of all, because of our pioneering research. As you know, the Isala project is investigating the vaginal microbiome and its impact on female health, a topic that was relatively unknown territory until recently. In addition, we strive to revolutionize female healthcare by breaking various taboos. This is being done through an interdisciplinary approach in which genetics, microbiology, medicine, but also social and cultural aspects are discussed.

Short recap: What is citizen science?
Citizen science is a powerful and collaborative approach of scientific research where the broad public can contribute to scientific projects. How does it link to the Isala project? Well, the Isala project relied on women to donate vaginal samples and thus contribute to science!

After some words of praise from the jury, we were invited to the real awards ceremony together with the other winners. We were surrounded by live music, art, revolutionary fashion, dance, poetry, lasers and so much more! And then we got to the moment of truth: handing over the awards! Accompanied by Professor Sarah Lebeer, we were very honored to receive the grand prize! After the award ceremony, there was a real photo shoot to obtain the perfect photos (definitely check Picture 2 😊), followed by a reception with some snacks and drinks! We made new connections and were congratulated by, among others, the ambassador and ambassador of Belgium in Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia, just like the winners of the other prizes. We had a great time, thanks again!

Picture 2: The moment of truth: the award ceremony.

After a day full of congratulations, we were expected for a fascinating panel discussion on day 3. For this we were matched together with the girls from ALMA (see Picture 3). ALMA is an Italian project that, similar to us, focuses on feminine hygiene and health, with the aim of breaking the taboo surrounding it. As the slogan “Who owns the truth?” of the ARS Electronica Festival implies, the discussion was mainly about women and their vaginas. We talked about the growing importance of scientific information and knowledge on the microbiome, enabled by citizen science projects, and about the microorganisms that live in and collaborate with their host, being the female body. But now… “Who owns the truth?” Who owns this scientific and yet private information? How can women acquire this knowledge of their own body? How can we further break the taboo and engage in more dialogue? There are still many unanswered questions…

Picture 3: Three Isala team members are sitting at the left side, being in discussion with the girls of ALMA (at the right).

Therefore, we can conclude that scientific research, communication, and social aspects go hand in hand! There are still a lot of unanswered questions and undiscussed topics. There is work to be done by us, and you, because citizen science never ends! 😊