Dutch researchers in the United States - United States

Dutch researchers in the United States

The United States and the Netherlands are strong partners in groundbreaking research that improves lives and helps us better understand our world. Read below about some of the Dutch researchers in the United States. 

Priscilla Pieters

Dr. Priscilla Pieters is a process engineer at Applied Materials. At the time of this interview, she was a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley in the College of Chemistry.

She graduated in December 2023. Her research focused on nanomaterials – the combination of two fields of study. We sat down with her to understand more about nanomaterials, its applications, and her journey as a Dutch graduate student in the United States.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I am being co-advised, which means I have two professors: Professor Paul Alivisatos and Professor Ting Xu. This means I'm working in two fields and combining them, so I work with polymers as well as nano-particles. So, I'm really working in the nanomaterials field.

Even though I am a chemist by training, I spend most of my time in material science and engineering because I mostly work on material science. Specifically, I work on nanomaterials and especially hybrid nanomaterials, where you have polymers and nanoparticles interfacing.

As you go to smaller materials, you can imagine that they're connecting and what is going on between them becomes really important as it’s going to be a major part of the system. So, I study what's going on at these interfaces. I use polymer-grafted nanoparticles and assemblies of nanoparticles, with which we can make really cool structures. You can treat nanoparticles like artificial atoms.

Atoms are like small spheres that are the building blocks of different structures and have different properties. And what we can do is we can make these particles, like the spheres or in our case even other shapes like cubes. They can make structures, they can have different properties, they can have different kinds of bonding.

The cool thing is that when we use nanoparticles, they have a bigger design space than just regular atoms, which are all spherical and have certain properties. So, what I'm looking at, for example, are cubic nanoparticles that are completely different shapes that you would never get from an atom. Because of that, you get different crystal structures and interactions between the particles that are unique to the shape of the particle.

It's fundamental research. It's like, “Oh, we have these materials, why did we choose certain parts of it? What happens?” But also, “How can we connect that to the properties of the material?”

Having this structure-property relationship as well as how we create these structures is the main focus. How does this relate to, for example, mechanical properties? I look at the mechanical properties, because like I said, I have these materials that are part polymer and partnanoparticle. And both have different mechanical properties. When you combine them, you can  get the advantages of both types of material into one material. And sometimes you can even get other types of emergent properties, because of the different behavior of the interfaces that you don't have in either one material, but when you combine them, they get unique properties.

I did the science track in high school (in the Netherlands), of course, otherwise you don't end up pursuing a science major. But honestly, in the beginning I was mostly interested in medicine or psychology. But when I started going to all these orientation days, I realized that I really like the more fundamental sciences. And I feel like chemistry is a cool science.

It connects to so many different fields. It's such a cliche thing that chemists say, but chemistry is everywhere: in biology, physics, materials, medicine. Being a chemist, I feel like I have a fundamental understanding of a lot of different processes and a lot of different fields.

Another thing that I think is unique about chemistry is that it’s a science where we are creating. I get to make new materials that have never been made before. I get to go into a lab and make something. I'm not just like reading literature or learning about different subjects and coming up with new ideas. I'm stepping into a lab and creating something new that has never been made before, and I enjoy that part.

I ended up going to the University of Groningen, and I chose that place for two reasons.

One of them is that, at that time, it had the only chemistry program with the bachelor's degrees taught in English. That was important to me. The second thing was that in the first year, you could study chemistry and chemical engineering at the same time. Because I wasn't completely sure which way I wanted to go, I decided to study both.

I realized after one course in chemical engineering that I did not enjoy that, so I ended up just studying chemistry, but I like that I had the option to try both and see how that goes. During my undergrad, I also tried to explore different things. I spent a semester in Stockholm where I studied neurochemistry, which was a cool experience, but I realized the biology part of chemistry surprisingly wasn’t as interesting for me, mostly because of the type of lab work that it involves.

While I was writing my bachelor thesis, I ended up doing an internship at BASF to experience the industry side, which was also interesting, but I decided I wanted to stay in academia for a bit longer. So, I started my master’s degree, also at the University of Groningen.

Groningen has a few different tracks in their studies where you can choose what kind of chemistry you want to do. When starting my master’s program, I chose the material side. During the two-year master’s program, you must do two research projects, your master thesis, which is nine months, and a second research project, which is kind of whatever you want it to be. It’s around 3-4 months, so I decided, why not go abroad again? I went to Boston and spent 4-5 months there in a lab at Harvard. And that's how I first ended up in the US.

It's really funny, in my first year of undergrad, people would ask me, “What are your future plans?” and I was like, “Well, I'll probably do a PhD somewhere abroad, but not in the US.”

And look at me now! During my master’s, I mostly chose to go there because there was a professor I wanted to work with. It was going to be for 4-5 months, it would be a cool new experience, and I’d never been to the US before, so why not give it a try? And I ended up enjoying it!

I had a fun lab. It was intense, but it was a great experience. Boston is similar in a way to the Bay Area, where I live now. There's a high concentration of great universities, great companies, all close together and working together, and I think that's great. It's a unique atmosphere with a lot of diverse people all in the same place. There's so much going on here, and I don't think that's something I see anywhere in Europe. There are great universities and great companies, but it’s not as concentrated in one area.

Also, just the size of things. It’s just a lot bigger here with a lot more people. There's a lot of international people from all different backgrounds, which you also see in the Netherlands, in universities, but it's different here. So, I really enjoyed that and meeting a lot of cool people.

I think in the US, people can be America-centered. It’s nice to have a perspective and knowledge of what's going on in other places in the world.

For example, knowing what kind of sustainability efforts are going on in Europe, what the European Union is doing with all these concerted efforts to reduce emissions and have better materials that are more recyclable, which are different in approach to sustainability efforts that are happening in the US.

So, I think it is helpful to know what is going on in the rest of the world and to have a  personal connection to that. I think another thing is having a little bit of a work-life balance. The academic atmosphere here can be intense. And it's normal to dedicate your whole life to whatever you're doing, but I think in the Netherlands, we have a bit of a healthier balance - even though you're doing research, it's still more of a nine-to-five, instead of being your whole day, and evening and weekend. So, I try to set these boundaries for myself here and that helps me overall.

It depends on which university you go to, of course, but the universities I've been to have been big and well known. And so, in general, the professors you work with are quite famous and busy.

Getting mentored here is a different experience in than that sense because there's less time for them to spend on you as a student. So, a lot of mentoring comes from older grad students or postdocs.

The track you take in the US is also different than in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, we have three years of bachelor’s, two years of master’s, and then a PhD for four years. Here, it's undergrad for four years, then you do grad school for five years.

And so, for example, I did my master’s in the Netherlands, but when I got to my PhD program here, I still had to do courses and things like that. What I've also noticed is that our level of experience in research is in general a lot higher than people who have come freshly from undergrad in the US.

One of the reasons is that if you've done a master’s, of course, you've researched and written a master thesis for a year. But also, the lab courses here are designed differently. So, you get a lot less intense experience with doing research. What I've noticed is that the first year grad school students here have less experience doing research than people from the Netherlands.

Another thing that is different is in the Netherlands you apply for a PhD position with a certain professor. And then they take you or they don’t. Here, you apply to a department of a university, and then the department accepts you. And then you get here, and start talking to professors. You'll start matchmaking and being like, “Who do I actually want to work for?” And of course, you get there with idea of, “Well, I want to work for a certain person.”

I came here with the idea of working for a certain person, but that did not end up happening. I ended up working with somebody different. And that's an advantage and a disadvantage. Some people end up not really finding their match. It doesn't happen a lot, but every year there are a few people who this happens to.

But on the other hand, now I get to work with different people than I expected, and I got to learn a little bit more about the other professor I wanted to work for and realized, “Oh, actually, this is not the person I would want to work for.” So that was interesting. It also takes time. You spend half a year figuring out where you want to work instead of immediately starting like you would do in the Netherlands. But it's also cool, because it kind of helps to keep your perspective broad.

Even though the US has a quite similar culture to Netherlands, there are still differences. I think one main one for me is if you want to commit to spending five years abroad, maybe try it out for a few months first.

Like I mentioned earlier, I spent a few times, like four or five months at a time, in a different city or a different country, because it's an intense experience to move somewhere by yourself and having to figure everything out by yourself.

And for some people that works well. It doesn't for others, so I think kind of trying that out first is definitely a good choice because a five-year commitment is quite long and can be a lot. I mean, the time difference from the West Coast is nine hours, so you don't get to talk to your family that much. It's a big step. So, I think just figuring out for yourself that that is something you actually want. You're uprooting your whole life.

That's one thing. And then the other thing is because the application system is different, you have to start earlier. Applications close in December for starting the program in August, so you have to start earlier. And part of the application is all these different tests; you need to do an English proficiency test, you need to get a visa, like all that stuff. It takes a lot of extra time, way more than what you would do to go another country in Europe.

So, you have to start like a year in advance, basically, which is not something we're used to. So that's one thing to keep in mind. And the other one is to reach out to people and ask for help. Sometimes I get people reaching out to me ask “How do I get into a school in the US?” I'm always happy to answer those questions. You should reach out to people because the system is so different. And you have to keep in mind that Americans are trained to apply for grad school here. They know exactly what to do, exactly what to say, but we don't.

There are all these documents you need to prepare like a statement of purpose. In the Netherlands, we don't know what it is, we've never heard of that. We don't know how to write something like that. But they know exactly how that's supposed to look and in that way they have a lot of advantages.

So, reaching out to people who have gone through that process, and figuring out how they did that, I think, is important. One piece of advice I got from an American professor at my Dutch university was, “One thing to keep in mind is that Dutch people are taught to be very humble. We don't like to brag about ourselves, but Americans do.”

So, when you're writing a statement of purpose to apply for grad school, brag about yourself and don't be shy. You’re going to compete with people who are used to bragging about themselves and being like, “Oh, I'm really good at this.” You have to match that. Talking to people about these things and realizing how you need to make these changes in the way that you think about yourself, what you research, and how you frame things is important.

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Dr. Mark Brongersma and his team at Stanford University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering get excited about using tiny structures to manipulate light.

Image: ©Mark Brongersma

Dr. Mark Brongersma and his team at Stanford University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering get excited about using tiny structures to manipulate light.

This dynamic is all around us. It’s light interacting with molecules in the air to make the sky look blue and water droplets to make clouds look white.

But when you think tiny, Dr. Brongersma is working with particles 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. His research is helping make chips run faster, clothes cool bodies efficiently, and hydrogen fuel emerge from water.

In this interview, we explore how infinitely small-scale research has massive real-world impact. Dr. Brongersma reflects on his work to date, the benefit of working with industry, and how to attract brilliant minds to compelling research.

Silicon crystals

Mark Brongersma comes from a family of scientists and professors. Eager to follow in their footsteps, at the age of 6 he projected how long it would take him to become a professor and was upset when he realized it would take him 30 years.

Nineteen years later, he was earning a PhD at the AMOLF research Laboratory in Amsterdam and working with Albert Polman, a pioneer in the field of nanophotonics.

At the time there was substantial interest to see if electronic chips could be made faster by using light particles to transfer data, in addition to electrical currents.

Dr. Brongersma explained the research: “To see whether it would be possible to use light, we needed to develop some of the smallest light sources and ways to transport light on the chip.”

Researchers discovered that silicon, the main material computer chips are made of, can emit light when chopped into little silicon bits, or nanocrystals. Brongersma worked on demonstrating how the size and shape of the silicon crystals could be used to control the effectiveness and color of the light emission.

