10 Belgians who are changing the world

Expats may occasionally enjoy picking on the Belgians and making fun of their peculiarities. For sure, it’s just an expression of our great fondness for the people who are letting us invade their country ever so gently. But today, we take a break from that well-loved pastime to honor Belgians from different fields who are revolutionizing life on earth and contributing to the advancement of humanity.

Michaël Gillon, Astronomer

“If, at some point, we want to reach the stars which is a possibility, it should be a global effort of the humankind. It is something that would require us to be united, to solve all our demographic issues, resource issues, and so on. It puts in perspective the path we have still to achieve to become an interstellar civilization.”

Michaël Gillon leads the team of Belgian astronomers who discovered seven earth-like planets outside the solar system. This unique planetary system includes three potentially habitable planets which are close enough to earth for scientists to check for signs of life. The Belgian breakthrough paves the way for finding answers to one of humanity’s age-old burning questions: are we alone in this universe or not?

Vincent Callebaut, Ecological Architect

“The core of all my designs is an attempt to address the real threat that cities pose for humankind and our ecological balance… It’s time to take action against climate change, to invent new eco-responsible lifestyles and to incorporate nature into our cities.”

He is more than just an architect. Vincent Callebaut calls himself a archibiotect, a combination of the words architect, biotechnology, and technology of information and communication. With an ecovision that constantly pushes architectural boundaries, Callebaut  designs and builds futuristic projects that champion sustainability. He has launched over 50 ecodistrict ventures all over the world, including a self-sufficient amphibious city called Lilypad which can shelter 50,000 individuals from the effects of global warming, a vertical farming concept for New York City’s Roosevelt Island, and a carbon-absorbing tower constructed in Taipei.


Joan Daemen, Cryptographer

Joan Daemen is the genius behind one of the most powerful encryption systems in the world. Together with fellow Belgian Vincent Rijmen, he developed the Advanced Encryption Standard which was established by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. AES is now used by the U.S. federal government and the National Security Agency, and applied to software and hardware throughout the world. In collaboration with other Belgian and French cryptographers, Daemen also pioneered a double-key encryption system for smart cards.

Pattie Maes, Computer Scientist

What I’m doing is building integrated forms of man and machine, and even multiple men and multiple machines, that have as a result that one individual can be super intelligent… What I’ve been doing in the last seven years could better be referred to as intelligence augmentation. So it’s IA as opposed to AI.”

Remember the 2002 science fiction movie Minority Report where Tom Cruise manipulates digital images through simple hand gestures? That’s the kind of fantasy that Pattie Maes and her team of researchers are turning into a reality. The Belgian computer wizard is the founder and head of MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group which designs interfaces with the purpose of making user experience more seamless and natural. Maes’ team has produced groundbreaking technology that redefines the way humans interact with smart objects and demonstrates what our digital future may look like. 


Bart Weetjens, Product Developer and Rat Trainer

“The perception of most people about rodents is wrong. We see them as vermin. But they’re actually very sociable, intelligent creatures with an extremely keen sense of smell.”

Rodents are one of the world’s most unloved creatures. But Bart Weetjens found a way to give these furry pests  a humanitarian purpose. He trained African giant pouched rats to sniff out landmines, and he formed the nonprofit organization Apopo to carry out his mission.  The organization works  with locals in Tanzania and has mine detection programs in Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. To date, over 100,000 landmines have been destroyed and more than 900,000 people have been saved from the threat of explosives with the help of Apopo’s sniffer rats. The organization is also training rodents to detect tuberculosis.


Pieter Abbeel, Robotics Engineer

“The big challenge here is how to build artificial intelligence that allows these robots to understand situations they’ve never seen before and still do the right thing.”

Humans may be edging closer to an age where machines can perform everyday menial chores  around the house.  We have gone beyond robots that are programmed to do a single task to robots that can perform various activities by learning on their own. Thanks to the brilliance of computer scientists like Pieter Abbeel who are developing a more evolved breed of machines. Professor Abbeel leads the robotics and machine learning research at the University of California in Berkeley. He developed the apprentice robot which has the ability to learn how to do a task by watching and imitating humans. His team has also produced machines that can function autonomously by learning through trial and error.


Ingrid Daubechies, Physicist and Mathematician

“Mathematics is a fundamental basic science on which our society and culture depend in many critical ways. She can, therefore, be both a glorious handmaiden whose attributes and achievements are called upon by physicists, chemists, biologists, computer scientists, finance specialists, and engineers. But also a majestic queen, glorying in the fantastic frameworks built by the ingenuity and curiosity of mathematicians worldwide.”

We owe much to Ingrid Daubechies for the exceptional quality of the images we view and share online and everywhere. She is best known for her discovery of wavelets or mathematical functions that can enhance image compression technology. Her work has also been useful in art restoration and art forgery detection. Professor Daubechies currently teaches Mathematics at the Duke University in North Carolina. She became the first female president of the International Mathematical Union in 2011 and occupied the position until 2014.


Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Activist

“It’s one thing to read about war in the newspaper, but it’s very different to experience it up front. The victims have faces, names, and stories.”

In the last two decades, Peter Bouckaert has been investigating and documenting the violence and horror suffered by civilians in war-torn countries. He serves as the director of the Emergencies Team of Human Rights Watch, an international organization dedicated to exposing war crimes and rights abuses, and bringing perpetrators to justice. Bouckaert has participated in fact-finding missions to countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Chechnya. He has also conducted investigations into abuses by European border controls in the Mediterranean Refugee crisis.

Dries Buytaert, Developer of Drupal Software

“If you want to change the world, you need to enable sharing and participation, and I think you’re doing it right if you know that things are a little bit getting out of control because it means people are passionate about what you do, and it means they’re starting to follow your ideas.”

Dries Buytaert is the brains behind Drupal, a free content management software which currently runs over a million websites owned by governments, corporations, organizations, schools, media companies, and individuals around the world. Buytaert is also the founder and chief technology officer of Acquia, a venture-backed company based in Boston and one of the global leaders in website management. He was included in the World Economic Forum’s list of Young Global Leaders in 2013. He was also named CTO of the year by the Massachusetts Technology Council, New England Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, and Young Innovator by MIT Technology Review.

Peter Carmeliet, Physician and Biomedical Scientist

Early this year, a team of biomedical researchers led by Dr. Peter Carmeliet introduced a new procedure for preventing the growth and spread of cancer cells with less side effects. The finding builds on Dr. Carmeliet’s years of research on angiogenesis or the formation of blood vessels that supply tumors with oxygen and nutrients. His work has also provided new perspectives on the study of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS.  Dr. Carmeliet is the director of KU Leuven’s VIB Vesalius Research Center. In 2014, he was cited as one of the 400 most influential biomedical researchers in the world by the European Journal of Clinical Investigations.