FACULTY OF EARTH AND LIFE SCIENCES FACULTY OF SCIENCES
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Contents Foreword Educational Highlights
PhDs in the Spotlight
Facts and Figures
Science and Society
HIGHLIGHTS 2016 | 3
‘I AM IMPRESSED BY THE HIGH LEVEL OF COMMITMENT AND PROFESSIONALISM OF THE PEOPLE IN OUR FACULTIES. THEY FORM THE HEART AND SOUL OF THE FACULTIES.’ 4 | FACULTY OF EARTH AND LIFE SCIENCES - FACULTY OF SCIENCES
Foreword As a brand-new dean, I already have the honour of writing the foreword to this booklet, which contains a selection of the research and education highlights of these wonderful faculties. Impressive results, awards, publications and grants were once again a common occurrence in 2016. Much of our research helps to resolve societal issues, such as the research by mathematics student Madelon de Kemp into reducing waiting times at the doctor, the health scientists who will be tackling malnutrition among elderly people in the EU, and microbiologist Zahid Hassan who aims to make drinking water in Bangladesh arsenic-free. These are all good examples of the ways in which science has an impact on daily life. 2016 also saw the official opening of the O|2 Lab building, which is purpose-built for research in the field of Human Life Sciences. In this building, scientists from the VU, UvA and VUmc have joined forces to work on societal issues in a mix of fundamental and applied research at the crossroads of exact and medical sciences. We are extremely proud of this unique collaboration. I am impressed by the high level of commitment and professionalism of the people in our faculties. From scientists and doctoral candidates to support staff and students, they form the heart and soul of the faculties. With their dedication, knowledge and passion, they create a dynamic, international environment which gives rise to new insights and new ideas each day. The resulting cross-pollination is very inspiring and promises well for the future! As in previous years, this booklet is full of the commendable results which were achieved in 2016. It is not exhaustive, but it is certainly inspiring. I hope you enjoy reading it. Professor Guus Schreiber Dean of the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences and the Faculty of Sciences Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
HIGHLIGHTS 2016 | 5
Educational Highlights Graduating with a Tyrannosaurus Rex
For his graduation thesis in Earth Sciences, Pim Kaskes conducted research into ‘Trix’, a female Tyrannosaurus rex that lived more than 66.4 million years ago and died when she was around 30 years of age. Since September 2016, her skeleton has been on display at the Naturalis Museum in Leiden, a first in Europe. The dinosaur skeleton is one of the three most complete specimens in the world. Kaskes researched what caused this T.rex to be so well preserved, using the layers of sand in which her remains were found. He brought back countless samples of sand from the desert in Montana, USA, to the VU Sedimentology lab. His theory is that Trix died next to a river and that the skeleton was then completely covered in sand in a very short space of time during a flood caused by heavy rains. Kaskes was also able to map the environment of the deceased T.rex pretty accurately. He found remains of a Triceratops (Trix’s meal), the trees and ferns on the riverbank, water plants and freshwater mussels. All his hard work paid off: he was awarded a mark of 9.5 for his thesis.
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Mathematics prize for shorter waiting times
Mathematics student Madelon de Kemp has been awarded the ASML Graduate Prize for Mathematics, which is worth 5,000 euros. She graduated with a Master’s degree in Mathematics in the summer of 2016. For her graduation project, De Kemp considered how doctor’s appointments, for example, could be scheduled in such a way as to not only minimise the time patients have to wait to see their doctor, but also the time that doctors have to wait to see their patients. The problem here is that it is never known in advance exactly how long a doctor’s appointment takes. De Kemp looked for schedules that would work well even in the most difficult situations. She found a formula for optimum scheduling in the case of an infinite string of identical patients. This formula can be used to tackle situations with large numbers of patients. The mathematics student also investigated the best sequence for scheduling the appointments of different types of patients.
First Karlijn Keijzer Scriptieprijs awarded to Lizeth Haveman
The first Karlijn Keijzer Scriptieprijs was presented to Lizeth Haveman, MSc student in Drug Discovery and Safety (DDS). Haveman finished her BSc studies in Pharmaceutical Sciences cum laude in 2016. She showed her strong motivation and ambitions by following an honours programme. She performed two BSc research projects, in the Medicinal Chemistry group and at the Radionuclide Center. She developed routes to synthesize small organic molecules that can switch receptor proteins on or off. The new molecular switches can be used to gain novel insights in the mechanism of action of receptor proteins involved in several diseases. This award is established in memory of Karlijn Keijzer, who was aboard the fatal MH17 flight. Keijzer finished her MSc studies in DDS cum laude in 2012. In 2014 she obtained a grant to stay with the VU Biocomputational Chemistry research group. In line with her intellectual legacy and to stimulate other talented and ambitious students in their scientific development and (international) experience, the award will be presented annually as a travel grant of 1,000 euros.