Later, he also found that light can be guided along metallic particle arrays and wires on the chip. Following these early findings, during his postdoc at the California Institute of Technology, which to this day has an ongoing collaboration with AMOLF, he studied how to make the tiniest wires that could transport light on a chip.

His amazing research solved an important piece of the puzzle of how to make super-fast energy-saving computer chips.

Soon after conducting that research, Dr. Brongersma became a professor at Stanford University, and achieved his childhood goal in less than 30 years.

Keeping science real

Dr. Brongersma loves technology and advocates strongly for the importance of applied research: “Often the best fundamental questions come from technological questions where you suddenly have to think in a completely different way.”

Through his work at Stanford, he has successfully translated his science into applied technologies by co-founding a startup, Rolith. The company, which was later acquired  by Metamaterials Technologies Inc., applies nanostructures to large areas, for example, in the windows of the flight deck to protect pilots from laser attacks.

This solved an important problem, as there are roughly 20 laser beam attacks in the US every night. The attackers, mainly children near airports, point lasers at pilots when planes are taking off or landing, and the nano-coated glass blocks the light of the laser pointer, but still allows the pilot to clearly see the outside world.

Reflecting his commitment to applied research, about 30 percent to 40 percent of his work at Stanford is funded by industry, and this has enabled ongoing innovation in his work.

“Government research funding has stayed more or less steady, and at the same time, companies have realized how we can use this knowledge of how to make and use nanostructures and optics to make better components,” he said. “That together has moved our research, a little bit more from fundamental research to more applied research.”

In an industry collaboration with Samsung, which has entered the race for self-driving cars, Dr. Brongersma works on LIDAR scanning laser beams.

With company ENEL Green Power, he’s implementing state-of-the-art solar cells that have nanostructures on top to increase their efficiency. The solar cells that he is working on in his lab are so thin, “about a hundredth the thickness of a human hair,” that they become flexible. This result in easy applications, for example, to the wings of an airplane or other automotive vehicles.

Finally, with augmented reality (AR) startup Magic Leap, he’s innovating  to improve AR glasses, which today are still bulky. By applying an invisible coating of nanostructures on the glasses that capture and redirect light, they can look like regular eyeglasses and become more user friendly, allowing the wearer to move and see virtual images blended in their true surroundings, without feeling nauseous.

These extensive experiences with applied technologies have shown Dr. Brongersma that collaboration with industry should be done thoughtfully.

For example, Stanford facilitates collaboration with industry through an affiliate program. For an annual fee of $150,000, a company can have active engagement with research programs and meet faculty and the brightest students.

This creates a win-win dynamic as money flows into research and infrastructure at the university, while students hear directly from industry leaders about the problems they are trying to solve and where they need support and new collaborations.

The Netherlands is one of the key players in the field of photonics and it has played a leading role in optics since the discoveries of Willebrord Snellius and Christiaan Huygens 400 years ago.

“The Netherlands is especially good at fundamental research,” Dr. Brongersma said, and he believes some university groups may consider working more closely with industry. “Get more companies involved to push to keep science real, because some people do brilliant things that are completely useless. So why not try to solve really hard problems that industry has?”

He stressed that universities should do work that companies think is too far out: “You need to have that 10- to 20-year horizon for research.”

Attracting the best of the best

Dr. Brongsmera is also committed to supporting and cultivating talented young researchers. Seven out of his eight last graduate students all went to Apple.

With tech giants just around Stanford’s corner, it can be difficult for universities to compete for talent. “Graduate students starting at Apple earn basically my salary,” he said, acknowledging that “with a faculty salary, it is extremely challenging to live in Silicon Valley.”

Nobody knows what Apple is working on, but rumor has it that Apple is also working on AR glasses. “There’s a competition, and Apple should be investing in the research and my group, but their way is to just buy up the talent.”

Yet, he is also excited for his students because they land jobs in a matter of weeks. “Part of that excitement is that the things that we are working on are really making an impact now,” he said.

Government could definitely play a role in attracting the best scientists, Dr. Brongersma thinks. When he was in high school, the US was investing heavily in science, making competitive offers to attract the best scientists from all over the world.

“That is, I think, the reason behind the strength of the US economy and it’s going to be the detriment of the US economy to stop bringing the best people here.”

He points out that China today is offering faculty incredible startup packages and resources, making it attractive for the best Chinese students to return to China.

“The costs of brilliant people leaving are hard to put or calculate on paper.” He stressed that governments should make it attractive to bring in more talent: “This is going to cost money, but the long-term benefit of bringing the best people in your country is worth any input,” and points to the incredible economic impact of Stanford in the Bay Area.

Companies that were formed by Stanford entrepreneurs generate trillions of dollars in revenue annually and have created millions of jobs since the 1930s. A study showed that if the companies that were founded by Stanford alumni formed an independent nation, it would be the 10th largest economy in the world.

How to make it attractive to bring in brilliant scientists? In addition to money it includes resources and a good quality of life: “That goes from good infrastructure, to transportation to great restaurants to alI the things that if you ask a young person, what do you value, about living in a certain city or place? If you can make deals, great things happen.”

Could the Netherlands make it attractive for him to return? One of the things that makes Stanford unique is the large size and international nature of its programs. He loves working with so many different people that bring diverse ideas.

“That would be harder to give up,” he said. With a competitive salary it could be interesting to return. Maybe in the role of a dean he could help universities or other organizations move into new directions. “I have many romantic thoughts of going back to Amsterdam and obviously great, amazing science is done in the Netherlands. So, I would not exclude the idea.”

Bio & CV

1969: Born in Geldrop, the Netherlands

1988-1994: Master’s in physics, Eindhoven University of Technology

1994-1998: PhD in material science, FOM AMOLF Amsterdam

1998-2001: Postdoctoral research fellow, California Institute of Technology: research in chip scale photonics and electronics

2001-present Professor Stanford University, Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Dr. Brongersma received the National Science Foundation Career Award, the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the International Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences

Dutch computational engineer Dr. Margot Gerritsen of Stanford University in California uses mathematics to solve a wide variety of complex problems and is recognized as one of the top teachers in her field.

Image: ©Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Dr. Margot Gerritsen uses mathematics to solve a wide variety of complex problems: identifying how to produce oil and gas in a more environmentally friendly way, studying coastal ocean flows, improving sail design for America’s Cup yachts, and designing search engines for digital archives.

She has even used math to model the wings of a pterosaur, a flying reptile in the dinosaur era, for the National Geographic documentary Sky Monsters.

Margot is a computational engineer and professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University in California.

Aside from her scientific work, Margot is recognized as one of the top teachers in her field. She teaches courses in computational mathematics, energy and sustainability, and has received several awards for her excellence in teaching, such as the Tau Beta Pi award at Stanford.

She is also passionate about the role of women in STEM, and is co-founder and co-director of the global Women in Data Science (WiDS) conference and host of the WiDS podcasts, inspiring women all over the world to enter the field.

Biking to the sea

Dr. Gerritsen loved mathematics from an early age. In sixth grade, her teacher started every morning with a five-minute head-calculation competition, which she often won, and in high school she viewed math problems as fun, complex puzzles. Overtime, math became much more applied and exciting. “I always wanted to understand the world around me a little bit more,” Margot said. “I am intrigued by that. Math is a wonderful language that can be used to express ideas and deepen understanding.”

Born and raised in a small town near the coast in the Southwest of the Netherlands, she often biked to the sea as a little girl. She would stare mesmerized, wondering what would be beyond it.

Years later, when she had finished her masters in applied mathematics in Delft, Dr. Gerritsen won an international graduate scholarship. Eager to explore what was on the other side of the ocean, she chose to study at the University of Colorado at Denver. While in Colorado, she missed the ocean badly, and after one year she left to pursue her Ph.D. in scientific computing and computational mathematics at Stanford University, much closer to the water than landlocked Denver.

First female faculty member

She felt an enormous buzz at Stanford. The environment was competitive, entrepreneurial, and provided a wealth of opportunities. Anything seemed possible.

Stanford was also very intense, Margot said, especially since she was one of the very few women in her field. “People notice you and you are being scrutinized, and I always felt this pressure to perform,” she said. “It is a bit exhausting.” After she finished her Ph.D., she sought a less competitive environment and moved to New Zealand, where she worked for five years as a lecturer at the University of Auckland.

Yet, she began to miss the buzz of intensity that was pervasive at Stanford. Five years later, when she was offered a job as a professor in Stanford’s energy resources engineering, she did not hesitate and became the first woman faculty member in the department.

A virtual laboratory

But how is math used in such diverse areas as petroleum engineering, ocean modelling, pterosaur flight mechanics, and sails design?

Margot uses math to build computerized simulations to better understand or optimize complex physical or engineering processes. She begins by gaining an understanding of the physics of a process.

For example, when helping designing sails for America’s Cup yachts, she first talked to experts in the field, including sailors and sail designers, to understand the physics of the sails and sailflows.

Once she understands the physics, she develops a mathematical model from which she can build computer programs that simulate the process, “like a virtual laboratory,” she said.

For yachts, she simulated the air flow over sail shapes to help design better sails and in the case of petroleum engineering, she uses math to build simulations to identify how to produce oil and gas in a way that it has less impact on the environment.

Saving CO2 emissions

One of the fossil energy projects that Margot is working on today is finding out how to extract heavy oil from underground in a less environmentally harmful way. Heavy oil, Margot said, is sticky and hard to move unless it is heated.

There are several ways to heat heavy oil, but current approaches to burning fossil fuels create high levels of CO2 emissions. Dr. Gerritsen is trying to change the process, and in the approach she is studying, the oil is burned under the ground so that the CO2 is generated in the reservoir, and does not create surface-level CO2 emissions.

However, this process, called “in-situ combustion,” is harder to predict and control than the surface-level process. Through her work, Margot is able to simulate in-situ combustion, which offers better insight into how the oil in the reservoir will burn. With this data, she hopes to increase confidence so that companies are more inclined to use in-situ combustion rather than others that are more harmful to the environment.

100 percent clean energy law

Besides fossil energy production, Margot is an expert in renewable energy and has worked on many projects, such as tidal energy production and the assessment of large scale solar and wind energy projects.

How does she see the future? Will renewable energy be our largest source of energy in 30 years?

“It is quite complex,” Margot said.

Previous reports that addressed these questions, even those from the International Energy Agency, made predictions that turned out to be wrong. There were developments that could not be foreseen, such as major shifts in technology and population and economic growth.

“The thing is, we don’t really know. What I’m hoping is that oil and gas will be phased out. We already see big changes in some places,” Margot said. “In California, for example, we set a renewable portfolio standard that seemed very aggressive even 15 years ago. Our first ambitious goal, set in 2002, was to generate 20% of electricity using renewable sources. In 2015, this was adjusted to 50% by 2030, and we are already nearly there. Last year, California raised this to 100% by 2045.”

Margot said she believes this goal is feasible, but that there will always be niche applications for fossil fuels, such as emergency power, and uses outside of the transport sector.

A shift will depend on effective large scale clean energy storage, but she believes that this hurdle will be overcome. History has shown, she said, that when there is an enormous economic stress in the world because of energy, everybody starts investing in energy.

When she started teaching energy courses 20 years ago, everybody agreed it would take a long time for solar and wind to become cost competitive. Yet, today they have become cost competitive, because some countries, such as China, were economically growing exceedingly fast and needed energy.

