Sijbrand de Jong, dean
“We are not in an ivory tower here”
“The spirit has completely returned”, says Sijbrand de Jong, dean of the Faculty of Science. By spirit, he refers to the sharply increased influx of students on campus after all the lockdowns in the last academic year. Their impact on the faculty has been great, although it now feels like a long time ago. “It’s interesting: I have to dig deep to remember it, even though it was really this year”. It just goes to show that developments at the faculty did not stand still over the past year.
The consequences of the pandemic
De Jong calls the lockdown in early 2022 a setback. “At the same time, we knew the drill: we had everything well organised and could get back on track in no time. For the students, we organised a programme with mentors, so they were still seen. For employees, there were programmes for each department, initiatives to keep things together. After the summer holiday, there was a sort of restart where we specifically tried to get the third-year students to come back. I feel that overall, we’ve been successful in getting students back on campus; that’s a plus. We got through it adequately, given the circumstances. Now we are acting as if the coronavirus no longer exists. A lot of people are still sick regularly, but usually not for so long.”
The pandemic led to some lasting changes in education, De Jong says. “Background materials like video clips were developed for distance learning. A lot of lecturers’ time and energy went into that, and we are maintaining it. Time will tell how effective the videos are, but additional background material is always positive. We started teaching on campus again in May, but we were also still streaming the lectures. As a result, many students preferred to stay in bed with their laptops. That has really changed since the summer. We have found, though, that video teaching is at most second-best; it’s no substitute for direct contact. The livestream for students has now been disabled, but lectures are still recorded and available after a day or two. But the interaction between student and lecturer is key, and fortunately, that is possible again. We’re also trying to encourage students to stay here in other ways, by creating more seating areas and workspaces in our building.”
“We are a key part of the team that presented the first photo of the black hole in our own galaxy”
Fortunately, the pandemic did not hinder scientific research too much. De Jong: “With the group led by Heino Falcke, we are a key part of the team that presented the first photo of the black hole in our own galaxy. That was the most remarkable achievement this year.
“But we are also prominent in Team Science projects. With NIFTI (National Individual Floating Transport Infrastructure), led by Nigel Hussey, we won the NWO Team Science Award. That project is now literally starting to fly. It revolves around pods or vans for quasi-individual transport; a kind of neighbourhood bus, really. It’s transport for which magnetic transport mechanisms are built in the street, so you don’t need rails. This is an interesting project that links the fields of technology, environmental sciences and social sciences. A lot depends on social acceptance, not just our technology. It really is a team of people from different disciplines. That’s one reason why I think it has a chance to succeed.
“Another example is our interdisciplinary way of looking at digital security: the iHub. That project won the Ammodo Science Award. On their own, awards and grants don’t mean that much: what matters is what you do with them. And iHub is bringing shocking things to light about how your digital data is being misused.” De Jong specifically mentions Bart Jacobs, who is Professor of Security, Privacy and Identity at iHub and is linked to iHub. “He is looking at how to create social media that is also ethically sound. It’s also multidisciplinary but without external parties, so it can remain as independent as possible.”
And De Jong wants to reflect on more highlights. “We are investigating, from both the ecological and the microbiological sides, how plants can help us improve the environment. For example, by converting the ammonia they store (ecology) into electricity and rocket fuel (microbiology). If that succeeds, you solve a number of problems at once. We’ve been building this for years; now, through persistent work, we are constantly achieving successes that, taken together, can really mean something to society. This is partly due to the research conducted by Professor of Ecological Microbiology Mike Jetten. It’s a great example of connecting basic science with societal applications.”
Another fundamental question the faculty is working on is whether it is possible to create new life from chemical elements. “We are nowhere near that yet, but we are taking small steps. We need AI to efficiently analyse the huge mountain of test results. This is how we try to find the chemical processes that generate life. We are working on this with students from higher professional education (HBO) and senior secondary vocational education (MBO). This is also needed in the medicine industry: a robot lab, like the one Wilhelm Huck is about to build. That, in turn, is a side effect of the fundamental question: how do you build a cell?”
“We are trying to find the chemical processes that generate life”
Under the leadership of Michiel Vermeulen, the Faculty of Science also collaborates with the Faculty of Medical Sciences. De Jong explains: “Our faculties work closely together on research into organoids. That’s about personalised medicine: you take stem cells from a patient, and you test drugs specifically for that patient on the cultured organoids. That’s another area where we help push boundaries and keep moving forward.”
Radboud University encourages that sort of interdisciplinary collaboration. “Over the past two years, we have set up an interdisciplinary research platform to encourage collaboration between different institutes, through an incentive with vouchers. What can a chemist do with a mathematician, or what can a biologist do with a computer scientist? That cross-fertilisation appears to work well; surprising research proposals emerge from it.”
The scientific-social ecosystem
De Jong is certainly familiar with the Recognition and Rewards theme. “To me, that’s just one of the elements of how you shape a research community, including support staff. It’s about enjoyable, safe and ambitious work for me. This is where we’re taking a big step: previously, the faculty was divided by positions and discourse was based on positions. We have turned that around. Now, it’s about creating ideal conditions for people to develop, given the stage in their career where they are at the time. The young assistant professor you hire should also be able to progress to a full professorship, even if there happens to be no position available. It is no longer about positions, but about people. The approach has been turned on its head, and we’re making rapid progress. It is making an impact because you have career prospects as a scientist.
This is also a societal development, but I think we as faculty do lead the way. It also has to do with the freedom to develop yourself. Take advantage of that freedom.”
“We encourage our people to take a role in the public debate”
Sustainability is obviously an important theme for the university. “We are certainly not doing badly”, De Jong says. “We can be proud of our central hybrid heat network, of our campus, of our reuse of materials.
As a faculty, we have a strong research component. The Institute for Science in Society (ISiS) links biology, ecology, environmental science and society. We also look for that connection: what is the big picture, what are important elements in it, can we do something with it and how do we implement it? That usually also requires social support and willingness to implement.”
According to De Jong, science should also play a role in the public debate: “Noelle Aarts, the current director of ISiS, plays a prominent role in the debate and in advising the government on how to deal with farmers, for example. We also encourage our people to take that role. Spinoza-Prize-winning astrophysicist Heino Falcke and mathematician Klaas Landsman, among others, are fuelling the public debate. We are not out of touch here.”
As an example of sustainability research, De Jong cites the project Future Dikes: “Seventy to eighty per cent of the Dutch dikes could become living dikes, with totally different vegetation that both offers more opportunities ecologically and makes the dike sturdier. We are not in an ivory tower here.” But, De Jong adds, “we cherish our few people who do sit in an ivory tower.”
The future is all about continuous development, De Jong says. “That even applies to the photo of the black hole: there are already thoughts of making a little film about it. In terms of ecology and microbiology, there is still a lot of potential to better understand how things work. Applications in that area are going to increase enormously. These are ongoing programmes of sometimes ten years that have long-term effects, including social ones.”
Earlier, De Jong talked about fostering student development, and as far as he is concerned, that starts early: “We have a strong programme that ties in with secondary education. Every Friday afternoon, 300 pre-university students come here to learn. We don’t do that to recruit or to inform them, but to really teach them something substantive. One key feature of the programme is the collaboration between secondary school teachers and university lecturers. Together, they develop the educational materials.”
“It is not about educating as many people as possible, but about educating people as well as possible”
De Jong does observe that interest in the nature and technology profile is declining among pre-university students. “But our student flow remains stable or is even increasing. As far as we’re concerned, we don’t need to grow much more; we want to maintain a level at which we can perform well in terms of quality. It is not about educating as many people as possible, but about educating people as well as possible.”