Teachers visiting companies
Bètapartners is a network of higher education institutions in Amsterdam and 44 secondary schools in the North Holland region. The aim of this network is to ensure a steady stream of highly-motivated science students entering university, through good science education and good teachers at secondary schools. Throughout the year, Bètapartners organises activities for secondary school students and teachers. Among these activities are a series of master classes, in which secondary school teachers visit companies. Interaction is the key. The master classes are an example of the continuing education organised by Bètapartners. After a successful master class at Shell, in 2016 a master class was run for the first time at steel producer Tata Steel. The teachers took a trip through the world of steel: from coke can to ore extraction. Expectations were high, but the enthusiastic experts at Tata Steel really delivered. A Physics teacher: ‘It was great to see so many examples of how physics can be applied to everyday things.’
VU Innovatieprijs 2016 (50,000 euros) for innovative education: Marjolein Zweekhorst and Tjard de Cock Buning (Athena Institute)
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PhDs in the Spotlight FOM Thesis Prize for Julija Bagdonaité
In 2016, Julija Bagdonaité won the annual Physics Thesis Prize awarded by FOM, the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter. She won 10,000 euros for writing the best Physics thesis. Bagdonaité obtained her PhD cum laude in April 2015 with a thesis entitled ‘Search for a variation of the proton-electron mass ratio from molecular hydrogen and methanol’. She applied a range of methods to examine how constant the proton-electron mass ratio is in the universe. She showed that this fundamental physical constant has remained constant for billions of years, and that it does not vary in gravitational fields. The jury praised the originality of the research in which Bagdonaité combined a variety of techniques and concepts from astrophysics, fundamental physics and molecular physics. Apart from the introductory chapter, all of the chapters are like stand-alone scientific articles, of which one has been published in Science and three in Physical Review Letters. Bagdonaité is now working as a data analyst at Facebook, in Silicon Valley.
Using bacteria to make toxic groundwater drinkable
The groundwater in Bangladesh is contaminated with arsenic, which means the drinking water is too: the arsenic concentrations are ten times higher than normal. Every year, thousands of people die as a result of this contamination in Bangladesh alone. Scientists have already devised a method of treating pumped groundwater with air; the aerated water is then pumped back into the ground, where iron precipitates in the form of rust, together with oxidised arsenic. Then the water pumped out for drinking no longer contains arsenic. However, this method has proven inadequate: the arsenic does not ‘rust’ enough. During his doctoral research, microbiologist Zahid Hassan (Molecular Cell Biology / AIMMS) figured out that special species of bacteria can improve this process. He also discovered that those bacteria are present in Bangladesh, and that they multiply when aerated water is pumped into the ground. The doctoral student came up with all sorts of ways to increase the bacterial contribution to the process. This method can be used all over the world to contribute to cleaner drinking water, also for substances other than arsenic. 8 | FACULTY OF EARTH AND LIFE SCIENCES - FACULTY OF SCIENCES
Dick Stufkens Prize awarded to chemist Lando Wolters
The Dick Stufkens Prize 2016 (1,000 euros) has been awarded to Theoretical Chemist Lando Wolters. The prize is awarded annually to the best PhD thesis of the Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry, a consortium of UvA, VU and Leiden University. In his thesis, Wolters makes major strides towards the rational design of catalysts, which can be considered the holy grail of catalysis. His research focused on catalyst complexes consisting of atoms of transition metals combined with two ‘ligand’ molecules. These complexes facilitate the oxidative addition process which is a key step in many catalytic conversions involved in a wide variety of applications, for example compounds for OLED displays. Through thorough analysis of the electronic structure by means of state-of-the-art quantum chemical calculations, Wolters was able to establish the exact role of both the metal and the ligands in the performance of the catalyst complex. Experimental groups are already applying the insights described in this thesis, demonstrating the growing impact of ‘in silico’ design of catalysts.
Awareness stimulates cleaner cooking in Africa
Bianca van der Kroon (IVM) studied how households in Kenya and Mozambique could be encouraged to use cleaner fuels and cooking equipment, in order to limit the negative consequences of using biomass as fuel. Every year, 4.3 million people – mainly women and children – die of the consequences of health problems caused by cooking over open fires. Cleaner cooking helps improve health by reducing the amount of smoke produced. Cooking with cleaner cooking equipment and fuels also generates a 60% reduction in fuel consumption for African women. Other benefits include the curbing of deforestation and climate change. Van der Kroon established that it is crucial to raise awareness among women regarding these benefits, since they are unaware of the disadvantages of cooking over open fires. This doctoral research was part of a programme funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs aimed at encouraging the use of sustainable energy in developing countries.