China relied heavily on coal, but this had severe health consequences for the population and it became an absolute necessity for China to invest in renewable energy.

As a result, Dr. Gerritsen said, “Solar PV is incredibly cheap right now because markets have a lot of cheaper produces Chinese PV. These things have made a huge change and are incredibly hard to predict.”

Risk-taking culture

After working in the field of energy resources, coastal ocean simulation, and data science for almost 20 years, Margot is looking for some other areas to pursue, and a field that has piqued her interest is wildland fires. Wildland fire mitigation has become increasingly critical in California and the West (of the US).

Margot has many ideas for using simulations in this field, such as creating a better understanding of the fire-induced weather changes, smoke dispersion and smoke associated health risks. She feels that the Stanford research environment provides her the opportunity to pursue these new projects.

“The nice thing about being a professor in a place like Stanford is that that you can set your own research agenda and will most likely find colleagues and students to work with, so I’m very excited about this,” she said.

She appreciates the freedom she has as a professor at Stanford. For example, it took her only three months to start a new master’s in data science program at Stanford ICM. Starting a master’s program in the Netherlands would generally take much longer, Dr. Gerritsen said, as it needs to be discussed and approved at more levels and there are typically more bureaucratic obstacles.

“Here you can often just build what you want. It is a totally different thing,” she said.

She likes the risk-taking culture in the United States, especially in Silicon Valley, where if she has an idea, she can try it.

The Dutch are a bit more risk averse, she said.

“We (the Dutch) try not to upset too many people. We still have a really hard time picking winners and losers,” she said.

When she was in school in the Netherlands, there were no awards for the best students. It was a foreign concept. She understands the sentiment behind it, but at the same time, she believes, it is important to recognize and reward excellence, which is needed to drive innovation.


“I’m an unbelievably fortunate person,” Margot said. Jobwise, Dr. Gerritsen’s dream was to be useful to people, and in her job she can be, by mentoring and teaching people and as the co-founder of Women in Data Science (WiDS), an annual conference with women experts in data science as speakers.

When she started in computational mathematics 35 years ago, it was a field comprised of roughly 15 percent women. “It is very frustrating to see that this percentage today has even gone down a bit,” Dr. Gerritsen said.

Many important decisions (e.g. in healthcare, industry, and politics) are made based on data analyses. Data science teams are influential, as they interpret data and make predictions based on this data. Most of the data science teams consist of men and are not diverse. Diverse teams are necessary because they ask different questions and have different perspectives, which can lead to different conclusions.

In addition, there are not enough qualified people in this field at the moment. To inspire more women to work in this field, she started the Women in Data Science Conference, which showcases excellent female experts in data science, the WiDS datathon and a WiDS podcast.

The podcast, in which leading women in data science from all over the world share their work and expertise, was necessary, as articles and interviews on AI up until five years ago were mostly all written or given by men.

Today, in its fifth year, the WiDS conference has gone global with online and satellite events, inspiring women worldwide to enter the field.

“Through the conference we reach over 120,000 people per year,” Dr. Gerritsen said. “A lot of them are women, and if you look for talks now in data science online, you probably will find a talk related to WiDS, which is great!”

Bio & CV

Born: Zeeland, Kloetinge, the Netherlands

1984-1990: Master’s degree in applied mathematics, TU Delft

1991-1996: PhD scientific computing, computational mathematics and mechanical engineering, Stanford University

1997-2001: Lecturer, Department of Engineering Science, University of Auckland

2001-present: Professor in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering, Stanford

2010-2018: Director Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, Stanford

2015-present: Senior Associate Dean for Educational Affairs, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, Stanford

2015-present: Co-director of Women in Data Science and host of the WiDS podcasts

Dutch epidemiologist Albert Hofman, chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is an expert who studies the causes of Alzheimer’s disease.

Image: ©Harvard Chan School of Public Health

Dutch epidemiologist Albert Hofman spends a lot of time studying the causes of diseases. One of the diseases he is particularly interested in is what he refers to as “the other pandemic” or Alzheimer’s disease.

An estimated 50 million people around the world have dementia, a number expected to triple by 2050. That’s a staggering increase, but Dr. Hofman, an expert in vascular and neurologic diseases and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, remains optimistic.

That’s because new studies from the Netherlands and the United States show a declining risk of developing Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.

Live a week, gain a weekend

In the 1800s, the global life expectancy at birth was about 35. In just two centuries, this number has more than doubled. In record countries such as Japan, the average life expectancy of women is today as high as 90. This rapid increase in how long we are expected to live is astonishing, Dr. Hofman said. “Every four years, we add one year to our life expectancy.  I summarized this for myself by saying, ‘You live a week and you gain a weekend.’”

Yet, an older population also means that the number of Alzheimer’s cases will increase. “After the age of 60, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s goes up,” Dr. Hofman said, and by the time we reach the age of 90, the chances are one in two of developing the disease.

The impact of Alzheimer’s disease is especially acute in countries like China and India, countries with a booming population that see a rapid increase in the proportion of elderly. Many of these countries are not prepared for the rise in the number of Alzheimer’s patients. “That’s why we call it the other pandemic,” he said.

15 million fewer cases

The reasons behind the increased likelihood for Alzheimer’s as we age remains a mystery. This is not solely a consequence of aging, Dr. Hofman believes, but an accumulation of risk factors.

In studying the causes for Alzheimer’s and dementia, Dr. Hofman gained crucial insights from large population-based cohort studies for age-related diseases, or studies that follow the same people over a period of time. He is the initiator of several large-population cohort studies like the Rotterdam Cohort study, which today includes 20,000 people and focuses on risk factors for cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s. In the data provided by the Rotterdam study, researchers saw a curious trend over the last three decades: a decline in the number of new patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Hofman followed up these findings by starting the Alzheimer’s Cohorts Consortium at Harvard in 2020, which combined the data of seven long-term cohort studies and involved 49,202 people from the US, Netherlands and other European countries. When researchers compared the data from these combined cases, they saw a decline in the number of new Alzheimer’s cases of between 10 percent and 15 percent per decade over the past 30 years.

They also discovered that the risk for men and women to develop Alzheimer’s is the same. “There are more women who have Alzheimer’s disease than men,” Dr. Hofman said, “but that is because women live longer.” In other words, while an aging population leads to more people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s overall, the risk of new cases is declining and if this declining trend continues, researchers estimate 15 million fewer cases in the US and Europe by 2040.

Population cohort studies are a valuable knowledge resource for epidemiology and medicine in general, but there are not that many in the world, Dr. Hofman said. It is easier in the Netherlands, and other European countries to follow people in a cohort study, he said, because the national governments maintain population registrations, including where people live.

Adopt a healthy lifestyle, now!

Scientists do not have a firm answer for the decline in new Alzheimer’s diagnoses. Dr. Hofman believes that non-genetic factors and in particular cardiovascular factors play a big role in Alzheimer’s disease. The vascular system, our circulatory system, is made up of blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to other parts of the body. If the blood vessels are damaged, the lack of oxygen will cause the nerve cells to gradually die, leading to Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Hofman thinks a possible reason for the decline could be improved treatments of risk factors for heart disease and stroke since the 1970s and 1980s in Europe and the US, such as treating high blood pressure, lowering high cholesterol, no smoking and regular exercise. These preventive measures not only reduced the number of heart attacks and strokes, but also likely had a positive impact on the vascular system and brain health. The brain scans of patients who have been treated for blood pressure and cholesterol showed improvement over the years, Dr. Hofman said.

If the vascular risk factors play a major role in causing Alzheimer’s, adopting a healthier lifestyle can be a preventative measure that anyone can adopt.

Controversial drug

In teasing out the causes of Alzheimer’s, Dr. Hofman and his group are working on treatments that can lower or stabilize blood pressure, as large swings in blood pressure can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

And whereas Hofman and his group are focusing on preventative measures, the FDA recently approved the Alzheimer’s drug Aducanumab, the first treatment to attack the progression of the disease. The FDA’s approval created much consternation within the scientific community because of the controversies around the medication’s effectiveness and cost. Hofman belongs to this group of skeptics. “Perhaps, the positive side is that it will stimulate other companies to go on this path and strive to go on,” but he hopes that the European Medicines Agency will hold off on its approval and instead ask for more studies and clinical trials of the drug to provide complete evidence of the drug’s effectiveness.

Dinner with billionaires

Epidemiology is “the quantitative part of medicine,” Dr. Hofman said. It is this formalized way of studying the causes of a disease that fascinates him and which is why he chose to specialize in this field at the department of epidemiology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Harvard in Boston in the late 1970s.

After his fellowship at Harvard, he returned to the Netherlands and later became chair of the biggest epidemiology department in the country. He maintained a connection to Harvard, and taught a summer course at the university for 25 years. In 2016, he returned to Harvard and became chair of the Department of Epidemiology. What makes Harvard and the Boston area appealing to him is the attitude toward science, or as he describes it, “the can-do mentality” and the “sense of urgency.” What’s more, Boston’s academic ecosystem is concentrated: “The Boston area has close to 20 percent of all postdoc positions in the whole of the US.”

When comparing the US research system to the Dutch research system, Dr. Hofman, thinks the educational infrastructure for PhD students in the US could serve as a model for Europe. “It is more developed in coursework, in the qualifying exams and in the in-person training,” he said. It is an educational infrastructure that provides students the opportunity to excel and to grow outliers.

The way the US funds science differs from the Netherlands. The US government, particularly the National Institutes of Health, funds and focuses on the important issues in medicine, but the role of private funds, benefactors, and foundations in the United States is “virtually absent” in the Netherlands.

“The dean and the president of Harvard advise me occasionally to go to the West Coast and to have dinner with a couple of billionaires, which is very nice. And very smart. I’ve never done a thing like that in Europe in the 30 years that I was chair there.”

He sees an opportunity for universities in the Netherlands to adopt this way of fundraising: “Most wealthy people are willing to support major causes in society.  Although we spend a lot of time here on fundraising I find it a very nice part of the American system.”

Bio & CV

1951: Born in Hardenberg, the Netherlands

1976: Medical school, University of Groningen

1982: Second research fellowship, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston

1983: PhD, Erasmus University of Rotterdam

1990-2015: Science director, The Netherlands Institute for Health Sciences

1988-2016: Professor and Chair, Department of Epidemiology, Erasmus Medical Center

2016- present: Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health and Clinical Epidemiology, Harvard

2016-present: Chair, Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Nobel Prize laureate Guido Imbens, a Dutch-American professor of economics at Stanford University, talks about his work with colleagues to determine a way to measure the unmeasurable.

Image: ©Elena Zhukova

How can you measure the unmeasurable? That’s the question Guido Imbens and Joshua Angrist wanted to answer. And so they did, in a manner of speaking.

In 2021, the two college professors won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for their pioneering research on new methods of using econometrics and statistics to simulate policy experiments that might be unethical or too expensive to test in real life. Or, as the New York Times explained it, “They have developed research tools that help economists use real-life situations to test big theories, like how additional education affects earnings.”

The duo won the prize jointly with David Card, who used natural experiments to analyze the labor market.

We recently spoke with the Dutch-American Guido Imbens, a professor of economics at Stanford University, about his thoughts on economics, winning the Nobel Prize, and how he sees the research environment in the United States.

The idea for the research first came to Imbens and Angrist in a laundromat in the 1990s, when they were both assistant professors at Harvard University.

