Our student classes take place in the lab!
Students do not just get education in a classroom, their lectures take place in the laboratories where our professors make groundbreaking discoveries.
Students are actively involved in groundbreaking research. Classes do not just take place in auditoriums but take place in the same laboratories where professors do their research. “We bring students into contact with actual research and let use them the equipment our senior scientists use.
An interview with professor Sjoerd Verduyn Lunel, dean at the Faculty of Science.
- Pride of the faculty
At the Cell Observatory an Asian PhD researcher bends over to look into his confocal microscope. As he gazes upon his specimen he is fascinated by the process taking place under his lens, immune cells are intercepting bacteria that were attempting to invade a zebrafish embryo.
Between the glass doors and milky white walls of the observatory, pride of the faculty, the researcher and his colleague attempt to fully visualise the zebrafish. A zebrafish’s skeleton resembles the structure of human bones, which makes this little fish a fitting object for bone tumour research. However, while the researchers examine the zebrafish they also discover the workings of other mechanisms like molecule interaction, cell communication and the function of certain hormones. A lot can be learned from this little fish. To fully exploit the fish’s potential, mathematicians, biologists, chemists and computer scientists all work together at the observatory. Not just figuratively speaking, the offices of the researchers are literally adjacent to each other.
“We would like to create a kind of Google Maps, in which you can see an animal or a human, but where you can also zoom in and out on bones, organs, tissue, all the way to the cell interior and individual molecules. This requires a large amount of expertise from a many different disciplines,” says dean Sjoerd Verduyn Lunel.
- Multidisciplinary research
Research on the fertility of eels is a good example of multidisciplinary research. Researchers have been trying to uncover how this fish breeds for years. They have discovered that an eel only becomes fertile after swimming 6500 kilometres to the Sargasso Sea. “Evolutionary biologists and chemists are indispensable in the next step of the process. How can you make eels fertile without letting them swim such a large distance? Molecular biologists discovered this mechanism. They looked at the groups of genes that are activated and deactivated as a network of switches.” Mr Verduyn Lunel explains.
- Cooperating is a necessity
The next question we have to answer is how to keep the larvae alive. This is something we still find challenging. Most eel larvae die after seven days. How should they be fed? General biologists are trying to solve this part of the puzzle. Eels only mate once a year, while zebrafish mate daily. The zebrafish is governed by the same mechanism, by using zebrafish we work more effectively. Because we understand the workings of the mechanism, we can also expand our research to fish species that are threatened with extinction, like the Pikeperch. Perhaps we will be able to prevent this from happening. However, one area of research cannot do this on its own. Cooperation is an absolute necessity.
- Distant theory
This type of research is not distant theory for Leiden University students. Students are actively involved in groundbreaking research. Classes do not just take place in auditoriums but take place in the same laboratories where professors do their research. “We bring students into contact with actual research and let use them the equipment our senior scientists use. If a physicist lectures on proteins, than he or she can supply students with a hypothetical example, but the lecturer can also show students how scientist in Leiden are conducting biologically relevant research on protein folding in 3D.”
- Research of the future
Students get first hand account of the questions scientists are confronting right now. “This is important, because tomorrow’s research will be based on the questions we are trying to solve today.” Mr Verduyn Lunel says. “If you start studying today, you will finish your degree five years from now. It is hard to predict what technical advancements will be made between the time at which students commence their studies and the time they finish. The improvements in microscope technology move incredibly fast, what seems science fiction to us today will be reality in the future. By bringing our students into contact with today’s research they will also learn about technological progress in their field and learn about the possibilities these advancements offer.”
- Team science
Students come into contact with their future area of expertise early in their studies. “I compare our team work to a soccer team. In a soccer team someone can be a good striker or defender. But the qualities of the team itself always exceed the qualities of the individual players. And as a striker you sometimes also have to do some defence, whilst as a defender you sometimes have to move up front. We practice team science. Scientists all have their own area of expertise, a speciality, but they also have to be aware of the advancements of other areas. Biologists, computer scientist, chemists, physicists and mathematicians all have to be able to communicate in the same language. The earlier you learn to do this, the better.”
- Slowing tumour growth
Mr Verduyn Lunel believes that the research on slowing tumour growth is a good example of team science. “We’re trying to ascertain the effect of deregulating certain hormones. A molecular biologist can tell you how to influence hormones, but he can say little about the large-scale effect of this measure on an organ, you need a pathologist for that. Someone who can instantly discern change in organ tissue.” Team science has also attained remarkable results in the area of plant science. Biologists and mathematicians jointly examined the transport of the hormone auxin. “The hormone is responsible for growing secondary branches from a main plant stem. If you shut this hormone down on a molecular level, a plant won’t branch out. This process is a partial black box, it is too difficult to fully visualise. However, we have found some of these switches. And this is where mathematics come in handy.” Mr Verduyn Lunel explains.
Mathematicians can calculate the consequences of shutting down different combinations of switches. Biologists conduct experiments to confirm whether these mathematical models are accurate. The faculty offers two degrees together with Delft University of Science. Students working on a degree in Life Science and Technology or Molecular Science and Technology have courses in Leiden in one semester and courses in Delft the next. “Two worlds merge. Scientist in Delft develop new microscopes. This is very important for a large amount of our research. It is therefore important to cooperate beyond faculty and university boundaries in technical and fundamental research.”