CUM LAUDE Brenda Bulik-Sullivan (Neurosciences)
Gijsbert Werner (Animal Ecology)
Johan Winnubst (Neurosciences)
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GUIDO VAN DER WERF NWO VICI Subject: Biomass-burning radiative forcing (Earth and Climate)
MICHEL VAN DEN OEVER NWO VIDI Subject: Molecular insight into alcohol addiction (Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology) 10 | FACULTY OF EARTH AND LIFE SCIENCES - FACULTY OF SCIENCES
KJELD EIKEMA ERC Advanced Grant Subject: The Proton Size Puzzle: Testing QED at Extreme Wavelengths (Physics)
PHILIP WARD NWO VIDI Subject: How can we reduce global flooding in deltas and estuaries? (Institute for Environmental Studies)
VENI GRANTS Natalia Goriounova Subject: The role of interneurons in human cortex: from synapse to cognition (Neurosciences)
FRANK VAN HARMELEN NWO Senior TOP Grant Subject: The Meaning and Structure of Very Large Knowledge Graphs (Computer Science / Amsterdam Data Science)
Benjamin Helmich-Paris Subject: Predictive accuracy in computational spectroscopy of large molecules (Theoretical Chemistry / AIMMS) Priyanka Rao-Ruiz Subject: The role of inhibition in shaping hippocampal memory traces (Molecular Cell Biology / Neurosciences) Maartje van Stralen Subject: Building a relapse prevention model in weight loss maintenance (Health Sciences / EMGO) James Weedon Subject: Break down to build up soil carbon (Systems Ecology)
Laurens Witter Subject: Do the pontine nuclei form the heart of voluntary motor control? (Neurosciences)
NWO VIDI Subject: New Diophantine directions (Mathematics)
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NICAS grant to study origin paintings Rijksmuseum
Petrologist Gareth Davies has been awarded a grant of 300,000 euros from the new Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science (NICAS) to undertake research in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum into the origins of metals used in bronzes and pigments used by the Old Masters. Davies and his team developed new methodologies to study the isotopic compositions of metal, in cooperation with engineers from Thermo Fisher Scientific. The technique is a breakthrough in the analysis of minuscule amounts of material. This breakthrough allows essentially non-destructive sampling and has led to the willingness of museums to allow sampling of precious art objects.Knowledge of metal trade routes will be used to characterize how the isotopic composition of metals used in the production of bronze and pigments has changed over time. Furthermore, models will be developed to predict how the isotopic compositions of different pigments and metals has varied in space and time. Once validated with well-provenanced works of art, the team aims to be able to determine the authenticity of works of art of controversial provenance.
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6.9 million euros to tackle malnutrition in the elderly
The PROMISS (PRevention Of Malnutrition In Senior Subjects in the EU) research project was awarded a grant of 6.9 million euros from the EU’s research programme Horizon 2020. Some 7% of elderly people living at home are malnourished, and among those who receive care in the home, this percentage is as much as 30%. Malnutrition can lead to poor recovery after illness, functional disabilities, higher care costs and death. But due to the wide variety of possible causes, malnutrition is difficult to treat. That’s why PROMISS concentrates on the prevention of malnutrition. ‘The main aim of this research project is to develop combined nutrition and exercise recommendations for the elderly’, says Professor Marjolein Visser (Nutrition and Health), coordinator of PROMISS. ‘The recommendations will be tailored to the specific nutrition and exercise preferences of the elderly, particularly those with a poor appetite.’ VU health scientists Ingeborg Brouwer, Margreet Olthof, Ilse Reinders and Hanneke Wijnhoven are also involved in the project.
MARJOLEIN VISSER: ‘THE RECOMMENDATIONS WILL BE TAILORED TO THE SPECIFIC NUTRITION AND EXERCISE PREFERENCES OF THE ELDERLY, PARTICULARLY THOSE WITH A POOR APPETITE’
Scaling-up nutrition-sensitive agricultural initiatives in poor areas
Professor Jacqueline Broerse and her team (Athena Institute) received 760,000 euros of funding from NWO for their research on scaling-up nutrition-sensitive agricultural initiatives in poor mountainous areas in Vietnam and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR). Together with several local health and research institutes in Vietnam and Lao PDR, the Athena Institute started research on this subject in December 2016. The research project will last 4.5 years. Food insecurity and malnutrition remain persistent challenges among upland populations in Asia. Interventions are often fragmented and address immediate rather than underlying causes. Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture (NSA) is a relatively new inter-sectoral, multi-level food system approach aiming to maximise agriculture’s contribution to improved food security and nutrition. Building upon existing interventions in Vietnam and Lao PDR, this project generates evidence on the effectiveness of, and best way to scale-up, NSA amongst ethnic minorities in mountainous areas.