1. What happened when you won the Nobel Prize?

When I received a call from Sweden in the middle of the night, my three children got up and started to make breakfast for the Stanford people who came over to help with the media that showed up at my door. We have chickens at home, and my kids made scrambled eggs and pancakes for the media crew. It was a very proud parenting moment.

It feels great that the sort of work that I had done was being recognized, and I am thrilled to share the prize with two very good friends: (economist) Josh Angrist had been the best man at our wedding, and David Card is also a very close friend, we’ve known each other since the early ‘90s. Our work wasn’t always viewed very positively, and there was lots of pushback early on. All of us have gone through this whole journey together.

2. Who inspired you to do research in econometrics and statistics?

My older brother had decided to study mathematics. I was kind of leaning toward mathematics as well, but I was looking for something different: math that could be applied and have an impact on society. One day my high school economics teacher gave me this little econometrics book by Nobel laureate Jan Tinbergen, one of the founders of econometrics. It appealed to me. Tinbergen was an inspirational figure. He was doing lots of government advising, as well as great academic work. He had founded an economics program at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam in the ‘60s that looked very exciting to me, and so I decided to enroll in the program.

3. How would you describe your research interests in econometrics?

I’m interested in the causal effects of policy changes. For example, what is the effect on earnings of getting more education? What is the effect of early childhood intervention programs? What is the effect of military service on the labor market? These are areas where we can’t run experiments, because it would be too expensive, or it wouldn’t be ethical, so we need to come up with clever ways of teasing out these effects and use data to draw conclusions. My research is all about trying to figure out cases where we can credibly find causal effects that are of importance to policymakers. We exploit idiosyncrasies in the system to get at credible causal effects. For example rules about when children have to enter school, or how priority for various services is determined, or arbitrary cutoffs for being held back in school.

4. What are some interesting experiments that illustrate your methods?

One of my research projects was to see what would happen if you gave everybody some guaranteed income. Clearly, here you could not do an experiment giving a large number of people universal basic income for a number of years, as the long-term implications of that would be incredibly expensive. But what we did was look at the lottery, which was essentially doing that experiment for us by giving randomly selected people large sums of money over a long period of time. In that way it resembles a universal basic income  We found out that most of the people who won the lottery just kept working, may be just a couple of hours less. Looking at it this way gives you a credible way of understanding what the effect is of having unearned income, without doing an experiment.  

Another example of my research was to look at the effect of military service. Together with my Dutch colleague Wilbert van der Klaauw, we looked at the effect on future earnings of the military service in the Netherlands. In the late ‘70s, the military didn’t need quite as many people in the draft as they were getting given the size of the birth cohorts, so they decided that one birth year cohort was going to be completely exempt; the men born in 1959 did not have to do military service. These were not smarter or dumber or different from those born a year before or after, but we found they have slightly higher earnings than those born a year before or a year after. Our estimates suggest that the effect of serving in military service on yearly earnings was roughly equivalent to the cost of losing a year of work experience.

5. Could you give an example of a challenge in working with your students that you had to overcome?

Working with students is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. The transition from students just taking courses to actually doing research is always challenging, especially with coming up with new things and ideas. I talk to the students during that process, as it is very easy to get frustrated and lose hope. I’ve had the same feelings. When I was in graduate school, after my first year, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to continue doing research. I wasn’t sure I was going to be cut out for this and started applying to a job in banking in the US. They needed someone who had a master’s degree in economics and was fluent in Dutch and I thought I was perfect for that job. They didn’t even interview me! I figured that I’d stick with the PhD program. Research is challenging, and at times it is a very lonely thing. It’s great when it goes well, but it is never going to go well all the time.

6. How can people outside of academia learn from your research?

There are an enormous number of tech companies, especially in the Bay Area, doing experiments using data science these days. They are so close by that I can just ride my bike over there if I want to talk to people from these companies — Apple, Google, Facebook, and more — and a lot of the questions they are interested in are very similar to the questions outside of the tech world. I am currently doing work for Amazon and we developed a very novel way of designing experiments that is particularly relevant for these companies. I think it is incredibly stimulating and inspiring to talk to people at these tech companies and see how they think about these problems and what type of questions they’re working on. For example, they’re often not interested in what the effect of an intervention is  next month, but they want to know what the intervention will do two to three years from now. The econometric research I do can help answer that. But that does not just answer that question, it is also relevant for many problems in other areas. For example, I worked with Raj Chetty, professor of economics at Harvard, who’s very interested in the long-term impacts of childhood intervention programs, like the Head Start pre-K program in the US. We’ve done a lot of experiments where we look at the effects of test scores a one or two years later, but what we really want to find out is if programs like these help children 20 years or more later in life? It’s the the same problem that these tech companies were thinking about, and the solutions I developed work in both settings..

7. What is it that you like best in the US research system?

There are incredibly strong research places with researchers that are very inspiring and stimulating, like Harvard, MIT or Stanford. Having a group of really high-quality people to talk to continuously in the next office or in the hallway is very inspiring. In addition, the top universities here are very broad. They try to be good at everything. It is also less siloed than in the Netherlands, where if you would come into a program, such as economics or law, there are fewer opportunities to take courses in other areas. Here in the US students specialize later, and that has some disadvantages, but it does make it easier to connect with people from other departments.

For the work I do, it is really important to interact with computer scientists as well as with people in political science and in statistics. At Stanford, all these groups are nearby, so it is very easy to get in touch with them. My students take classes in computer science and statistics. Interdisciplinary research here is very well organized. When I was at Harvard, I had the statistics department next door, so I started talking to people there and  I  taught classes together with people from the statistics department. And the universities here are good at integrating people from other cultures, both first and second generation immigrants. When I look around here in my business school, there’s someone from Iran in the next office or someone from Belgium or someone from France. There are people from India. There are people from China. It’s very diverse, and that is partly because the school system in the US doesn’t specialize quite so early, so it is easier for non-native English speakers to do well.

8. Now that you’ve won the Nobel Prize, what is it still that you hope to achieve?

The prize is going to make all the things that I wanted to do before easier. I just love my research and working with students. I’ll probably shift a bit more to mentoring junior people and doing things for the profession and part of that is that I’ll be doing more in the Netherlands. I’ll be going to the Netherlands in July to give talks and I hope to contribute more to the tradition started by Jan Tinbergen helping the Dutch economic research move forward.

Bio & CV

1963: Born in Geldorp, the Netherlands

1982: Propadeutical Exam, econometrics, Erasmus University, Rotterdam

1983: Candidatum Exam, econometrics, Erasmus University, Rotterdam

1986: Master of Science, economics and econometrics (with distinction),  University of Hull, UK

1989: Master of Arts, economics, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

1990-1997: Assistant professor and associate professor, Harvard University

1997-2001: Professor at the University of California at Los Angeles

2002-2006: Professor, departments of Economics, and Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California at Berkeley

2006-2012: Professor of economics, Harvard University

2012-present: Professor of economics, Graduate School of Business and Department of Economics, Stanford University

Dutch scientist Bert de Jong, who leads Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Computational Chemistry, Materials, and Climate Group, talks about the prospects of quantum technology for developing better car batteries, biochemical research, and optimizing distribution networks.

Image: ©Bert de Jong

In its latest issue, the renowned MIT Technology Review featured a Dutch research team’s quantum technology as No. 1 breakthrough technology in 2020. Indeed, quantum technology is no longer an abstract field of fundamental science, it says. Driven by significant progress over the last couple of years, combined with major supporters across the tech industry, some meaningful applications are emerging. While the Netherlands has a world-famous quantum research cluster, so has the United States. Both countries recently launched ambitious policies to bolster quantum research and step up international collaboration.

Dutch scientist Bert de Jong, who leads Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Computational Chemistry, Materials, and Climate Group, sat down with us to discuss the prospects of quantum technology for developing better car batteries, biochemical research, and optimizing distribution networks, while considering the influence of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories and how they drive scientific discovery in his field of research.

“Someday we will run a desalination plant here in California completely with renewable energy,” says Bert de Jong. Though he works on molecular science, he always keeps a close watch on what his discoveries will ultimately help to achieve. “I work on exascale computing, machine learning, and quantum. Each of these fields can deliver meaningful breakthroughs.” With COVID-19 on everybody’s mind, people increasingly acknowledge the impact of high-performance computing for fields, such as genomic research and biochemical modeling. “It is secondary which technology pathway will lead to solutions. For me it is important to keep an open mind.”

This attitude reflects the way Berkeley Lab approaches its role in the academic community. “We sit between fundamental academic science and applied research teams within industry. I would say that we are de facto academia on steroids.” He enjoys the freedom at the lab that allows him to work on a broad range of issues, unconstrained by faculty commitments. “The UC Berkeley campus and the lab are connected in many ways, (UC Berkeley’s campus is just a 10-minute walk down the hill from the main Berkeley Lab campus), and we have many joint projects where we work extensively with the talented students on campus.”

The (near) future of quantum

Working with his quantum algorithms team, QAT4Chem, he looks into novel ways to develop chemistry simulations. For Bert, chemistry is one of the first frontiers for impactful quantum technologies. “You see early adoption in a number of industries, many of which are chemistry related, such as pharmaceutical, medical, oil and gas, and energy. “Today, my team works on simulating biochemical systems that can play a role in developing faster drug discovery pipelines and may revolutionize the way we deal with pandemics in the future,” he says. “But it is important for industry leaders to invest now. The first to develop a car battery with 500+ miles capacity will be way ahead of everybody else.”

Other applications he predicts will soon come from sectors where micro-second decision-making is important, such as financial trading or the electric grid. He expects quantum software to see dramatic changes to services even making real-time traffic recommendations for busses, delivery vans, or taxis, among many other innovations on the horizon.

Bert de Jong is also running a new five-year multi-laboratory and university program called AIDE-QC, focused on the development of an open-source software development environment. “Quantum is still a nascent field, and reliable hardware is another five to 10 years away, though early hardware is in use. We can currently do limited chemistry and optimization problems, but mainly we are learning how to perform quantum simulations using real hardware.”

Urgent need for talent

Looking ahead, he points out that there is a scarcity of talent in the field of quantum technology because undergraduate programs in quantum are just now being established and countries have responded differently to the need. “It will be interesting to see what kind of multidisciplinary graduate programs come out of faculties that are far away from the Bay Area. China produces more talent in this field than all other countries combined,” he says. “There is an urgency to invest in talent now. Academia competes with industry for talent in the quantum computing space. In Silicon Valley, corporations hire engineers straight from university and offer much higher salaries than a university can afford. They even hire from campuses before students get their degree.” For academia and for Berkeley Lab, this is a dilemma. They just can’t compete. “With quantum technology trending, Berkeley Lab is fortunate to be able to make somewhat competitive offers.”

To demonstrate how quantum technology is booming, Bert de Jong explains that investment in quantum is not driven by a clear pathway to financial return. “Venture capital is very generous, and they are not expecting profits as soon as they would in other sectors.” Put differently, investors and big tech are hedging their bets, investing in top talent and waiting for future profit. Why are they doing this? For him, this is straightforward, “Invest today, or you will be too late when quantum becomes viable for business.”

Transatlantic opportunities

Even though he has been in the US for more than 20 years, he still works closely with research groups in the Netherlands on specific projects. Given its excellent reputation in quantum science, the Netherlands could do a lot more with the National Laboratories and universities in the US.

