International research initiatives led by University of Bern receive funding

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University of Bern, Physics Institute, Department of Space Research and Planetar
University of Bern, Physics Institute, Department of Space Research and Planetary Sciences. © University of Bern

The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) has awarded funding to three projects led by the University of Bern as part of the SPIRIT program, promoting cross-border and collaborative research endeavors. These research initiatives delve into topics concerning potentially habitable exoplanets, female entrepreneurship in Switzerland and Colombia, and the combined use of medication and psychotherapy for depression treatment in Zimbabwe.

Through the SPIRIT program, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) bolsters the exchange of knowledge between Swiss researchers and scholars from select countries receiving developmental assistance. Research projects are backed by consortia comprising two to four nations, covering a wide range of disciplines. Applicants can seek project funding ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 Swiss Francs for periods spanning two to four years. "The three projects from Bern span diverse fields, showcasing robust international networking with research partners from countries with limited resources. Much like all SPIRIT projects, they contribute to promoting equality of opportunity, which is a core value of our University," comments Hugues Abriel, Vice Rector for Research at the University of Bern.

Exploring exoplanets around enigmatic celestial bodies

The first project from the University of Bern is titled "Exoplanets orbiting brown dwarfs" and was jointly submitted with Yilen Gómez Maqueo Chew of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. This initiative has secured funding totaling around 500,000 Swiss Francs, has started in September 2023, and is slated to span four years. Leading the project is Brice-Olivier Demory from the Center for Space and Habitability (CSH).

This project delves into the realm of brown dwarfs - astronomical entities that bridge the gap between the most massive planets and the least-massive stars. Researchers are aiming to discover the very first low-mass exoplanet orbiting a brown dwarf. They are particularly on the lookout for Earth-sized planets, with the intention of investigating their atmospheres, origins, and evolution. This also includes probing whether some of these worlds could be potentially habitable.

"We are living in exciting times as the discovery of life beyond Earth is next door and could happen within the next one or two decades," comments Brice-Olivier Demory. "The collaboration with the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico helps to foster the collaboration between Mexico and Switzerland and including knowledge and technology transfer," adds project collaborator Christoph Mordasini from the Department of Space Research and Planetary Sciences at the University of Bern's Physics Institute.

Resilience of women entrepreneurs in times of crisis

Heading the second project , "Female entrepreneurship during multiple crises: An intersectional perspective on entrepreneurial ecosystems in Switzerland and Colombia," is Heike Mayer from the Institute of Geography. This collaborative effort was submitted in partnership with Jana Schmutzler from the Universidad del Norte in Colombia. The project has secured funding of approximately 500,000 Swiss Francs, starts in February 2024, and is set to span four years.

This initiative delves into understanding how women entrepreneurs in Switzerland and Colombia cope with diverse crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related challenges they face. Field research will entail a comparison of two entrepreneurial ecosystems: focusing on Zurich in Switzerland and Barranquilla in Colombia. "In many countries, there are still fewer women than men taking the leap into entrepreneurship. Yet, there is immense potential, as women establish successful companies, engage as entrepreneurs across vastly different sectors, and formulate innovative business models," explains Heike Mayer, and adds: "We will investigate how entrepreneurial ecosystems in Switzerland and Colombia create a supportive environment for women entrepreneurs with diverse intersectional identities. This holds relevance, as the economy relies on innovation and entrepreneurship from all segments of society". Her project collaborator is Carolin Schurr from the Social and Cultural Geography Unit at the University of Bern's Institute of Geography.

Closing the treatment gap for depression in Zimbabwe

The third project , titled "Combining antidepressants with psychological therapy to improve depression outcome in Zimbabwe," is led by Monika Müller from the University Clinic of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University Psychiatric Services Bern (UPD), in collaboration with Dixon Chibanda from the University of Zimbabwe. This project has been awarded funding of approximately 500,000 Swiss Francs, will start in November 2023, and extends over a period of 3.5 years.

Mental health conditions, including depression, are on the rise even in resource-constrained nations, and the majority of people living with depression reside in the global South. However, between 75% and 90% of people living with depression in the global South do not receive adequate care. This research project partners with the "Friendship Bench" program that was developed locally in Zimbabwe and that aims at bridging the treatment gap in mental health. To improve treatment outcomes, the researchers intend to combine psychological interventions within the framework of the "Friendship Bench" with antidepressants. These are administered by trained lay health workers to enhance the mental well-being and quality of life of the patients.

"Our target population is patients with moderate to severe depression who typically are subject to a relevant loss of functioning due to the severity of their symptoms resulting in decreased workforce participation. This has relevant consequences on the economic and social wellbeing of not only the patients but also their families," explains Monika Müller, and adds: "The integration of antidepressant prescription by lay health workers into the 'Friendship Bench' approach will translate to improved healthcare in Zimbabwe beyond the scope of the study," Project collaborator Andreas Limacher from the Department of Clinical Research (DCR) at the University of Bern provides statistical and methodological support to the project.