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Grants 780,000 euro grant for Erwin Peterman and Gijs Wuite
In cell division, it is of utmost importance that the genetic information is accurately transferred to both new daughter cells. This is quite a feat, considering that the total length of DNA in each cell is about two meters. It thus happens regularly that the strands of DNA of chromosomes get intertwined, which can result in DNA bridges between segregated chromosomes. In order to keep the genetic information intact in both daughter cells, these bridges need to be resolved. How this happens in our cells is not well known: we know what proteins are involved, but we do not know how they work together and in what order they act. With this Top Grant of 780,000 euros, awarded by NWO Chemical Sciences, Professors Erwin Peterman and Gijs Wuite (Physics of Living Systems) want to unravel how intertwinements between chromosomes are resolved in dividing cells. To this end, the unique instrumentation developed in LaserLaB Amsterdam, combining optical tweezers and single-molecule fluorescence microscopy, will be employed. This allows the concomitant mechanical manipulation of DNA and visualization of proteins acting on it.
Bas Teusink receives funding for yeast metabolism
The research group of Professor Bas Teusink has been granted a total of 800,000 euros by NWO’s Building Blocks of Life Steering Group, for their project on the dynamics of yeast central metabolism. The aim of this project is to monitor, master and model the dynamics of yeast, by combining metabolomics, real-time, compartment-specific metabolite sensors, and advanced dynamic modelling. This will provide understanding and control of the operation of metabolic pathways under dynamic nutrient and oxygen feeds. Pathways include glycolysis, pentose phosphate pathway, trehalose and glycogen metabolism, TCA cycle, and oxidative phosphorylation. Bas Teusink (Systems Bioinformatics /AIMMS) will coordinate this multidisciplinary project between VU, TU Delft, TU Eindhoven and chemical company DSM. It provides job opportunities for three PhD students, funded by NWO (750 k€) and DSM (46 k€). 14 | FACULTY OF EARTH AND LIFE SCIENCES - FACULTY OF SCIENCES
New research into innovative healthcare
Health scientists Marcel Adriaanse and Raymond Ostelo have both received large ZonMw grants. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) dispense these grants to finance innovative health research focusing on evaluation of care and cost-effectiveness. Marcel Adriaanse received 400,000 euros for four years of research into the effectiveness and cost of a lifestyle programme tailored to mentally-ill adult patients. The aim of the programme is to ensure a healthy diet and increased physical exercise in this target group. Treatment teams will apply this programme in practice for one year to investigate the health risks and healthcare operating costs. With a grant of 250,000 euros, Raymond Ostelo will look at how hernia operations can be avoided. Around 12,000 hernia operations are performed in the Netherlands each year. Ostelo will examine whether an operation to treat ongoing hernia symptoms can be avoided through a combination therapy of injections by an anaesthesiologist and the application of a specific physiotherapeutic treatment.
GPCR grant for medicinal chemists Chris de Graaf and Rob Leurs
Medicinal chemists Chris de Graaf and Rob Leurs receive a two-year grant by the international GPCR Consortium. They will develop new computational and chemical tools for advancing structural biology of G Protein-Coupled Receptors (GPCRs). The VU division of Medicinal Chemistry joined the GPCR Consortium in 2016 as a funded partner. GPCRs are the largest family of human transmembrane proteins that enable the transduction of chemical signals across the cell membrane and control a plethora of physiological processes in the human body. GPCRs are involved in a wide variety of diseases, like cancer, diabetes and mental disorder, and have proven to be interesting drug targets. However, high-resolution structural information of how GPCRs work and can be modulated is still limited. De Graaf and Leurs will develop new chemoinformatics tools for the integrated analysis of chemical and structural data of GPCRs and bioactive molecules, and apply this information to identify, design, and synthesize new tool compounds to facilitate GPCR structural biology studies and predict the polypharmacological action of drug molecules on multiple GPCR targets.
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Facts and Figures
FACULTY BOARD FACULTY OF EARTH AND LIFE SCIENCES | FACULTY OF SCIENCES DEPARTMENTS ATHENA INSTITUTE
INSTITUTE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES
MOLECULAR CELL BIOLOGY
CHEMISTRY AND PHARMACEUTICAL SCIENCES
PHYSICS AND ASTRONOMY
EARTH AND ECONOMICS
HEALTH AND LIFE SCIENCES
ENVIRONMENT AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
MANAGEMENT, POLICY ANALYSIS AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
BIOINFORMATICS AND SYSTEMS BIOLOGY
MEDICAL NATURAL SCIENCES
PHYSICS AND ASTRONOMY*
SCIENCE, BUSINESS AND INNOVATION
DRUG DISCOVERY AND SAFETY
MEDICAL NATURAL SCIENCES
PARALLEL AND DISTRIBUTED COMPUTER SYSTEMS
SCIENCE, BUSINESS & INNOVATION
STOCHASTICS AND FINANCIAL MATHEMATICS
INFORMATION, MULTIMEDIA AND MANAGEMENT
* JOINT DEGREE WITH FACULTY OF SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF AMSTERDAM
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(ON OCTOBER 1, 2016) 1277
(ON DECEMBER 31, 2016) ACADEMIC STAFF (WITHOUT PHD POSITIONS) PHD POSITIONS
SUPPORT AND MANAGEMENT STAFF NEW INTERNATIONAL ENROLMENT
7 VISITING FELLOWS AND RESEARCHERS (WITHOUT ENDOWED PROFESSORS)
3603 1972 TOTAL NUMBER OF STUDENTS
ACADEMIC PUBLICATIONS* PROFESSIONAL PUBLICATIONS*
FINANCE (IN K€) 47,858
RESEARCH DOCTORATE CONFERRALS
485 FTE 281 FTE 232 FTE
* BASE YEAR 2015
RESEARCH FUNDING (NWO, KNAW, ETC.)