Bert de Jong recommends establishing more programs facilitating educational and scientific exchange across the Atlantic. “Since inner-European exchange programs are so much easier to finance, it is often difficult to get European universities to connect to the US – and this is true for all fields, not just for quantum computing. We need to generate as much talent as we can as quickly as possible. Not only in multiple institutions, but around the world. Programs could be established to fund workshops and research exchange for postdocs, graduate, and undergraduate students. I would welcome having more Dutch students participating in my research.” In his view, European students could benefit from having a temporary assignment in the US. “I do admire the educational system in the Netherlands. It’s way more solid and students are much better trained than in a considerable number of universities in the US. But this is primarily the case for baseline undergraduate education. When it comes to breeding excellence beyond that, the US system is far more effective.”

There is a premium for going beyond the norm. This is what compelled him to come and work in the US in the first place. After he finished his PhD in Groningen, he started his postdoc in Washington State at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), working in heavy-element research driven by needs to clean up the Hanford nuclear site. He ended up staying at PNNL for 14 years, eventually leading the team that developed the widely used NWChem computational chemistry code. When Berkeley Lab offered the opportunity to further his research and work on a more diverse research portfolio, he moved to the Bay Area.

Would he consider going back to the Netherlands? “I enjoy coming back to visit family and teach summer school, which I did last year,” says Bert de Jong, but for now he likes having feet planted in both continents.

Bio & CV

Born: Assen, Drenthe, the Netherlands

1987-1990: Bachelor’s in chemical engineering, Technical College of Leeuwarden, the Netherlands

1990-1993: Master’s in chemistry, University of Groningen

1993-1998: Doctorate in theoretical chemistry, University of Groningen

1998-2000: Postdoctoral fellow, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

2000-2014: Chief Scientist, Lead of High-Performance Software Development Group, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

2014-present: Senior Scientist, Lead of Computational Chemistry, Materials, and Climate Group; Team Director AIDE-QC DOE ASCR Accelerated Research in Quantum Computing; Director of QAT4Chem DOE ASCR Quantum Algorithms Team


 How do institutions and laws work in different countries? They revolve around a set of ideas and at the same time provide a social space where people work and come together.

Image: ©Jan Sluijter

We spoke with Sarah-Jane Koulen, Assistant Professor of Peace, Justice, and Human Rights at Haverford College, about these concepts and the importance of looking beyond borders and appreciating different perspectives.

Koulen was born in the US, grew up in the Netherlands, and returned to the US to earn her Ph.D. at Princeton University. She serves as a board member to the newly established Dutch Network for Academics in the US (DNA-US).

1. Can you provide a brief overview of your research interests?

My research background is in international law and cultural anthropology, with a focus on international criminal law. The focus lies on the kinds of norms and values that underlie international legal agreements, what agreements are made, what types of conduct are considered international crimes, and how do we cooperate in the field of justice.

My dissertation was a close description of how international lawyers set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) and dived into questions around what it means to work at the ICC and belong to a group of mobile, highly-educated lawyers developing a new field of international legal practice.  

Currently, I am working on a project focusing on the intersections between asylum law and international criminal law and how states seek to regulate that. This is quite an interesting discussion in various countries, including the US and the Netherlands.

In the state I currently live, Pennsylvania, there is a large diaspora of Liberians who emigrated here during the Liberian Civil War in the early 1990s and have been here for 30 years. Recently, there have been several immigration fraud cases brought against Liberian American men accused of having lied about their past and possible involvement with armed conflict and war crimes in their application for asylum.

These trials are ongoing, and the questions I am interested in researching further are around who gets to be a US citizen and what the remedy is when asylum laws are violated. Will the men be deported? Can they serve their sentences in the US? What will happen to their families, as they have been building a life in the US for 30 years? And why are these cases being pursued now, 30 years later?

2. What sparked your interest in cultural anthropology and criminal law?

Traveling has been a big part of my life, as I was born here and grew up in the Netherlands, New York City and Trinidad & Tobago. I have always been interested in how things work in different countries. And for me, justice is something you feel. It involves questions of equity, access, and what the state provides. My interest lies with the lives people live in relation to the legal system, and the laws that are in place.

3. What could the Netherlands and US learn from each other in these related research fields?

The Netherlands and the US have strong similarities, but also strong differences. An interesting angle to foster a dialogue around is how social security works, and how people see the role of the state.

In the US, many believe in the idea of freedom and opportunity, which isn’t an exact match with how things are in the Netherlands. For me personally, it meant, at the time, that doing my research here in an interdisciplinary way is easier than in the Netherlands as it is easier to combine different academic disciplines.

Additionally, discussions on tempering the free market and thinking about access and equity are topics that would benefit from international collaboration. For me, the awareness that, as a country, you are not the only one dealing with an issue is important. Other countries deal with similar issues, and there is no one answer but different solutions exist. Looking beyond borders is essential.

4. What is a project you worked on that you are proud of?

In the past I organized a summer school for American university students to travel to The Hague and attend trials of the ICC. For them to learn that these are public hearings, and that you have access to that as a citizen of the world, was very rewarding.

Recently, I traveled with colleagues from different institutes to Rwanda. In cooperation with the University of Kigali, we discussed their views on international law and responses to justice after mass atrocity. It was very interesting to learn more about the current climate and Rwandan context and to improve understanding among each other.

5. How can innovation within education and research help support your work?

As a social scientist, it is not always clear what the concrete impact of my work is. For example, I am not creating a cure for cancer. Having said that, I think the interdisciplinary conversations in the field of anthropology have raised awareness in the global north about the importance of study our own processes.

Anthropologists have traditionally focused on understanding social practices ‘somewhere else’, but more contemporary research focuses on studying our own institutions.

The 2008 financial crisis is a good example of this. Anthropologists looked into the existing banking culture, and the attitudes towards risk and financial product development. See Karen Ho’s 2009 book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street.

6. What can you take from the cultural anthropology field to other disciplines?

There is a saying within our field: anthropology seeks to make familiar things strange and the strange familiar. It is about covering and reflecting on the unspoken norms. It helps to shed light on aspects of your work.

For example, the other day I was teaching a biology class and we talked about human cells, and the use of these cells for scientific research. We discussed the ethical questions: What does it mean to use human cells? What is the culture in a lab that shapes how scientists engage with the social, ethical side of using human tissue samples?  What does informed consent look like, and is access to the benefits of scientific advancement (e.g, Covid vaccines) equitable? I believe these interdisciplinary conversation are extremely valuable.

7. How does your cross-cultural background affect your work?

For me it comes back to the idea of perspectives. When you grow up you become accustomed to things, but that is not the only way of doing things. It comes down to the value of each person’s experiences, and to be open to understanding that your perspective is not the sole perspective.

In the last 10 years, the quality of political debate and civic discourse has changed. There is greater polarization between political groups in both the US and the Netherlands. There are important challenges around access to information, the difference between a free exchange of ideas and hate speech and increasing partisanship rather than collaboration.

8. Last, but not least, what would be your advice to prospective students in your field?

Just try and give things a chance! Talk to as many people as you can. Ask questions. Submit that application and see what might happen.

Bio & CV

1985: Born in Manhattan, New York City

2007: Bachelor of Arts, Social Sciences, University College Roosevelt, Middelburg, the Netherlands

2009: Master of Laws, Human Rights, Conflict & Justice, School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS School of Law, London, United Kingdom

2011: Master of Arts, International Development, Radboud University, Centre for International Development Issues (CIDIN), Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

2016: Master of Arts, Cultural Anthropology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

2018-2021: Commissioner, Dutch National UNESCO Commission (Appointed by the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science)

2023: Ph.D. Cultural Anthropology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, USA (expected defense January 2023)



Dutch cell biologist Dr. Titia de Lange of The Rockefeller University in New York City is one of the world’s leading experts on telomeres and is working to solve the puzzle of the role they play in the early stages of cancer.

Image: ©Titia de Lange

Dutch cell biologist Dr. Titia de Lange is one of the world’s leading experts on telomeres.

Her honors are many and include some of the most prestigious science awards, such as the Canada Gairdner International Award, the Dr. H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. The latter, the largest award in the sciences, (created by entrepreneurs including the founders of Google and Facebook) is given to scientists “who think big, take risks, and have made a significant impact on our lives.”

Born in the Netherlands, Dr. de Lange has been working in the United States for more than 30 years. She conducts groundbreaking research at The Rockefeller University in New York City, where she heads the Anderson Center for Cancer Research.

But what made a top Dutch scientist stay in the US? And what are telomeres?

Mysterious telomeres

Dr. de Lange learned of telomeres in the early 1980s when she was a biochemistry graduate student at the Netherlands Cancer Institute studying under Dr. Piet Borst, who later became the institute’s director.

There was little research on telomeres at the time, even though scientists assumed that telomeres were important protectors of the end of chromosomes, which carry genetic information. She became so fascinated that researching telomeres became her life’s work.

Human cells can detect and repair broken DNA in chromosomes, keeping chromosomes intact. The end of chromosomes resemble broken DNA, but cells do not start repairing them.

How do cells know that the end of chromosomes do not need to be repaired? Dr. de Lange decided to research the answer to this question, which she calls the “end-protection problem.”

Over the course of decades of research, she and her team discovered how telomeres hide the chromosome ends so they no longer look like DNA breaks. She also discovered that if telomeres do this job incorrectly and cells try to repair the end of chromosomes, they damage the chromosomes, potentially leading to cancer.

Dr. de Lange’s research has opened the door to understanding how telomeres work, and she continues to unravel what goes wrong when the protection of telomeres is lost, especially in the early stages of cancer.

Role models

When Dr. de Lange completed her doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Amsterdam at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in 1985, she went to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to work in the lab of Dr. Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel Prize in 1989 and later became the director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

“UCSF was the place to be for talented molecular biologists at that time,” Dr. de Lange said. “There were many small labs, and there was a vibrant atmosphere of frequent new findings.”

She initially planned to return to Amsterdam after completing her post-doctoral research at UCSF. However, she was inspired by the role of women in science at UCSF, which motivated her to stay in the United States.

“When I was a graduate student in the Netherlands, I knew there were very few women in the sciences, but it did not seem to be an important issue to me at that time,” Dr. de Lange said. “Only when I came to UCSF and saw women running their own labs and women being invited to be seminar speakers did I realize that women could have faculty positions and be successful, fun, and happy. This really impacted me. Young women need to see women in leadership positions.”

Dr. de Lange said she remains hopeful for the changing role of women in science in the Netherlands, where one in five professors is a woman. Changes in the workforce will occur as younger generations of women enter the sciences.

“It will take a whole generation to turn this around and get more women in leadership positions,” she said. She feels that these women will then serve as role models to other female scientists looking to take on leadership roles.

“Dutch science has a long way to go if they want to catch up with the US in terms of gender balance in science. That said, US institutions are not there yet either,” Dr. de Lange said. “Many institutions here are doing a lot of soul searching to figure out how they can support women in science better.”

A continuing quest

After researching telomeres for more than 30 years, Dr. de Lange shows no signs of slowing down. At 63, she remains passionate when she speaks about telomeres and is more inspired than ever to solve the puzzle of telomeres.

“We figured out what telomeres are and how they work, but don’t understand them fully,” she said. “There is still so much more to discover. I want to understand the exact structure of telomeres. What is the exact role of telomeres in early stages of cancer? Thirty years later, I still have the same question. How does it work?”

Bio & CV

1955: Born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

1981: Master’s in biology, Highest Honors, University of Amsterdam 

1981-1985: PhD in biochemistry, Cum Laude, University of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Cancer Institute

1985-1990: Postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Harold Varmus, University of California San Francisco

1990-present: Director of the Anderson Center for Cancer Research, Leon Hess Professor, and head of Laboratory Cell Biology and Genetics, Rockefeller University

Dutch bio ethicist bridges the humanities and sciences
Dutch philosopher and ethicist Jeantine Lunshof, Ph.D. has spent her career connecting the humanities and sciences.

