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UZH Population Research Center

Research With and For Society

Seraina Rüegger is scientific director of the newly founded UZH Population Research Center, a collaborative academic platform for population-based research. In this interview, the political scientist talks about what issues and trends the researchers are exploring.
Interview: Alice Werner; English translation by Astrid Freuler


The UZH PRC aims to promote interdisciplinary cooperation among researchers at the University of Zurich and Zurich's university hospitals.

The UZH Population Research Center (PRC) was founded in early 2023, at the initiative of academics at UZH. What is the purpose of the center?

The guiding idea behind the UZH PRC is interdisciplinary cooperation in population research. There are several reasons for this. Population research touches on many aspects of life. By bringing together different faculties and subject areas we are better able to understand how social, economic and health factors are linked to each other – this became evident for instance during the coronavirus pandemic.

Interdisciplinary cooperation also allows us to look at issues from different angles, which in turn leads to a better understanding of the complexity of population-related topics. And of course, bringing together a broad range of different experts is key to developing realistic and effective strategies for improving the wellbeing and health of the population – whilst saving resources at the same time.

What exactly is meant by population-based research?

Population-based research focuses on people and demographic groups. It aims to identify and understand characteristics, behavior and patterns within the population being studied. We do this by collecting data through surveys, interviews, observations and clinical studies, and statistically evaluating it. This allows us to draw conclusions about the demographic group we are studying.

Which scientific disciplines carry out this type of research?

Many academic disciplines undertake population research. The current members of the UZH PRC are professors and researchers at the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, as well as experts from different fields such as public health, epidemiology, pediatrics, neurology, psychology, political sciences and communication and media studies. But at the UZH PRC, we focus on interdisciplinary cooperation which goes beyond the confines of particular faculties and institutes.

Which methods and technologies are used and what challenges arise in the collection and analysis of the data?

Most of us will probably have completed a questionnaire at some point, either online or on paper – that's a classic example of data gathering in population research. In addition to surveys, interviews and observations, our academics also apply and explore a whole range of other methods and technologies.

These include the use of voice recognition software, integrating data from sensors and wearable technology for continual capture of health and behavioral data, as well as the use of geographic information systems for spatial analysis of population data and to identify geographical patterns. Some of our members also carry out clinical studies, as well as long-term studies that continue over several years or even decades.

The challenges that arise when collecting and analyzing data include aspects such as data protection and data safety, as well as representativity – which means ensuring that the collected data really provides a true representation of the overall population. At the research center we actively engage with these challenges to ensure we produce excellent, valid and replicable research results.

Seraina Rüegger

We carry out interdisciplinary research for the population.

Seraina Rüegger, scientific director of the UZH PRC.

What insights is population research providing? What political or social implications result from your conclusions?

Population-related research is important for understanding general trends and dynamics within the population, developing interventions, supporting political decision-making and using resources effectively for improving the health and wellbeing of people.

What research projects are members of the UZH PRC currently working on?

At present, researchers of the UZH PRC are exploring various exciting topics, including health, education, media, political opinion and migration. These topics are being examined in the context of different age groups and stages of life.

One of the current PRC-associated research projects is the Talk2UZH Lab: The project aims to establish a network for the study and application of voice recognition in a secure context. This is based on a multilingual voice recognition software developed at UZH, which is integrated into a survey platform and will be accessible to UZH researchers. People from different subject areas are currently collaborating on the first pilot project, in which we want to find out how voice recognition can help improve observational studies. At the same time, we're also taking a closer look at ethical aspects and data protection issues. This interdisciplinary initiative underlines the UZH PRC's commitment to innovative research and the responsible use of new technologies.

Are researchers at the PRC predominantly focusing on population trends in Switzerland?

The research conducted by UZH PRC members certainly has its primary focus on the population of Switzerland and of the Canton of Zurich. This is a result of our close cooperation with UZH and the university hospitals, which enables us to directly recruit study participants. Another key factor are the strong links UZH maintains with cantonal and national authorities. Being based in Zurich has considerable benefits for the UZH PRC and we are actively striving to pass our insights back to the local population in a useful form.

Beyond this, our members also conduct population research outside Switzerland, including a study on Mental Health Surveillance in Ukraine. For this we are working closely with researchers at Sumy State University and with the Mental Health for Ukraine (MH4U) Program, which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. From February, we will be conducting regular surveys, asking inhabitants of Ukraine about their mental health. And we will also be assessing newly implemented, community-based therapy services.

Are there any controversial topics or ethical considerations that are discussed in relation to population research?

Of course. Data protection and research ethics are of great importance to all UZH PRC members – and to me personally – and we actively engage with these issues. Population research poses a range of questions that require ethical and legal consideration. These include the study participants' right to privacy, the use of sensitive data and the potential impact of our research on society.

As scientific director of the UZH PRC, what measures are you planning to encourage interdisciplinary cooperation?

The UZH PRC offers researchers various opportunities to network with colleagues from other disciplines. We have a range of initiatives that promote interdisciplinary collaboration, facilitate the exchange of knowledge and promote networking across the research community. I'm very fortunate to be working with a super team when planning all these measures.

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