Publications Bats switch between senses while hunting in noise Bats make flexible use of their senses to adapt to noise while hunting. They switch to their echolocation when they have difficulties hearing the call of their prey. This follows from an international study led by Wouter Halfwerk (Animal Ecology), published in Science. This study shows how animals can adapt to increasingly noisy environments, such as for example cities, by making more use of other senses. The researchers studied how bats catch their prey when it is noisy, as bats catch frogs on the basis of the sound that frogs make. In noise, bats make increasingly more use of of their echolocation, the sensory system used to navigate in the dark, and are thereby twice as fast to locate their prey. In May 2016, Wouter Halfwerk received the 2016 Heineken Young Scientists Award for Environmental Sciences (10.000 euros) for his research on how humans alter communication between animals in nature.
Gravitational waves detected 100 years after Einstein’s prediction
For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves. The waves were detected on September 14, 2015, which was announced in February 2016. The discovery, published in Physical Review Letters, was made by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration-Virgo Collaboration (LVC) using data from the two LIGO detectors. On December 26, 2015 there was a second detection. Jo van den Brand, leader of the gravitational physics group at Nikhef and VU Professor of Subatomic Physics: ‘This milestone in physics and astronomy confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity, and marks the beginning of the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy.’ Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed. Dutch scientists of Nikhef, VU and Radboud University made a crucial contribution to this great discovery. VU physicist Henk Jan Bulten and the Mechanical Instrumentation and Engineering Group (FMIB) also contributed to the research of Jo van den Brand. 18 | FACULTY OF EARTH AND LIFE SCIENCES - FACULTY OF SCIENCES
New life discovered in peak ring of dino crater Chicxulub
66 million years ago a meteorite put an end to the existence of several species, including dinosaurs. At the same time, it meant the beginning of other life forms, such as mammals. In May 2016, an international research team left for an expedition to dino crater Chicxulub (Mexico) and performed drillings in the peak ring. While studying the gathered cores, the team with VU palaeontologist Jan Smit discovered traces indicating the emergence of new microbial life after the impact of the meteorite. These traces were found in porous cavities in the stone, formed under enormous pressure. Smit and researchers from the University of Texas and Imperial College London published these findings in Science in November 2016. The collection of the cores was a delicate business. â€˜The transition from the filling of the crater to the crater itself may only be a few centimetres and you do not want to miss thisâ€™, according to Smit.
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Dependency fosters better bond
Together with three British scientists, evolutionary biologist Toby Kiers (Ecology) discovered that in some mutualistic relationships in nature, one of the organisms will impose restrictions on the other to increase the dependency – even if this is detrimental to one of the organisms. In their article ‘Restricting mutualistic partners to enforce trade reliance’ in Nature Communications, Toby Kiers and her colleagues showed how collaborations involving equal partners can turn into manipulation. They discovered the way in which a restricted partner can be forced to remain in the relationship with the restricting organism, even if this was not the deal at the start. An example they studied was between a plant and its resource providing fungus that can manipulate the plant to stop taking up nutrients directly.
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Previously far more water on the moon
Through high-pressure experiments on self-created lunar rocks, earth scientists from VU, led by Professor Wim van Westrenen, have demonstrated that the moon previously contained at least as much water as is currently present in the earth. That is far more than was previously thought, said the scientists in Nature Geoscience. The research team demonstrated that there was already a great deal of water in the moon when it was created. Yanhao Lin, Edgar Steenstra, Elodie Tronche and Wim van Westrenen used the thickness of the moonâ€™s crust to determine exactly how much water there was when the moon was created. They are the first research team in the world to use high-pressure experiments to determine how much water there was in the moon. For years, scientists thought that the moon had always been bone dry. However, these measurements of lunar rocks have conclusively demonstrated that this has not always been the case.
