How students deal with corona

How students deal with corona

‘I felt really guilty towards my parents’

What does it feel like to have coronavirus? Two students explain how they dealt with Covid-19. ‘My friends made jokes about getting corona before I actually got it.’
By Sara Rommes and Sofia Strodt
24 September om 17:10 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 September 2020
om 17:08 uur.
September 24 at 17:10 PM.
Last modified on September 29, 2020
at 17:08 PM.

First Mira had a really bad headache. Then it worsened overnight. Then she measured her temperature. ‘It was 38.5 degrees, so I immediately thought: ‘This is corona.’  

Wasting no time, Mira called the GGD the next morning and was lucky to get an appointment straightaway. She did feel guilty, though, as she had to go outside to get to the test location. ‘During my bike ride I tried to avoid contact with anyone.’

The precautions were not an overkill. She tested positive. But she felt relieved. ‘I was happy that I hadn’t visited my parents, or my grandparents, or I hadn’t seen too many people recently.’

Parents

But not every student that tests positive is that lucky. Joyce, for example, had been staying with her parents when she learned she had corona, for which she tested at Schiphol airport after her vacation in Mexico. ‘I felt completely fine and didn’t have any symptoms back then’, the international business student says. 

Joyce’s parents had to get tested too. Fortunately, they didn’t contract the virus. Nevertheless, the three of them had to quarantine for ten days. ‘I felt really guilty towards my parents because I was stupid enough to just assume that nothing happened during my vacation’, she says.

Close to home 

Joyce was one of the first people in her friend group to catch corona. ‘Everyone was really shocked. They would always make jokes about getting corona before I actually got it’, she says.  Even though she was asymptomatic at first, she lost her sense of taste. Her lungs hurt too. ‘I smoke less now because it was quite painful in the beginning.’

Mira’s feelings of relief vanished when she started to feel sick. ‘I had a fever. I was really tired. I do feel like the virus has really weakened me.’

She was also worried because, suddenly, it felt very close to home. ‘I was thinking of the chances of corona making me really sick. What if I am that one young person that does have severe symptoms?’ 

Panick

When Mira texted her friends and housemates that she had tested positive, one of her housemates panicked a little, too. She thought she was positive as well. ‘Even though everyone responded supportive, I noticed there suddenly was this sense of uncertainty among all of us. Everyone could get it right now’. 

Together with her house, Mira worked on establishing new routines. ‘Luckily we have two bathrooms. From the moment I knew I had a fever, we made sure that I only used one bathroom, while all my roommates used the other one,’ she says.

Besides, they discussed what to do to make sure corona would not enter their house again. ‘We made a calculation. If the six of us would each have corona at a different time, it would mean that we would have to quarantine a total of 60 days together. That is two months. No one really wants that.’

Cautious

When Joyce was allowed to go outside again, her friends were hesitant to meet up with her at first. Joyce says her mindset did change after corona. ‘I still see my friends, but I think we should all try to be more cautious, especially to protect those who are more vulnerable.’

Mira also has a different perspective on corona, now that she has survived it herself. ‘I feel that students who actually want to comply with the rules, are often looked down upon. That really annoys me’, she says. ‘I think we should all realise that you are the one who causes other people to have to cancel everything. Other people cannot go to their job, internship or parents, because you did not comply with the rules.’

Why Fay should not go to parties

Op-ed

Why Fay should not go to parties

Students who claim the right to go to parties are dead wrong, says student of international relations Mathias Matzen. ‘Going to parties right now is like peeing your pants because it is cold – it might feel good in the moment, but it will only end up making everything worse.’
By Mathias Matzen
24 September om 16:35 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 30 September 2020
om 16:53 uur.
September 24 at 16:35 PM.
Last modified on September 30, 2020
at 16:53 PM.

Dear Fay,

On the 23rd of September, UKrant published an article in which you discuss why you still go to parties. You say you want your life back, that you personally are not at risk and that you’ve obeyed all the rules so far. You find it unfair that these rules interfere with your lifestyle. You’ve decided to break them and take your chances.

