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Eastern Europe and Bioimaging

UZH is pooling its research expertise in a variety of fields, including Eastern European studies and bioimage analysis. A new interdisciplinary institute for Eastern European studies and the recently established BioVisionCenter were made possible thanks to seed funding from the university’s TRANSFORM program.
Roger Nickl/Translation: Philip Isler


People on a train platform in Lwiw, Ukraine
Migration research will be one of the focuses of the new Institute for Eastern European Studies at UZH. (People on a train platform in Lviv, Ukraine, March 2022/Image: Joel Carillet/iStock)

TRANSFORM boosts interdisciplinary cooperation at UZH. The funding program provides seed funding that helps translate innovative ideas into reality and transform new organizational structures in pioneering research fields. Four projects have already benefited from the program since 2022: the One Health Institute, the Center for Legal Data Science, the UZH Population Research Center, and Operation Room X, a translational center for surgical research and training. Two new promising projects can now be added to this list.

Over the next four years, the TRANSFORM program is providing CHF 2 million to help establish a new UZH department focused on Eastern European studies. The program is also backing the BioVisionCenter, which aims to become an innovative center dedicated to driving research and development in computational bioimage analysis, a field that is becoming more and more important for researchers. The project has been awarded seed funding of CHF 1.32 million over the next three years.

Cold War narratives

“Russia’s war against Ukraine has once again emphasized the urgent need for expertise on Eastern European issues,” say Slavonic studies scholar Sylvia Sasse and historian Jeronim Perović. The two experts on Eastern Europe are the driving forces behind UZH’s newest department, which merges the Department of Slavonic Studies and the Center for Eastern European Studies (CEES) founded by Perović and Eastern European historian Nada Boškovska back in 2017. By bringing together researchers from literary and cultural studies, linguistics and history, UZH will gain the first and largest institute for Eastern European studies in all of Switzerland.

The new department aims to bundle UZH’s extensive research expertise on Eastern, East-Central and South Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asian region, and to step up and expand cooperation in this field. “Many current issues can only be investigated by working together across disciplinary lines,” says Sylvia Sasse, who researches disinformation and propaganda in Russia, among other things.

The researcher has turned to media studies to boost research on this topic: Ukrainian media studies scholar Roman Horbyk will join the new department to explore the Cold War narratives that are at play in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Another area that will be given more emphasis is migration studies, which is already one of Jeronim Perović’s research priorities. UZH will also host a major interdisciplinary conference in September 2024 to explore the topic of “Societies on the Move. Migration, Mobility and Displacement in Eastern Europe”.

Albanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian

“TRANSFORM gives us an opportunity to build up a department for Eastern European studies. The project was approved by the Executive Board of the University in mid-October, and now we can get started,” say Sasse and Perović. The plan is to create a professorship ad personam for contemporary Eastern European studies for Jeronim Perović. In addition, two postdoc positions, one in the field of cultural studies and the humanities, one in social sciences, have been advertised.

Thanks to TRANSFORM, the CEES Fellowship Program, which has been running since 2019 and is aimed at early-career scholars in Eastern European countries, can continue under the auspices of the new department. The TRANSFORM funds will also enable the university to offer new language courses for Albanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian. And this spring, the “Atelier Ost: Dozentur für Kulturschaffende aus Ostmittel-, Ost-, und Südosteuropa” program, established by the Landis & Gyr foundation, kicks off with well-known Belarusian author Artur Klinaŭ. The new Institute for Eastern European Studies will be officially founded in the fall of 2025.

Analyzing organ development

The BioVisionCenter, the second project recently implemented with TRANSFORM funding, operates in a completely different corner of academia. The new center is unique in Switzerland. It aims to drive research and development in computational bioimage analysis and provide researchers from a variety of fields with bioimaging training as well as the infrastructure to independently carry out complex analyses at scale. 

“Life sciences are increasingly about converting a wide range of microscopic images into quantitative parameters that can be measured – these could be images at the molecular level or also images of whole tissues, for example a part of the brain,” says biologist Lucas Pelkmans, who co-founded the new center with his UZH colleague Damian Brunner and researchers from the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel. “Unlike humans, state-of-the-art microscopes can see things through multiple lenses at the same time, and they make it possible to examine biological processes in ever greater detail, which allows us to analyze an embryo’s development or the development of organs, for example,” says Pelkmans.

These processes generate massive amounts of data. “We’re talking dozens of terabytes per image dataset,” emphasizes Damian Brunner.  Analyzing these data is a highly complex process. By encouraging researchers to exchange ideas, pooling specialist knowledge and sharing open source data and new methods, the BioVisionCenter aims to further improve expertise in this field and speed up scientific progress.

New insights through AI

The researchers have high hopes for digital image analysis. “It’s a quantum leap forward – I expect we’ll see huge gains in knowledge and many new discoveries,” says Damian Brunner. By using artificial intelligence, or more precisely deep neural networks, it has become possible for bioimaging analyses to reveal new patterns and behaviors of cells and intercellular processes. AI can also be used to simulate and predict biological processes with increasing accuracy. These are the kinds of innovative procedures the BioVisionCenter aims to advance and optimize.

From February, bioengineer Virginie Uhlmann will head up the center, her position also financed through TRANSFORM seed funding. Moreover, an assistant professorship for bioimaging and data analysis will be created in 2025. In addition to funding from UZH and the Friedrich Miescher Institute, the project is also backed by a major Swiss pharmaceutical company.  “Image analysis also plays a significant role in developing new drugs, and so it’s something pharmaceutical companies are also interested in,” says Lucas Pelkmans. A first step has now been taken. In the long run, Pelkmans and Brunner would like to see UZH’s BioVisionCenter become a well-established, internationally recognized center for bioimaging analysis.

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