The lab of Prof. Nicolai consists of a team of young, dynamic and enthousiastic researchers that investigates the physiology of perishable fruits and vegetables after harvest. We offer a stimulating work environment for those who are interested in scientific research on the verge of fundamental and applied research, with a high relevance to making a more sustainable world.

KU Leuven is a world-class university that is ranked 42 on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and takes position 61 in the QS World University Rankings.

Project Fruit production is growing worldwide to meet the increasing demand for high quality, healthy food. Predicting how fruit yield and quality are optimally controlled by growing and postharvest conditions remains a grand challenge. The increased availability of wireless sensor technology and sensor networks provides vast opportunities, but also opens questions for proper data analysis and predictive control.

We are developing a digital twin fruit – a mathematical model that accurately describes and predicts the coupled water transport and mechanical deformation of growing pome fruit (apple and pear). Such a model can be used to help study the effect of environmental factors on fruit physiology and quality, pre- and postharvest.

In this PhD, you will consider the macroscopic fruit scale and explore how the fruit shape and structure develops. The fruit is assumed to be a continuum with a varying shape consisting of different materials, namely the different tissue types (‘skin’, consisting of cuticle, epidermis and hypodermis, and ‘cortex’, consisting of the parenchyma cells of the hypanthium).

An existing model for generation of vascular networks based on a space colonization algorithm will be adapted in such a way that the network scales and branches further while the fruit expands. Transport of water and photoassimilates in the vascular network will be investigated and modelled. A hydraulic network model of the vasculature will be developed, based on the network geometry and hydraulic properties derived from X-ray (micro) CT. Eventually, a hygromechanical model is implemented to explore the effects of the distribution of water and sugar supply on fruit shape and size development.

The model simulations will be compared to CT images of fruit at different developmental stages. This model will then be used for testing different hypotheses related to morphogenesis and structure of apples and pears. Ultimately, your research will lead to the development of a decision support tool for fruit growing and postharvest management that can be integrated with distributed sensor networks, but will as well serve as a means to better understand effects of climate change on fruit growing and quality. You will collaborate closely with colleagues working on different aspects of the digital twin.

Profile The lab is looking for a highly motivated PhD candidate who is eager to become part of a highly visible international interdisciplinary team to perform cutting-edge research. You have a critical mind and you have good affinity with mathematics and computer programming in an applied biology context. You are required to have a Master degree (or equivalent) in mathematics, physics, bioscience engineering or mechanical engineering, with a distinction level grade.

Offer The lab offers you a 4 year PhD position. The lab will support you in all aspects in order to successfully obtain a PhD degree and a proper scientific training. You will be given opportunities to participate at national and international meetings. Leuven is a small city in the heart of Europe close to Brussels with a rich historic background. With more than 40 000 students it provides a vibrant environment for both research and living.

Interested? For more information please contact Prof. dr. ir. Bart Nicolai, tel.: +32 16 32 23 75, mail:  or Dr. ir. Pieter Verboven, tel.: +32 16 32 14 53, mail: You can apply for this job no later than August 18, 2023 via the online application tool

KU Leuven seeks to foster an environment where all talents can flourish, regardless of gender, age, cultural background, nationality or impairments. If you have any questions relating to accessibility or support, please contact us at

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