Working for science and scholarship

Alexander van Oudenaarden (Hubrecht Institute)

In the Working for Science section, we ask the director of an Academy institute and a staff member what they are passionate about, about the Academy, and about the task of science and scholarship. This time, it’s the turn of the Hubrecht Institute, where we’ve interviewed Lennart Kester, PhD candidate (read his interview) and Alexander van Oudenaarden, director. The Hubrecht Institute does trailblazing research in developmental and stem cell biology.

Prof. Alexander van Oudenaarden

Director of the Hubrecht Institute. Born in Zuidland (Province of Zuid-Holland) in 1970. Alexander van Oudenaarden is married and has three children aged 5, 8 and 10.

What’s nice about working at the Hubrecht Institute? 
‘It’s a fairly small institute, certainly when you compare it to a university, so the lines of communication between researchers and support staff are very short. The researchers who work here also complement one another very well. We can work as a team to tackle a problem that requires a multidisciplinary approach, since we have everything we need under one roof.’ 

When did you first become interested in cells (or cell biology)? 
‘I started out as a physicist. But I was interested in biology from an early age. I even had a microscope when I was a teenager. Still, it was quite a transition, from superconductivity to biophysics. Physicists work with well-defined problems, but there are still so many problems to solve in biology. As a young researcher eager to start his own research group, I was spoiled for choice. And the equipment is fairly simple too, especially for someone who’s been working in nanotechnology.’  

What is the biggest misunderstanding about your work? 
‘The idea that research has to be applicable, when in fact it’s basic research that’s the source of important discoveries. Another misconception is that science is boring, and that scientists are nerds. Being a researcher is one of the best jobs in the world. Researchers have a lot of freedom, they’re sort of like artists. And they also help battle diseases, for example. It’s really exciting!’  

Hubrecht, for whom the institute is named, became an Academy member 135 years ago. What would most surprise the members back then about today? 
‘DNA hadn’t been discovered yet 135 years ago. Members back then would be flabbergasted at the advances in technology. Today, we can sequence a person's DNA in a single afternoon. That was almost unimaginable just ten years ago. Hubrecht studied the characteristics of hedgehogs. Now we know where those characteristics come from.’ 

Holland Baroque played at your institute on 17 May. What sort of music do you find inspiring? 
‘I’m not such a fan of baroque music. I prefer rock, jazz and blues. I play electric guitar, so I tend to like music with good guitar parts. My idol is Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, but Eddie Van Halen is also one of my heroes. He almost turns heavy metal guitar into classical music. I used to play in bands when I was younger, but with three kids and a busy job, I just don’t have the time anymore. I do play music with my kids and give my eldest son guitar lessons. I never play music while I’m working because it points my brain in the wrong direction.’ 

Can you name another Academy institute where you’d like to take a look around? 
The Netherlands Institute for Ecology (NIOO). I’ve never visited there, even though I’ve been at the Hubrecht Institute for more than five years now. There is considerable overlap between our two institutes. I think it would be fun to see how Louise Vet has organised things there.’ 

Among other things, the Academy is the voice and conscience of science and scholarship in the Netherlands. Tell us what you think is absolutely vital, and why?
‘Don’t forget basic research! It is the foundation for applied research in the clinic and in industry. Without basic research, the source will run dry and we’ll have to depend on foreign countries. Other countries in Europe spend far more per capita on basic research than we do. Dutch researchers are already leaving for Germany. They’re not going there because salaries are higher, but because they’ll have more opportunities to do their research, to do the work that they’re passionate about. The Netherlands offers far fewer prospects, especially as researchers advance in their careers.’

Read the interview with Lennart Kester, PhD candidate at Hubrecht Institute.