But dear Fay, going to parties because you want your life back is like peeing your pants because it is cold – it might feel good in the moment, but it will only end up making everything worse. When you go out to party, you are independently deciding to no longer follow the guidelines that are there to ensure the safety of everyone.

Six months

Let me first say that I also miss the life we had before this, but the only way we can get that life back is if you stop thinking of your own immediate desires and instead focus on what is best for everyone. For six long months you claim to have upheld the regulations, but now it’s enough. You want to party… TO LIVE!

But Fay, do you not see how wrong you are? You say you miss is your social life and going to university. You are sad that you have online classes, and even worse, you feel are being blamed for spreading the virus. Do you not see the irony here? You complain about being blamed for spreading the virus, while knowingly breaking the rules that are aimed at preventing you from doing so.

Whenever you go to a party, you put yourself at an increased risk of attracting the very virus you want to get rid of.

Regulations

You are angry that others do not seem to care about the regulations as you do. They bump into you in the street. Why are people blaming you, who is not at risk, while the ones in danger are the very same people breaking the rules? It sounds like you want everyone else to obey the rules just so you can break them.expecting everyone to uphold the regulations, so that you can break them.

Your article is a moral justification for why it is okay for you to go out and party. But Fay, while you yourself may not be at enhanced risk of the virus, others around you are. You might be okay to return to university when it reopens, even with the risk of being infected, but many others are not. You tell yourself that it is okay to break the rules because even if you do get sick, your symptoms won’t be that bad.

Fay, we have these regulations to safeguard those for whom getting infected would be a serious matter. You write that you don’t visit your grandmother; what about the grandmother who stands next you in a store when you don’t know you are contagious? What about the healthcare worker who has to call in sick because you infected them? Your whole moral justification is that they should be avoiding you because you might be contagious, when it should be that you should try and not get infected at all.

Punishment

You are afraid of the punishment for your actions. You don’t want to get fined for partying, which means you are aware that what you’re doing is wrong. And while you refuse to take responsibility for your own actions, you do feel the world is giving its responsibilities to you. You say that you will be ‘left to try and find jobs after this, pay tuition, solve the climate crisis’.

Do you believe you and your peers are the only ones who are affected? This crisis impacts so many others. Right now, your biggest concern seems to be that you cannot party. All the while, you continue to party. How much worse a situation would we be in right now if everyone acted like you?

I hope you can see how wrong your actions are, and I believe you and UKrant owe an apology to everyone who is affected by this crisis and all those who continue to follow the rules. When you write and publish these words with no disclaimer, you help condone, normalise, and encourage others to follow in your selfish, irresponsible footsteps.

Mathias Matzen is a student of international relations at the UG.

At UKrant: A platform for all voices

At UKrant: A platform for all voices

24 September om 14:16 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 September 2020
om 14:39 uur.
September 24 at 14:16 PM.
Last modified on September 24, 2020
at 14:39 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

24 September om 14:16 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 September 2020
om 14:39 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

September 24 at 14:16 PM.
Last modified on September 24, 2020
at 14:39 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

Every day, the editorial staff at the UKrant wonders: What are we writing about, why are we writing about it, and how are we writing about it? A look behind the scenes.

Two weeks ago, during a meeting with our student editors – where we obeyed all the corona rules and made a note of everyone who was there, just in case – we asked them: how is everything? How are your classes? What’s happening with you and your roommates?

One of the students told a story about how she attended a large party that ended with the police showing up. She said how difficult it was for her to enjoy life right now. Her arguments were well thought out and thorough.

The conversation took place before the corona outbreaks at the student associations in Groningen. However, the cities of Rotterdam and Utrecht had recently issued warnings about young people getting infected. Here, people were complaining about students having parties in the Schildersbuurt and the Korrewegbuurt.

Concerned

We were concerned. At the same time, we were wondering why these young people were so lackadaisical about following the corona rules.  Higher-ups had been asking students to take responsibility, but clearly to no avail. Students also appear to be unbothered by the accusation that they’re selfish and rude. Tens of thousands of people in the Netherlands – not just students, either – are looking for ways to meet up.