Image: ©Aram Boghosian for STAT

Today, Lunshof works at the Harvard Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and as a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. With a fascinating background that blends philosophy and medicine, she would gently challenge the label of “bioethicist.”

“It’s too specific,” she explained with a laugh.

To date, Lunshof has worked on many of our time’s pressing bioengineering ethical concerns, from CRISPR to Xenobots to organoids. At the Wyss Institute, surrounded by scientists and engineers, Lunshof will often be the only humanities person in the room.

This is a role she’s happy to be in – exploring the impact of scientific research and its translation into real-world applications. “The humanities and sciences are not really two separate worlds,” Lunshof elaborated. “On the outer ends, they are separate, but there is always a point of convergence where they meet, an essential common point of reference.”

This is a role she’s happy to be in – exploring the impact of scientific research and its translation into real-world applications. “The humanities and sciences are not really two separate worlds,” Lunshof elaborated. “On the outer ends, they are separate, but there is always a point of convergence where they meet, an essential common point of reference.”

Image: ©Dukker, G.J. – Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (Ref. Beeldbank: 20097780-CC-by-SA3.0) The youth library branch in Haarlem Noord. In the 1960s, the 2nd floor was the location of the "forbidden book shelves," where the library shelves were divided into books appropriate for girls and books appropriate for boys.

Growing up, Lunshof’s interest in the intersection of the humanities and sciences became obvious by her choice in heroes: Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova and Polish-French physicist Marie Curie.

A voracious bookworm from an early age, Lunshof frequented her local library in Haarlem, where she found herself drawn to books about famous scientists. There was only one problem. In the 1960s, the library shelves were divided into books appropriate for girls and books appropriate for boys. The books about famous scientists, like Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Marie Curie, were on the shelves meant for boys. This did not deter her in the slightest.

“Every day after school, I went to the library and would watch for the librarian around the corner,” she recalled. “Then I would go to the bookcase and hope that nobody borrowed the book. If it was there, I would read the book quickly standing in front of the shelves for as long as I could and then come back the next day to continue or start another book I wasn’t allowed to borrow.”

Out of all the scientists Lunshof read about, she loved the book about Marie Curie the most, citing Curie as a hero and influence in her life, because she could relate to Curie’s motivation and drive to succeed in a man’s world.

Many years later, in 2013, her life had a full-circle moment when she was awarded a Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship by the European Commission, allowing her to move to Boston and continue her work in George Church’s lab on the Personal Genome Project.

Philosophy and bioinspired engineering

What, why, and how? These are three basic philosophical questions that Lunshof has striven to answer scientifically over the course of her career. Since arriving in Boston, Lunshof has conducted research in philosophical ethics in genomic sciences and biological engineering. This is where she feels at home at the Wyss Institute.

“At the Wyss Institute, research covers much more than genomics and synthetic biology,” she said. Bioinspired engineering and the Wyss mission resonated with Lunshof and her own mission to bridge the humanities and sciences. She emphasized the differences between biotechnology and bioinspired engineering and their applications by giving the example of the exosuit project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

This suit, while originally intended for soldiers to walk longer distances, keep fatigue away, and minimize risk of injury when carrying heavy loads, is being used at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston and elsewhere for the rehabilitation of paralysis patients.

“This is what appeals to me,” Lunshof explained. “Being inspired by nature is what bridges the sciences and humanities because what is in the middle of that are these ideas. What’s the concept for these applications? Where did you find the idea? That is the moment you’re talking about philosophy.”

At the Church lab and later at the Wyss Institute, Lunshof established the practice of Collaborative Ethics, where the ethicist works in the lab, side by side with scientists. This close working partnership between scientists and ethicist encourages familiarity and transparency and builds mutual trust. She facilitates further collaboration by hosting open office hours.

“I announce every Friday that I’ll be sitting in a common area. Sometimes no one comes, but sometimes I’m there for three hours talking to scientists about their projects.”

The Wyss Institute employs the Innovation Funnel as a model of technology translation. The funnel maps technology development from idea conception through commercialization. Lunshof employs Collaborative Ethics with the funnel in a dynamic way and at every stage. Her role, she says, shifts slightly with every stage.

During idea conception, her role is in conceptual analysis, which is philosophical work. During technology validation, her role is normative analysis: after conceptual analysis, one must ask if any ethical questions have surfaced. During technology optimization, her role is applied ethics: what is the ethical consideration when the technology will be applied? With commercialization, her role is minimal. “You need patent lawyers and regulatory scientists, not an ethicist.”

Lunshof used this model and applied it when working on Michael Levin’s Xenobots, the world’s first self-replicating living robots. Xenobots are biologically inspired, derived from frog embryo cells that are assembled in a pattern by artificial intelligence. When approaching this problem, the first thing you have to do is answer the philosophical question of what it is. After clarifying the concept, you can then move on to answering questions, such as “Is this something to which ethics will apply?”

“Conceptually, it’s certainly not a frog, but is it an animal? Is it an organism, according to our existing criteria?” In-depth conversations with the scientists all agreed that at least this is an entirely new life form, raising entirely new questions. Such joint explorations are eye opening for all.

She was also frank about where her role as ethicist ends. “The role of ethics is limited when it comes to translation in the real world.” Her unique role, she explained, is at the early stage of the concepts and their potential ethical relevance, and that’s why Collaborative Ethics works well with the Wyss Innovation Funnel. She also sees it as one realization of her efforts to bridge the humanities and sciences.

One thing Lunshof is adamant about is her role in the lab and during discussions with scientists. “I’m not the ethics committee,” she insisted. “I’m working with the scientists, not above or below them. I sit in the same meetings, get the same information. I just ask different questions.”

The future of transatlantic collaborations

Beyond her research and work at the Wyss Institute, Lunshof is deeply involved with many working groups, including the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, the Vaccine Working Group that was created to support research, design, and development of vaccines against COVID-19; the Belfer Center’s Technology and Public Purpose Project; and the Boston Tech Hub Faculty Working Group. She is often the rare humanities person at the table.

“What do I know about virology or science policy?” Lunshof mused. By being at the table with people from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and more, Lunshof is learning more about virology and immunology with real-world ethical applications. It also gives her ideas about potential future transatlantic collaboration.

In terms of technology development, Lunshof finds the working groups extremely valuable and would be happy to use her interdisciplinary experience to not only be the bridge between the humanities and science, but also between the United States and the Netherlands.

The openness of American academic culture and how people interact with each was a positive surprise for Lunshof earlier in her career, and that openness is something she’d like to see applied in facilitating future connections.

According to Lunshof, it’s easier to collaborate with people from other disciplines in America because everyone is just an email away. “It would make sense to have more frequent exchanges,” she said. “I think that is really important to give mostly younger people, but also mature scientists, the opportunity to work in the US. Or also American scientists, to go to the Netherlands, for example, to be part of a project or to build connections and open up perspectives and horizons.”

Bio & CV

1954: Born in the Netherlands

1977: Bachelor's in philosopy, minor in Tibetan language and cultural studies, Hamburg University, Germany

1981: Registered nurse, St. Elisabeth Hospital, Haarlem, the Netherlands

1988: Master's in philosophy and health law, University of Amsterdam

2008: PhD at VU University Amsterdam

2013-2015: Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship

2015 to present: Assistant Professor at UMCG Universitair Medisch Centrum Groningen

2018-2019: MIT Media Lab

2019 to present: Wyss Institute 

Dutch astronomer Dr. Roeland van der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore has spent his career in the United States unraveling the secrets of the universe by measuring the movements of stars and galaxies.

Image: ©Roeland van der Marel

Roeland van der Marel takes measurements for a living, but everyday tools like tape measures, kitchen scales, and speedometers won’t suffice.

He needs more precise tools, such as NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory, because he measures the movements of stars and galaxies. And as a tenured astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Dr. Van der Marel has such tools at his disposal.

In fact, the tools he uses measure precisely enough to detect from Earth the speed at which hair grows on a person standing on the moon.

“That may be an odd example, but it illustrates how challenging this work really is,” Dr. Van der Marel said. “We can achieve such accuracies only by building and using some of the most technologically advanced tools ever conceived.”

Coming to America

Born in the Netherlands, Dr. Van der Marel arrived in the United States in 1994 as a recipient of a prestigious NASA-funded Hubble Fellowship. He had earned his master’s degrees in mathematics and astronomy, as well as a doctorate in astronomy, at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

To fulfill the fellowship, he spent three years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where Albert Einstein worked for the last decades of his life, and became a frequent user of the Hubble Space Telescope for research projects to study black holes and the movement of stars within galaxies.

He then accepted a position at the Space Telescope Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus in Baltimore, where he is a tenured astronomer. The institute is a nonprofit research organization that operates the Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2021 for NASA.

Dr. Van der Marel is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, and has written hundreds of papers in scientific journals, books and other publications that have been cited thousands of times. He splits his time between continuing his research on galaxies and black holes using space- and ground-based telescopes, leading the science operations for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, NASA’s next planned flagship observatory in space, and teaching the next generation of astronomers.

But what makes a top Dutch scientist stay in the US?

A collaborative field of study

Given its nature, astronomy is inherently international in part because of the cost of today’s state-of-the-art facilities, Dr. Van der Marel said.

In the earliest stages of astronomy, all people had to do was look up to the star-filled sky and take note of the celestial objects as they moved through the night. Then Dutchman Hans Lippershey applied for a patent for a refracting telescope in the early 17th century, sparking the imagination of Galileo Galilei. Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens would later improve the refracting telescope by inventing the Huygens eyepiece, which helped him discover the first of Saturn moons (Titan) and make the first sketch of the Orion Nebula.

Astronomy would never be the same.

“As time has passed, and you want to make progress in understanding the universe, astronomers have had to build bigger and bigger telescopes,” Dr. Van der Marel said. “Some of these are placed on remote mountain tops, while others are launched into space. The more technology advances, the larger the costs involved, and the more it becomes necessary for countries to collaborate. So astronomy is a very international endeavor, more so than many other sciences.”

It’s also highly specialized. The Netherlands has a strong international reputation in the field of astronomy, but also few universities with an astronomy department, he said. As a result, people who study astronomy in the Netherlands often leave and work elsewhere.

For example, Dr. Van der Marel’s doctoral thesis focused on black holes in the centers of galaxies, which required sharp observations, and some of the sharpest observations can be done through the Hubble Space Telescope.

Regardless of where Dr. Van der Marel works, he said he’s involved in many projects with groups of various sizes, from a dozen people to sometimes hundreds, spread out around the globe. Many include the European Space Agency, through which the Netherlands plays a significant role, which partners with NASA on various space telescopes.

“I’m sure I could be equally happy working elsewhere,” Dr. Van der Marel said. “But being where I am, I can use my training to advance humanity’s understanding of the universe and to help shape some of the most ambitious technological endeavors attempted by humanity. That’s all very satisfying.”

Measuring the motions of galaxies

Dr. Van der Marel said one of his specialties is understanding the motions of stars and galaxies with respect to each other. For example, he has spent the last decade measuring the movement of the Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s nearest neighbor.

Even though Andromeda is 2.5 million light-years away, he’s been able to measure its movement by using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gaia observatory, which the Netherlands supports through its contributions to the European Space Agency.