Genetic variants found for happiness
For the first time in history, researchers have isolated the parts of the human genome that could explain the differences in how humans experience happiness. These are the findings of a largescale international study among more than 298,000 people, headed by VU Professors Philipp Koellinger (Genoeconomics, department of Neurosciences) and Meike Bartels (Genetics and Wellbeing, Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences). The results were published in Nature Genetics. About 180 researchers from 145 scientific institutes were involved. This study is a milestone because it is now certain that there is a genetic aspect to happiness. The researchers found three genetic variants for happiness, two variants that can account for differences in symptoms of depression, and eleven locations on the human genome that could account for varying degrees of neuroticism. The genetic variants for happiness are mainly expressed in the central nervous system and the adrenal glands and pancreatic system. The genetic overlap with depressive symptoms that the researchers have found is also a breakthrough.
Not all forests help to mitigate climate change
An international research team including Sebastiaan Luyssaert (Systems Ecology) published in Science that two and a half centuries of afforestation and forest management in Europe have failed to mitigate climate warming. The team reconstructed historical land use and improved a complex computer model to calculate the amount of carbon, energy and water that is trapped or released by managing a forest. The researchers analysed the effect of historical afforestation and forest management on the carbon balance and the contemporary climate. These are recognized as key strategies for climate mitigation and are generally expected to have the potential to slow global warming by removing CO2 from the atmosphere. However, this new study shows that, despite a considerable increase in forest area and the onset of widespread production-oriented management since 1750, European forests failed to realize a net CO2 removal from the atmosphere. By taking out wood from unmanaged forest and bringing these forests under production, humans released carbon to the atmosphere, otherwise stored in the biomass, litter, dead wood and soil of the forest.
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Science and Society O|2 Lab Building officially open
On September 29th the new O|2 Lab Building at the VU campus was officially opened by Kajsa Ollongren, city councillor and the deputy mayor of Amsterdam (see back side photo). O|2 is one of the first academic buildings in the Netherlands that was developed for a specific research theme: Human Life Sciences. The building houses researchers from the VU, UvA and the VU Medical Centre (VUmc). Chemists, molecular biologists, analysts, biophysicists and bioinformaticians work together on finding solutions to grand societal questions on Human Life Sciences, applying a mix of fundamental and applied scientific and medical research. The building gives researchers access to state-of-the-art research infrastructure and also allows partners to rent laboratory space. This will contribute to the efficient use of high-end research facilities and promote knowledge-sharing and collaboration.
World first: robots that procreate
Machines that autonomously operate and reproduce are no longer fiction. Professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI) Guszti Eiben developed robots that can procreate. In May 2016, this robot mating was demonstrated and the first robot baby ever was unveiled. Eiben: ‘The robots can now not only develop their brains (software) by learning, but also their bodies (hardware) through evolution. Because robot parents select suitable mating partners with certain desirable properties, successive generations can improve their physical form
and behaviour, adjusting these to their environment and the task they have to perform. This makes them suitable for locations where the circumstances are unknown in advance, such as mines in deep seas or other planets.’ AI scientists previously established a system architecture that consists of a ‘birth clinic’, a ‘nursery’, and an ‘arena’ where robots live, work and reproduce. Eiben and his team finally succeeded in implementing a complete life cycle. They created physical robots that have their own ‘DNA’ and can produce children via a 3D-printer.
GUSZTI EIBEN: ‘SUCCESSIVE GENERATIONS OF ROBOTS CAN IMPROVE THEIR PHYSICAL FORM AND BEHAVIOUR, ADJUSTING THESE TO THEIR ENVIRONMENT AND THE TASK THEY HAVE TO PERFORM’ 22 | FACULTY OF EARTH AND LIFE SCIENCES - FACULTY OF SCIENCES
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Enriched rice increases risk of hookworm infections
Tackling anaemia by adding additional nutrients such as iron to rice leads to an increase in hookworm infections in the intestine. That’s the conclusion of an international research team that includes Brechje de Gier (Athena Institute) and Maiza Campos Ponce, Katja Polman and Michiel de Boer (Health Sciences) in research published in PLOS ONE. The scientists conducted their research in Cambodia, where more than half of children under the age of 5 and more than 40% of women between the ages of 15 and 45 suffer from anaemia. In countries where people are deficient in vitamins and minerals, these substances are increasingly being added to rice. However, this new research shows that children in Cambodia who ate enriched rice were twice as likely to be infected with hookworm. So, it’s not just the children who appear to be reaping the benefits from the additional nutrients, but the worms as well. De Gier: ‘We don’t know for certain which substance in the enriched rice increases the risk of infections but iron is the chief suspect. In previous research, additional iron also appeared to increase the risk of infections such as malaria.’
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New method allows surgeons to identify brain tumours in real time
Researchers from the Physics Department/LaserLab and VUmc have shown that a label-free optics technique can reveal exactly where brain tumours are, producing images in less than a second — unlike conventional methods that can take a whole day. Physicist Marloes Groot and her colleagues describe their work in Biomedical Optics Express. With the new technique, the researchers do not use any labelling or staining at all. Instead, they fire short, 200-femtosecond-long laser pulses into the tissue, to reveal what the tissue looks like inside. This is the first time anyone has used this technique to analyse glial brain tumours. These tumours are particularly deadly because it is hard to get rid of tumour cells by surgery, irradiation, and chemotherapy without substantial collateral damage to the surrounding brain tissue. Now that they have shown their approach works, the researchers are developing a hand-held device that a surgeon can use to identify a tumour’s border during surgery.
