uk24 - 1 maart 2012 | jaargang 41

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bleep is...?

VUmc Last week it was disclosed that patients in the emergency department of the VUmc, the Medical Centre of VU University Amsterdam, had been filmed by hidden cameras for a new reality TV series. Not all patients had been asked for their consent before the cameras started rolling, partly due to the fact that not all patients were in a position to consider the question. It is, after all, an emergency department. When the news broke, the VUmc Board and the production company Eyeworks, who made the TV series, tried to play down the breach of patient confidentiality. The first instalment, called 24 Hours: Between Life and Death, was aired last week by the commercial station RTL4, but the remainder of the series has now been cancelled. This week a number of patients have announced they will bring charges against the hospital and Eyeworks. The hospital has been charged with breaching patient confidentiality, the producers with illegal monitoring of conversations. The VUmc announced this week that it would temporarily halt another project on its wards. The Dutch novelist Ronald Giphart has been conducting research at the hospital for a new book. He joined doctors on their rounds wearing a white coat labelled ‘trainee’. The VUmc, which has hosted novelists before, has secured a promise of patient confidentiality from Giphart, but decided to stop the project for the moment, given the unrest created by the TV programme. [ RENÉ FRANSEN ]


Americans abroad Over 43,000 US citizens are following full degree programmes abroad, a recent study by the Institute of International Education showed. Three-quarters of them opt for Master’s programmes in Anglophone countries. Humanities, social sciences and business studies are popular. The study covered 13 countries. The United Kingdom and Canada topped the list, followed by Germany and France. The Netherlands are in eighth position with 1,500 US students, a market share of four percent, comparable to China. Tuition fee increases at both public and private universities in the US are thought to be the main reason for students considering a degree abroad.

UK 24 - 1 MARCH 2012


A man who reads | I N V E N T O R | Ward van der Houwen is a

scientist, inventor and poet. He designs artificial voice boxes, writes poetry about spacecraft and likes to reinvent devices. Where does this man find his inspiration, you might wonder. The answer? Almost everywhere! By JUDITH DE GRAAF Entering the apartment of Ward van der Houwen is like walking into a curiosity shop. In the hall is a strange, old-fashioned looking machine on a coat rack. “That’s a printing press,” Ward explains. “Nice isn’t it? I once used it to print on toilet paper.” Before we move on to the living room, he apologizes. “Sorry for the mess. I am currently moving my lab, so I had to put some stuff here.” Toys are scattered all over the place, the TV screen has dropped off the wall, and then there’s a completely odd and striking device: a flight simulator you’d normally expect in a game hall. “Nice isn’t it? I found out you can buy these on the internet!” Usually his apartment is not that cramped, he explains, but the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the UMCG, where he used to work, has been reorganized. He lost his job after 10 years. “It’s not that big a problem for me,” Van der Houwen says. “I am flexible and have a lot of projects I’m working on. But it’s a pity for some of my colleagues.” He’s still deeply passionate about his work. With grand gestures he talks about the instruments he has developed with his students. Take the so-called iValve, designed for people without a larynx. For ages patients with this condition had to place a hand on their trachea to be able to talk. The result was a very odd-sounding voice. But the iValve enables them to talk without using a hand and to sound normal. Where the old device was made out of many plastic and metal parts, this one consists of only a single piece of rubber. How do you come up with something like that? Van der Houwen smiles. “First things first! Do you want a coffee?” The drink comes from a huge coffee machine standing in the middle of the living room. It looks like it has come straight out of the 70s. “It


Ward van der Houwen used to stand in the dialysis centre. I found it in the rubbish at the hospital in the middle of winter. It was a bit damaged, though, so it took me some time to get it working. With or without sugar?” Ideas are found everywhere, he explains. For the iValve he went with his students to pet shops and toy stores. “The idea was already there. But we wanted to make it out of rubber and wanted to know how the material behaves. We bought some toy animals, cut off their ears and stabbed out their eyes. After that, we attached them to other materi-

‘It’s not hard to remake the world around you’ als. You have to get involved with your materials.” It seems to be typical of how Van der Houwen works. “Most people think that they have no technical insight. They just don’t realize that you don’t need that. It’s not so hard to remake standard devices in the

world around you. Take that lamp,” he points. “It is supposed to stand. But I want it to hang. They create a really nice light this way. Look at it with all the colours!” There’s hardly a machine that doesn’t fascinate him. Take the flight simulator. Van der Houwen wanted to know how it worked. “Want to give it a try? Wait, I’ll look for a coin!” Then he switches on the simulator. Why would he buy this? “I was really fascinated by the way it was made,” Van der Houwen explains. “An apparatus like this can be read

Animal ecologist Piersma: ‘This pl

| G L O B A L EC O L O G Y | Too much work, not

enough time. Sound familiar? For animal ecology professor Theunis Piersma, the burden of working for two organizations got in the way of his research into the threats to shorebirds. Conservation groups bought him valuable time. By RENÉ FRANSEN “Everything I do is relevant to nature conservation,” says ecologist

Theunis Piersma. His work on the ecology of tidal areas like the Dutch Wadden Sea, with a special emphasis on migrating shorebirds like the red knot, has given him the label of ‘conservation activist’ in some circles. However, his work is strictly scientific and of a fundamental nature. “But this planet is burning,” he explains. Providing evidence that stopover places, like the Wadden Sea or the Chinese Yellow Sea coast area, are vital for the survival of many migrating species has direct

implications for conservation, because these areas are under threat. Piersma works for both the University of Groningen and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ). “But I was getting caught between a rock and a hard place,” Piersma explains on the phone on his way to the airport to fly to Australia, having just returned from mudflats in Mauritania. “There’s an international dimension to my work.” With knots flying from polar regions to the

Americas, Africa via Europe and Australia by way of the Yellow Sea, Piersma has seen his area of interest expand enormously since he first started work in the Wadden Sea. Travelling, applying for grants to continue essential longitudinal studies, managing research groups and teaching duties was getting too much. “I felt I had to make a choice. I should either be a nice professor at the NIOZ or in Groningen, or neglect those duties and go out and do the research I think is important,”