We asked our student if she wanted to write her story down. To explain how she felt. She would be giving a voice to the thousands of Groningen students who do what she did but are afraid to admit it. She agreed to do so.

The article she wrote made quite a splash.

Thousands of people read and shared it. People responded to it on our website and on social media. People were angry they had to read about this in our newsletter, accused UKrant of being irresponsible, and called our student editor hedonistic and selfish. Many people felt this article should never have been written.

Divergent

Nevertheless, the UKrant editors stand behind the decision to publish this article.

Does that mean we agree with everything our student editor wrote? Absolutely not. But we don’t have to. It’s our job as UKrant to report on what’s going on in the academic community in Groningen. It’s a sad world in which media only publish articles that everyone agrees with and bans anything divergent.

It’s a sad world in which media only publish articles that everyone agrees with

This week, we also published an article on what to do if you feel sick but you can’t get through to the GGD to get tested. Our advice: stay home! We also published appeals from student assessors and university president Jouke de Vries that asked students to take responsibility.

Contradictory

On Instagram, people commented that these actions were contradictory, but that’s not true. It’s how a medium like UKrant should operate. It allows for a critical discussion.

It should be pointed out that our student doesn’t write that she doesn’t care about the rules. She says she prefers to socialise with people she knows and stay away from strangers.

It may look like she’s the only one. People have been castigating her on the website and on social media. Please don’t forget, though, that she was brave enough to write down how she feels and to put her name on it, while thousands if not tens of thousands of other people in the city do the exact same things she does, just in secret. We are proud of her for that.

Preach

We can’t pretend this is not happening. It won’t do to ignore others’ actions while also calling all those students hedonistic, selfish, and irresponsible. Sure, we can preach at them and tell them what to do. But in return, all they do is nod like good little children and do whatever they want anyway. Just look at the continuous rise in infections.

So here’s something else we can do: we can listen to them.  We can engage them in a discussion and try to find some workable solutions.

Our student editor’s contribution this week serves as the starting shot for a relevant discussion. Let’s see who’s willing to have that discussion and remain civilised, critical, and respectful.

Christien Boomsma is acting editor in chief of UKrant

Scholarship PhDs would prefer regular employment contract

Scholarship PhDs would prefer regular employment contract

According to a survey among 225 scholarship PhDs organised by the PhD Network Netherlands, if scholarship PhDs had any say in it, they’d have a regular salary rather than receive a scholarship.
22 September om 20:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 September 2020
om 20:09 uur.
September 22 at 20:09 PM.
Last modified on September 22, 2020
at 20:09 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

22 September om 20:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 September 2020
om 20:09 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

September 22 at 20:09 PM.
Last modified on September 22, 2020
at 20:09 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

Of the 225 respondents, 74.4 percent say they’d rather have a regular employment contract. They applied for their position because it was the only one available, or because they couldn’t get hired as a regular PhD.

8.8 percent of the surveyed PhDs prefer their status as scholarship student.

Same work

The PNN isn’t surprised. ‘Scholarship PhDs make less money than employed PhDs and they earn no pension. Any supposed advantages like increased freedom in setting up their projects are not being fulfilled. It’s clear that scholarship PhDs are doing the exact same work as employed PhDs under worse employment conditions’, says PNN chair Lucille Mattijsen.

She would like the scholarship PhD experiment ended as soon as possible. ‘It’s become clear that the scholarship is preferred by the higher-ups. The PhDs don’t see the merit of it.’

But the PNN is satisfied with the ‘top-up’ grants for international PhDs. When a PhD starts at the UG with an external scholarship, the university supplements this to the level of a regular scholarship PhD.

Manifesto

The PNN’s findings correspond with the ongoing criticism levelled at the scholarship PhD experiment. Last year, the Groningen scholarship PhDs published a manifesto demanding the UG put a stop to the experiment. In it, they said they do the same work as their employed colleagues but are paid less. They also can’t claim any employee benefits.