Even “perfect” software can be attacked
Cybersecurity researchers Erik Bosman, Kaveh Razavi, Cristiano Giuffrida and Professor Herbert Bos won a prestigious Pwnie Award for Most Innovative Research. These awards are referred to as the Oscars for hackers. The computer scientists were awarded for their work on a new attack technique that allows attackers to take over state-of-the-art software, with all defences up, even if the software has no bugs. This research results change our view on software security. Everyone used to think that information systems were insecure because the software was so buggy. Now the VU scientists proved that even with “perfect” software, attackers can still hack your system. The attack makes use of the way modern systems handle memory: to save memory, systems ‘deduplicate’ memory pages. But the attackers can detect that this has happened and use it to leak information. The other component of the attack are the so-called ‘bit flips’, a bizarre hardware glitch that exists in many modern memory chips. Because bits of data are packed too closely in chips nowadays, memory cells can ‘leak’.
Nutrition education in every primary school
Health scientists Jaap Seidell and Coosje Dijkstra, together with the Youth Food Movement, UNICEF Netherlands, the Dutch Association of Paediatricians, the Dutch Consumers’ Association and the Amsterdam Municipal Health Service, formed the ‘Nutrition Education Alliance’ in 2016. This new alliance launched the ‘Nutrition education for every child’ campaign and aims to put well-structured nutrition education for every child on the social and political agenda. Children who know more about their food (origin, method of production, composition, preparation) have a greater chance of developing healthy eating habits. Nutrition education doesn’t just mean listening to a teacher; it also involves combining knowledge with skills, such as cooking, eating together, tasting and growing vegetables. Professor of Health and Nutrition Jaap Seidell: ‘If you want to work towards a healthy future, you have to start with children. Because healthy children are less likely to get sick and will perform better at school.’
SCIENCE AND SOCIETY | 25
More effective screening for colorectal cancer
A unique, large-scale data analysis from VU computer scientists Mark Hoogendoorn, Reinier Kop and Annette ten Teije, in collaboration with researchers from UMC Utrecht, LUMC and VUmc, has led to a new predictive model for colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is a very common form of cancer, and one for which the earliest possible diagnosis is especially critical to the chance of survival. But that’s difficult, because the early symptoms of colorectal cancer are often not distinctive. Hoogendoorn: ‘This new research shows that data screening is very effective for early detection.’ The VU computer scientists searched for distinctive patterns in around 263,000 electronic patient files. 1,292 of those patients had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. The computer scientists compared these two groups (with and without colorectal cancer) by using software to search the data for various predictive factors that often appear before a diagnosis is made. In the future, doctors might be able to use this new model to make better decisions on whether they should refer a patient for further examination, which is both unpleasant and expensive.
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MARK HOOGENDOORN: ‘THIS NEW RESEARCH SHOWS THAT DATA SCREENING IS VERY EFFECTIVE FOR THE EARLY DETECTION OF COLORECTAL CANCER’
Optics11 brings research into heart disease a step forward
Thanks to an original technique developed by VU spin-off Optics11 and company Ionoptix, it is now possible to monitor the exact behaviour of a single isolated heart cell throughout the entire cardiac cycle. The companies introduced a new sensor that, attached to a heart cell, allows one to measure, in vitro, the force exerted by the cell during the entire cycle. Optics11 makes measurement systems based on optical fiber technology, measuring nanoscale effects in difficult environments. Scientists can assess the mechanical properties of cells and tissues with an easy, fast and reproducible approach. VU physicist Davide Iannuzzi founded the company in 2011 together with entrepreneur Hans Brouwer. In 2016, Value Creation Capital started investing in Optics11 through its TechNanoFund, aimed at stimulating growth and development in high tech companies. Optics11 was also evaluated as the 7th most innovative company in the MKB Innovatie Top 100 ranking of 2016.
Building blocks of bioplastic bottle are safe
Producing the plastic building block FDCA from plant waste does not pose an extra risk to the environment compared to current production of PET from oil. VU ecologists Guangquan Chen, Dick Roelofs and Nico van Straalen arriving at this conclusion is a major step towards the circular bio-based economy. The researchers studied the synthesis of 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) made by the enzymatic degradation of lignocellulose. This lignocellulose is found in waste generated by sugar cane and palm oil production, but is also found in plant waste from agriculture and forestry. Through polymerisation, a ‘bioplastic’ known as polyethylene 2,5-furandicarboxylate (PEF) can be made from FDCA, which could serve as substitute for polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The researchers studied the toxicity of the ‘green’ chemicals on earthworms and springtails. FDCA proved to be either less toxic or just as toxic as the substances they could be replacing. Luckily, microorganisms in the soil are able to quickly decompose a highly reactive and potentially dangerous intermediate product.