“It’s actually very hard to measure how things move in the sky because objects in the universe are very far apart, so even if something has a very big velocity, it shifts very little in the sky,” said Dr. Van der Marel.

Still, his team has developed the tools to measure such movements and has determined that Andromeda is heading straight for the Milky Way on a collision course.

“We’ve done sophisticated calculations of how this will unfold. In about 4 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy,” Dr. Van der Marel said. “Over a period of about another billion years, the galaxies will merge together to form an entirely new galaxy, thus completely transforming how the night sky may look to our descendants.”

An accessible field of study

“One difference between astronomy and other fields of science,” Dr. Van der Marel said, “is the degree at which non-scientists can relate to the topic in their everyday lives. Some scientists might find it difficult to talk about their work with people unfamiliar with the field because of the technical knowledge required, but that’s not the case with astronomy.”

Even though one of his main areas of expertise is black holes and the way space and time intertwine near them, Dr. Van der Marel said astronomy at its core asks the same questions today that people have been asking for millenia.

“Studying the universe is really studying the unknown, why we’re here, why we exist, whether life on Earth is unique, and the context of the world we live in,” said Dr. Van der Marel. “They’re all big-picture questions that are easy to relate to. Everyone can look up to the sky, see stars and the Milky Way, and ask the questions that I ask on a daily basis.”

Bio & CV

1967: Born in the Hague, the Netherlands

1990: Master’s degrees in math and astronomy, Leiden University, the Netherlands

1994: PhD in astronomy, Leiden University, the Netherlands

1994-1997: Hubble Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.

1997-present: astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.

Professor Ineke Haen Marshall focuses on questions of crime: what makes someone commit a crime, and what factors make someone more likely to become a delinquent?

Her current research focuses on the cross-national study of juvenile delinquency. As part of this, she is the chair of the steering committee of the International Self-Report Study of Delinquency, an international collaborative study of over 50 countries, and is the inaugural Editor-in-Chief of International Criminologythe official publication of the Division of International Criminology of the American Society of Criminology.

As a Dutch-American citizen who has worked in the US for more than two decades, Professor Haen Marshall has a unique perspective on how both countries approach criminology. She has earned degrees from Tilburg University, the College of William and Mary, and Bowling Green State University, and serves on the board to the European Society of Criminology and the Dutch Network of Academics in the US (DNA-US).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. How has your work helped to understand the nature of criminal offenses?

In the early part of my research career, I focused on what is called criminal career research, where you focus on individual offenders to understand whether it is possible to identify high-level offenders. This was tied to the idea of selective incapacitation, a US policy based on the idea that it is possible to predict the career of offenders, the onset of offending, the frequency and level of violence. When I was at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I worked with another young colleague on this for a pragmatic reason: we wanted to get good publications and tenure, and we used innovative grants to get there.

The two of us collected lots of criminal justice records and compared them to interviews with offenders. Through a self-report survey of about 2,000 offenders, we developed a life event calendar that allowed us to be specific about what they were doing prior to incarceration. We asked them many questions about the crimes they committed and about the facts recalled. We looked into the local life circumstances: Did they have a job? Were they married? Were they in the military? Were they on probation? We found that it is possible to link the intensity and level of offending over a criminal career to certain local life events. Our policy recommendations did not focus on selective incapacitation but instead on how to influence these life events.

2. What are some of the key results of the projects you’ve put together?

One thing interesting from my current big comparative project is that we have all these countries in the study: Pakistan, Cape Verde, Brazil, US, and Netherlands, and we find that the same variables are related to offending and victimization among young people in all the countries we looked at.  Factors like disorganized neighborhoods, time hanging out in public, low self-control, and physical punishments by parents result in higher violent offending across all countries. Of course, gender is also a variable, and in all countries there is a gender gap. The main thing I have learned about offending and young people is that in all these countries, the causes of these behaviors are comparable. To me, that is an amazing insight. In spite of the fact that data collection is naturally slightly different from place to place, we still get robust results.

3. What would you say to students who are interested in criminology?

I would say definitely to try your luck, including in the United States. There’s a number of ways to look at criminology. You can look at it in terms of practical job prospects, and these are quite good. I think that includes areas of criminology that are fairly new specializations, such as cybercrime, hate crime, and radicalization. The United States is a huge country with a different perspective, and size matters. It has a large number of excellent universities, with a number of spots to do research and lots of positive stuff going on, but at the same time the lack of a social safety net, high inequality, and the easy availability of guns seems to explain the differences between other Western countries.  This makes the US an excellent place to learn more about crime. I would also encourage students to look at organized professional networks, such as the American Society of Criminology and the European Society of Criminology. These networks are easy and open, and open towards helping younger people.

4. How did your international perspective shift how you view criminology?

In some way, because of my lived experiences as a criminology scholar with a foot on both continents, I always take a comparative and broader view of the field.  For instance, I’m the founding editor of a journal that just concluded its second year called International Criminology, which is affiliated with the American Society of Criminology. From an American perspective, what we try to do is give a voice to research and policy ideas that go beyond the US experience.  The field of criminology right now, compared to other sciences, is dominated by English language and American scholarship. Generally speaking, criminology as practiced and taught in the US is mostly focused on the US, and is not much invested in international and global issues. This is changing, though, since recent US students are getting more interested in the international perspective. One of my students just finished his doctoral thesis comparing procedural justice in 30 countries.

5. How would you compare Dutch and American criminology?

Once I continued my education in the United States, I couldn’t help but start thinking comparatively, and as a social scientist, context is everything. One thing that’s interesting is that Dutch - and maybe social scientists in Europe in general - are more likely to think comparatively, because there are so many countries with different languages and different cultures on the European continent (compared to the US where there is a shared language, government, and culture). We compare ourselves to the Belgians, the French and the Germans. But in the United States, in a way, they don’t need to look elsewhere, and they remain more inward-looking.  If I’m more critical, I would say what a lot of colleagues in the Netherlands like about mainstream American criminology is that it is data crunching, empirical, and to be honest there is not as much interest in theory development, or concern with human rights as in European criminology. I think that the Dutch criminology has tended to want to be more like American criminology.  It would be unfortunate if that means losing the unique strengths of Dutch criminology.

6. What is your view for students on how to craft empathy while looking at different lived experiences?

I think what is important is that students get to speak to someone who has had different experiences from them. Especially for Dutch students - you don’t want to come into the United States and say that everything is better back in the Netherlands. On the other hand, you can’t study criminology without looking at issues like inequality and racism. It would be important for students to realize that these circumstances exist in both countries, not only in the US. Crime is such a highly politicized topic which makes teaching it challenging.  Criminology is all about the root causes about crime, and students can become upset when confronted with the underlying structural causes, including the myth of the American Dream.

In addition, something that’s difficult to discuss in the class room in the US is the role of race. It’s the reality that basically, criminal behavior as well as the criminal justice system are shaped by systemic racism, and as a criminologist you know that and you have to talk about it. Race has to be an explicit part of what you teach, but it is a highly controversial and politicized topic which requires careful and emphatic discussion, but fortunately, you can draw from the insights of decades of social science research.  Crime is a negative topic, and discussion of its root causes requires an open mind and willingness to take serious the need to examine our own biases – true for both students as well as the professor.

Bio & CV

1950: Born in Tilburg, the Netherlands

1973: Master of Science, Sociology, Tilburg University, the Netherlands

1974: Master of Arts, Sociology, College of William and Mary, US

1977: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Sociology, Bowling Green State University, US

1977-1980: Assistant professor, Youngstown State University, US

1980-2006: Assistant, Associate and Professor, University of Nebraska at Omaha, US

2006-present: Professor of Sociology and Criminology, Northeastern University, US

Dutch experimental physicist Eric Mazur, Academic Dean of Applied Sciences and Engineering at Harvard University, a successful founder of several startups and an educational innovator who is changing traditional education around the world.

Image: ©Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS

Serendipity has played a key role in Professor Eric Mazur’s life, or at least in his career. That’s what the Dutch experimental physicist learned in his laser research and role as Academic Dean of Applied Sciences and Engineering at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Serendipity led to the invention of a new material that can absorb most visible and infrared light and ignited a teaching revolution that helps students to improve their problem solving skills. It has helped Professor Mazur become a successful founder of several startups and an educational innovator who is changing traditional education around the world.

Black silicon

“It was serendipity,” Professor Mazur said when he and his team discovered black silicon. They had been studying the interaction of ultrashort laser pulses with different materials for years and to spark new interest from his funders, Mazur promised to explore chemical reactions on semiconductor surfaces.

One such surface that his team experimented with was regular “gray” silicon. His graduate student placed a chip of the silicon in a vacuum chamber, filled it with sulfur hexafluoride gas, focused a high-intensity laser beam on the chip, and saw that the smooth surface turned into a black, light-absorbing forest of cones so tiny that 100 of them could fit inside a human hair.

They noticed that the spikes on the new material, which they dubbed “black silicon,” absorbed almost 98 percent of visible light – and even absorbed infrared light – a more potent quality than its source material.

As black silicon is an excellent light absorber, it could be used to absorb light in any application, Dr. Mazur explained. A leading example is solar cells, but “not the type of solar cells for your roof, but for applications where you need to get the maximum conversion of light into power, like a satellite.”

Black silicon is used in optical applications, such as detectors, sensors, and the night-vision cameras that Mazur’s first startup, SiOnyx, produces.

From the lab to Amazon.com

Professor Mazur only began considering commercializing his inventions when Harvard University’s Office of Technology Development asked him if he had any ideas that could be patented.

Harvard helps its researchers ensure their intellectual property is protected and managed, and it shares ownership of the royalties with the inventor and the lab. This prompted Mazur to consider ideas that could have an impact on society, had intellectual value, and needed to be protected. Black silicon fit the bill.

“Universities have two responsibilities: education and the advancement of knowledge,” he said. “I used to think that the currency of the advancement of knowledge was purely publications, and I think that’s certainly the mindset of most European universities. In the US, universities are branching out, not just into publications, but also into patents and they are trying to have an impact on society through intellectual property broadly defined. I think this is very healthy and it more strongly connects the university to society.”

Mazur co-founded SiOnyx in 2006 to commercialize black silicon. The company initially made night-vision cameras for the defense industry and expanded into the consumer market. But moving an idea from the lab to Amazon.com was not easy.

“One is the scientific discovery, the next is the engineering that’s required to turn the discovery into something reproducible and produce them so that they can be fabricated, and then comes the difficulty of raising the money to actually build the product,” he said.

Additionally, a board of directors that consisted mostly of investors without a scientific background who would sometimes steer the company in directions that the founders did not want to go. “For example, they pushed us very hard to get into solar applications, even though we knew that was not going to be an immediate product, and we wasted a lot of time.”

Maintaining control of his company was a valuable lesson Professor Mazur learned and applied in startups he later founded. SiOnyx managed successfully to launch a night-vision camera, but “it was a learning curve and a long and difficult road,” Mazur said. “I can understand why 90 percent of startups never make it and that many ideas die very early on in the commercialization process.”


Mazur’s work on ultrashort laser pulses continues to disrupt different fields, and his current research focuses on surgery inside a living cell. Human cells are protected by an outer membrane that is impermeable to most chemicals and materials.

“Otherwise, things would just go into the cell and destroy this very delicate mechanism that supports life,” Mazur said.

For years, researchers have been looking for ways to operate in cells and to get cargo into a cell, like implementing genetic material to remove genes that cause disease. Currently, there are a couple of techniques that could perform this kind of surgery, but not without problems.