This manifesto has since been signed nine hundred times. 236 of these signatures were from scholarship PhDs. In spite of the criticism, the UG decided to continue the experiment; they’ll have room to recruit 650 more scholarship PhDs over the next few years.

PNN: Scholarship PhDs don’t have much freedom after all

PNN: Scholarship PhDs don’t have much freedom after all

Scholarship PhDs do not have more freedom to design their project than regular PhD students do. They cannot exert much influence on how they write their research proposal, and don’t have a lot of input during their research.
14 September om 15:05 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 14 September 2020
om 15:05 uur.
September 14 at 15:05 PM.
Last modified on September 14, 2020
at 15:05 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

14 September om 15:05 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 14 September 2020
om 15:05 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

September 14 at 15:05 PM.
Last modified on September 14, 2020
at 15:05 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

The PhD Network Netherlands (PNN) says so in a new report based on a survey of more than four thousand PhDs in the Netherlands. One important factor that impacts the freedom of scholarship PhDs is where the money for their research comes from: whether it’s from the first flow of funds or from external financiers. The discipline is another deciding factor: people doing a PhD at the arts or law departments have a lot of freedom, while PhDs in the scientific fields do not.

Groningen Graduate Schools project manager Marjan Koopmans says scholarship PhDs’ increased freedom lies mainly in the themes of their research proposal. ‘It’s true there’s less of a difference in the actual implementation’, she says. ‘But scholarship PhDs can decide their own hours and go on vacation whenever they want.’

Representative

She also points out that the PNN survey isn’t representative. ‘All in all, 120 regular UG PhDs and sixty scholarship PhDs filled it out.’ She says the low number of respondents and the fact that the PNN used its own channels to disseminate the survey could have influenced the results.

The PNN also asked respondents about the quality of their supervision. Overall, PhDs are fairly happy with their everyday manager, who usually isn’t their promotion supervisor or co-supervisor. They give their managers a mean grade of 7.3. Many PhDs do feel like they’re being pressured, with 43 percent saying so. In 21 percent of these cases, PhDs feel their work stress is being trivialised.

Supervisors also tend to contact them at night and on weekends. 13 percent of respondents said they felt pressured to take on extra work. Supervisors also want to be credited as co-authors on papers when their contribution has been minimal.

Management

The PNN argues that everyday managers who are doing a good job should get the recognition they deserve. One way would be to give them the right to do a PhD, since currently only professors are allowed to do so. The PNN also proposes to set up independent procedures to allow PhDs to address problems.

Koopmans doesn’t think allowing managers to do a PhD will solve any of the issues. According to her, it’s easier for scholarship PhDs to switch managers, which the survey results show has its own issues. ‘I’ve had it happen a few times. It’s not something people do because they want to, since it’s a hassle, but they have a personal scholarship which makes it easier.’

Experiment

Finally, the PNN calls for an end to the Experiment Promotieonderwijs, also known as the ‘scholarship PhD experiment’. ‘The only advantage to this system was supposed to be the increased freedom PhDs had in their projects. But this advantage never materialised’, the PNN writes.

Joy was locked in quarantine

Spanish medical student Joy Adekanmi in the Covid house.

How a trip to Majorca ended in a nightmare

Joy was locked in quarantine

Spanish medical student Joy Adekanmi’s Majorca vacation came to a surreal end when health organisation GGD rushed her from the airport to a Covid quarantine house. Only after six days and contact with UKrant did she realise she was actually free to go.
By Yelena Kilina and Christien Boomsma
2 September om 11:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 September 2020
om 11:45 uur.
September 2 at 11:55 AM.
Last modified on September 7, 2020
at 11:45 AM.

When Joy (24) left for a summer holiday in Majorca, a little more than three weeks ago, the island was still safe. Travel advisory was yellow, so there was no reason not to go there and soak up the sun, before she’d start as a student assistant at the Green Office.

Then the travel advisory suddenly changed to orange due to rising Covid-19 infections. Returning travellers were highly recommended to self-quarantine for ten days.