Patent for AIMMS medicinal chemists Rob Leurs and Iwan de Esch
The European Patent Office has granted the VU the European patent rights on a series of innovative histamine receptor ligands. The patent EP 2238119B1, entitled ‘Quinazolines and related heterocyclic compounds, and their therapeutic use’, is based on the work of AIMMS scientists Rob Leurs, Iwan de Esch and Rogier Smits (Medicinal Chemistry). The patent has been exclusively licensed to the VU spin-off Griffin Discoveries, that is trying to further develop the new potential drug molecules. The patent application was first published in 2010 and describes the discovery and the biological actions of a new innovative class of antihistamines. The new molecules act on two distinct histamine receptors (H1 and H4) and are seen as a new generation of antihistamines that may bring better relief to allergic and inflammatory conditions.
SCIENCE AND SOCIETY | 27
LORA AROYO Human Computer Interaction (Computer Science)
SANDJAI BHULAI Business Analytics (Mathematics)
WOUTER BOTZEN Economics of Climate Change and Natural Disasters (Institute for Environmental Studies)
PAOLA GORI-GIORGI University Research Chair of Theoretical and Mathematical Chemistry (Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences)
TOM GROSSMANN Biomimetic Synthesis for Molecular Complexity (Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences)
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PIM LEONARDS Environmental Bioanalytical Chemistry (Institute for Environmental Studies)
JOHN KENNIS Biophysics of Functional Photoactive Materials (Physics and Astronomy)
PHILIPP KOELLINGER Genoeconomics (Neurosciences)
DANIELLE POSTHUMA University Research Chair of Psychiatric Genetics (Neurosciences)
ENDOWED PROFESSORS Arie den Boef Metrology and Nanolithography (Physics and Astronomy) Federico Camia Discrete Probability and Conformal Invariance (Mathematics)
BOB RINK Nonlinear Analysis (Mathematics)
MARJOLEIN ZWEEKHORST Innovation and Education in the Health and Life Sciences (Athena Institute)
Aart van Halteren Health Behaviour Informatics (Computer Science) Hans ter Steege Tropical Forest Diversity and Tree Traits (Ecology)
PROFESSOR APPOINTMENTS | 29
Study Associations Anguilla
Health and Life Sciences 522 members
Earth Sciences, Earth Sciences and Economics 593 members Highlight: ‘In November, GeoVUsie celebrated the anniversary of our ‘Donderdorst’-tradition. The Donderdorst is our weekly get-together and we celebrated that we already do this for 30 years!’
Biology, Biomedical Sciences 1320 members Highlight: ‘In September 2016, Gyrinus natans celebrated the 25th anniversary of De Tegenstelling. In this famous bar and social gathering place, on the 1st floor of the W&N building, all kinds of people come together in an informal atmosphere: students, alumni, scientists and other employees of both our science faculties.’
Health Sciences 550 members
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Medical Natural Sciences 267 members Highlight: ‘During our symposium six different speakers told something about the theme: From Science to Profit. The speakers came from various disciplines, from small and large companies, and told about their experiences with bringing profitable medical innovations to the market. This day was very successful, with more than 100 members present.’
Mathematics and Computer Science 841 members
Science, Business and Innovation 295 members Highlight: ‘Our highlight of 2016 was our Innovation Career Day, an annual career day organized by and for Subliem members, in order to get in touch with future employers. The day was very interactive with workshops, business cases and a business market. This day really focused on working on your resume, with professional CV checks and the opportunity to pose for a photo for LinkedIn.’
Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences 350 members
STUDY ASSOCIATIONS | 31
Colophon This annual overview is a publication of the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences and the Faculty of Sciences of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. www.falw.vu.nl www.few.vu.nl
Production and editing
Communications & Marketing, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam: Laura Janssen, Mieke Tromp Meesters, Valeria Huisman
Metamorfose Vertalingen, Utrecht
Peter Gerritsen (page 2, 4, 10, 11, 28, 29), Yvonne Compier (page 2,28, 29, foto Gareth Davies), Caren Huygelen (back side photo), Riechelle van der Valk (page 10), Rachel Moon (page 18), Alex Tran (front side photo), Jan Jansen (page 20), Frank Wieringa – Institute for Research for Development Montpellier (page 24), Evert Haasdijk (page 23), Anne Schulp – Naturalis (page 6), Bètapartners (page 7), Jan Smit (page 19), Lando Wolters (page 9), Jerom Langeveld (page 14).
vanhulzen•gummo•kicks, Voorschoten Congres- en Mediacenter, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
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