Existing techniques, such as electroporation, use high voltage to open the cell’s membrane, but are rough, imprecise, and kill many cells in the process. Professor Mazur and his team showed that laser light can open pores in the membrane without destroying the cell or the cells that surround it, allowing precise surgery within a cell.

The challenge is to target enough cells to make a meaningful difference, but Mazur’s technique could help cure disease in the future.

Peer instruction

Mazur credits his family with developing his transformative style. They never hesitated to tackle any questions in childhood, not even awkward ones like “Why am I? or “What is the universe?”

His grandfather, a civil engineer, would give him things to tinker with, and when he was 10 he built his first transistor radio. “You don’t need to be a scientist, we’re all born curious. It’s sort of a sad fact that education beats it out of us.”

After his physics study in Leiden University, he took his father’s advice and went to Harvard to do a postdoc, where he worked with Nobel laureate physics Nicolaas Bloembergen. At Harvard he started a research group that studied the effects of ultrashort laser pulses on different materials and became a professor at Harvard.

When he started teaching physics to pre-medical students nearly four decades ago, he simply imitated his teachers in education via lecture. “For many years I went on thinking that I was a successful educator,” Mazur said. His students did well on their exams and he received high ratings from them in return.

After a number of years, he read an article by physicist David Hestenes that claimed students did not learn anything in their introductory physics course. Hestenes had tested students to see if they understood the concept of “force” and tested their knowledge with real-life examples. They scored badly, as they did not understand the principles behind the formulas. Mazur decided to give his Harvard students the same test, and to his dismay he found out that the majority did poorly.

“Students were able to solve textbook problems and pass exams, but if I asked some very basic word-based questions, they had no clue what I was asking,” he said.

He tried to explain one of the answers to the test, but after 10 minutes his students still looked puzzled. Mazur knew half of the students had given the right answer and in a moment of despair he asked, “Why don’t you discuss it with each other?”

Chaos broke out in class as 250 students discussed the problem with each other, but to his surprise the students who knew the right answer convinced the rest in just two minutes. He realized that the students who had recently learned the material knew where the difficulties were in understanding, whereas he, who had learned it a long time ago, forgot about the difficulties of a beginning learner. This serendipitous discovery changed the way he would teach forever.

He stopped lecturing and started teaching through questioning. He asks his students to read the textbook or his notes before class and in class he asks conceptual, open-ended questions on a relevant topic. After students commit to an answer, Mazur asks them to find a neighbor with a different perspective to convince the other of their answer.

“You see a lot of students as they’re talking have an ‘aha moment,’” Mazur said. “Once you have that aha moment, you know it for life, not just to pass the exam.” He then wraps up with an explanation and the cycle repeats.

Data from these interactive classes demonstrated that this learning method tripled the students’ gains in knowledge. The model also helps to close the knowledge gap between male and female science students in the US and Nordic European countries, where men tend to perform better than women in sciences, Mazur said. “When I lectured that gap just translated up, men gained, women gained, but the gap persisted. With peer instruction, I was able to double the gains, but the women disproportionately gained and the gap was eliminated at the end of the year.”

“Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual,” the book that Mazur published about his learning method, has inspired instructors all over the world. To Mazur’s surprise, Stanford University was one of the first to revise its introductory physics courses to peer instruction, whereas his own Harvard colleagues followed only later.

“It’s kind of ironic. You’re never a prophet in your own backyard,” Mazur said. “Many Dutch universities, such as the University of Groningen and the University of Amsterdam, have been active with this learning method. There’s been a huge transformation in the past 10 years, moving away from passive lecturing to more engaged learning.”

Bio & CV

1954: Born in Amsterdamm, the Netherlands

1972-1977: Master’s in physics and mathematics, Leiden University

1977-1981: PhD in experimental physics, Leiden University

1982-present: Harvard University, started as postdoctoral researcher working with Nobel laureate Nicolaas Bloembergen; today is Academic Dean of Applied Sciences and Engineering and Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics

2006-2015: co-founded several startups, including SiOnyx (2006), Learning Catalytics (2011), Perusall (2015)

Dutch molecular biologist Dr. Laura van ’t Veer of the University of California San Francisco is a pioneer in the field of personalized medicine and one of the world’s leading innovators in cancer diagnostics.

Image: ©Karen Shuster

Dutch molecular biologist Dr. Laura van ’t Veer is a pioneer in the field of personalized medicine and one of the world’s leading innovators in cancer diagnostics. She is the leader of the Breast Oncology Program and Director of Applied Genomics at the University of California San Francisco, and her work is having a major impact on the field, for which she has received many awards, including the European Inventor Award in 2015.

She was listed by 24/7 Wall Street as one of the 32 Amazing Women Inventors who have succeeded in fields dominated by men.

Dr. van ’t Veer is the inventor of MammaPrint, a gene-based test that predicts the chances of recurrence in early-stage breast cancer patients, sparing women who will derive little or no benefit from chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is often recommended after surgery to decrease the risk of cancer recurrence. Yet, the side effects of chemotherapy are harsh, and, as Dr. van ’t Veer’s work shows, it might not be needed for every patient. In fact, her studies show that 46 percent of patients with early stage breast cancer who are recommended chemotherapy can safely forego chemotherapy.

Instead of one treatment for all, Dr. van ’t Veer’s revolutionary work is paving the way to change treatment approaches to target a person’s specific tumor. Her goal is to increase each person’s chance of surviving breast cancer using this individualized approach.

Breast cancer: not one disease

DNA and genes have fascinated Dr. van ’t Veer since she was a high school student. She began studying biology at the University of Amsterdam in the late 1970s and worked as an undergraduate at the Netherlands Cancer Institute). There she became acquainted with research on DNA and cancer, which was an innovative new field in the early 1980s.

“From early on I was interested in understanding the gene mutations in breast cancer and how it could help to identify what kind of disease somebody has. Breast cancer is not one disease, but there are many different types,” Dr. van ’t Veer said.

She completed her Ph.D. at Leiden University in the Netherlands and then pursued postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Dr. van ’t Veer found Harvard intense and inspiring. At her first cancer meeting in Boston, she said she was surrounded by 500 experts from different disciplines.

“They were all interested in understanding the biology of cancer and using this knowledge to develop new drugs and to understand the diagnosis,” she said. “I had never experienced this. My experience at Harvard further defined what I was going to do.”

Ground-breaking discovery

Following her postdoctoral fellowship, Dr. van ’t Veer returned to Amsterdam, where she started working for the Netherlands Cancer Institute. She was the first molecular biologist to work in both the institute’s Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital and research department. She became head of molecular pathology and set up the molecular pathology diagnostics lab in the institute’s hospital. Leading a multidisciplinary team, she studied the risk of recurrence of breast cancer in women.

“If you understand the risk for recurrence in a patient, you can adjust the patient’s treatment,” she said.

To prevent recurrence after surgery, doctors have recommended chemotherapy for many breast cancer patients based on factors such as the age of the patient, the size of the tumor, and the number of lymph nodes and dividing cells.

“These factors give some indication, but are far from perfect,” Dr. van ’t Veer said. Some tumors look high-risk but in fact are not and the result is overtreatment.

Dr. van ’t Veer and her team took a different approach and looked at the breast tumor’s genes to see if the biology of the tumor could reveal if the cancer is aggressive.

By looking at the activity in the genes of the tumor, they discovered 70 cancer-specific genes which, if switched on, indicate a high risk for recurrence. If these genes are not switched on, the risk for recurrence is low.

Understanding the breast cancer tumor in this way allows for a more tailored approach to treatment.

“If the disease is aggressive with chance of early recurrence, you want to give all of the necessary therapy to prevent this. However, if the disease is very slow growing and the chance of recurrence is low, there is no need to give all of the drugs. Possibly you can even omit chemotherapy,” Dr. van ’t Veer said.

From research to market

Dr. van ’t Veer and her team developed their research finding into a robust diagnostic test to analyze the activity of the 70 genes in the breast cancer tissue and called it MammaPrint, the culmination of years of research and clinical studies.

The test’s validation came from a large clinical trial run by the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer. This trial involved nearly 7,000 women with early-stage breast cancer from nine countries and 100 hospitals.

Recognizing the potential for widespread impact for patients, she wanted to bring MammaPrint to market, so patients outside the Netherlands Cancer Institute’s hospital could benefit from it. For this she needed funding.

To pursue this funding, Dr. van ’t Veer and co-inventor Dr. René Bernards set up a company in 2003 called Agendia. Today, Agendia is a medium-sized company with more than 150 employees, based in Amsterdam and Irvine, California.

At Agendia’s laboratories, a sample of the patient’s tumor is analyzed using MammaPrint. The result shows if a patient is high risk or low risk and recommends who should receive chemotherapy and who can safely forego it.

Today MammaPrint is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, recommended in national and international clinical practice guidelines, and covered by Medicare and most private insurance companies.

Unique collaboration

For women who are identified by MammaPrint as high risk, standard chemotherapy is still an option. Yet, standard chemotherapy will only prevent recurrence in one out of five patients, and is thus not always effective.

“If somebody has a high risk for recurrence, you want to do better than 20 percent results. You want to bring it up to 100 percent,” Dr. van ’t Veer said. She is tackling this challenge in an innovative clinical breast cancer trial, I-SPY, at the University of California San Francisco.

Through I-SPY, Dr. van ’t Veer is testing new drugs for patients who have a high risk for early recurrence to study which drug or combination of drugs is most effective given the patient’s breast cancer type.

To access the thousands of new targeted drugs that are emerging, Dr. van ’t Veer joined forces with Dr. Laura Esserman, the principal investigator of the trial and breast surgeon at the University of California San Francisco, to set up a unique consortium of 10 pharmaceutical companies, 20 academic institutions, and six biotech companies.

“To fully understand when to use a specific drug for whom, requires a collaboration with all stakeholders,” Dr. van ’t Veer said. “Everybody has a piece of the knowledge. If we work together, it will go faster. It is this particular collaboration that made me decide to come to UCSF.”

Whereas standard chemotherapy in high-risk patients will only prevent recurrence 20 percent of the time, the I-SPY study has already demonstrated that matching new, emerging drugs to the biology of a patient’s cancer, in addition to standard chemotherapy, has a success rate of 40 percent, and for some tumors it is up to 60 percent.

These findings show that understanding the biology of a patient’s breast cancer can help healthcare providers and patients choose the most optimal treatment for the best results.

“You do not want to give a certain drug to a patient who does not respond to that specific drug,” Dr. van ’t Veer said. “Besides this, these treatments are often $50,000 or more, so also to reduces costs, you just want to give it to those patients who will have a response. We have come a long way.”

Bio & CV

1957: Born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

1976-1984: Bachelor and Master’s of Science, Molecular Biology, University of Amsterdam

1984-1989: PhD Oncology and Cancer Biology, Leiden University

1989-1991: Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard Medical School

1991-1993: Postdoctoral Fellow, The Netherlands Cancer Institute

1993-2010: Head Molecular Pathology, The Netherlands Cancer Institute

1994-2010: Head Clinical Genetic Counseling and DNA Diagnostics, The Netherlands Cancer Institute

2003: Co-founded Agendia

2003-2007: Chief Operating Officer, Agendia

2007-2010: Division Chair Diagnostic Oncology, The Netherlands Cancer Institute

2007-present: Chief Research Officer, Agendia

2010-present: Professor Laboratory Medicine and Director Applied Genomics Cancer Centre, University of California San Francisco