Coming back to Groningen, Joy prepared to do just that in her student house. ‘I had thought that despite living with three housemates, wearing a mask and not using the shared kitchen would suffice.’

However, when she landed at Groningen airport Eelde in Drenthe, she was stopped by two people from public health service GGD. They asked about her living conditions. ‘I told them the truth, of course.’ Living in a student house turned out to be a red flag.

Self-isolate

‘They continued to ask whether I shared the facilities. Yes. Could I rent a studio to self-isolate? That was not an option. Then they told me I could not use any public transport either, or I wouldn’t be complying with the guidelines. When they told me I couldn’t go home and I had to come with them, I just followed.’

Joy felt that she had no other option than to comply. ‘As a black person, anytime I go to the airport, I am always profiled and questioned by the police – “Are you here on holiday? Where do you live? What do you study?” – such random checks are a part of my life here.’

When they told me I had to come with them, I just followed

Joy still can’t make sense of how it happened. In a rush, she was transported to Heerenveen. She was assigned a room and the doors were locked behind her.

She was so overwhelmed, she forgot to ask any questions about the procedure or about getting tested for Covid-19. ‘I just went along with it and got taken to Heerenveen in a special taxi. I guess I was still in shock.’

Covid-house

Heerenveen – which is approximately sixty kilometres away from both Eelde and Groningen – is home to a special Covid house where people can stay when they are unable to self-isolate. However, staying there is completely voluntary. Joy is not the only student in the Covid house. She knows a Spanish student who was supposed to start his studies in Groningen and move into a student house. ‘We are stuck here together.’

She can pick up prepared meals three times a day – ‘We get a lot of bread for breakfast and lunch’ – or order food online. There is a common area and even a garden, but Joy doesn’t go there. Residents are recommended not to interact with each other.

Voluntary

The spokesperson from the Safety Region Drenthe says it is standard procedure for public health officers to talk to people who arrive from ‘orange’ areas. People are given an information letter in English and Dutch about the coronavirus in the Netherlands and are advised to self-quarantine.

‘Then, they ask if there are people who don’t have a separate living space or if anyone needs to travel by public transportation. We talk to those people to find a solution. They are advised to call a cab, or use the quarantine location in Heerenveen’, she says.

But to Joy, it didn’t feel like ‘advice’ at all. She believed that she would only be allowed to leave on September 5, after she had isolated for ten days. Only after talking to UKrant did she ask the Covid house workers about the voluntary nature of her stay in Heerenveen.

‘I was just told that technically we can opt to leave… and that we are under voluntary quarantine. Even though they didn’t clarify that to me at the airport.’

Therapist

Her stay has been extremely stressful, she says. ‘I don’t have my freedom, I can’t do what I want, I don’t have what I need to feel at home.’ Last weekend, she suffered a pretty bad breakdown and even asked for a therapist.

In quarantine, Joy has watch parties with her friends. ‘It helps me to feel that I am not completely on my own.’ Her friends joke that she was kidnapped. ‘In my head this is still a dream. It’s unbelievable.’

I’ve been here for six days now. I might as well stay

She feels that the GGD workers at the airport communicated very poorly about the situation and her rights. Resident staff in the Covid house were friendly, but even they were unable to clarify the situation for her.

Leave

Had she known the whole thing was voluntary, she would not have agreed to go to the Covid house, she says. She would just have gone home and isolated there as much as possible. However, she’s not going to leave now. ‘I’ve been here for six days now. I might as well stay.’

The spokesperson says she can’t comment on individual situations. She emphasises that it’s hard for people in student houses to properly isolate. ‘That’s why we have the facility in Heerenveen.’

Four out of ten PhD students consider quitting

Intense work stress and mental issues

Four out of ten PhD students consider quitting

PhD students suffer from work stress and run the risk of mental problems and burnout. Nearly 40 percent of them consider quitting before their contract is up. It’s not just the Groningen scholarship PhDs who feel this way.

2 September om 11:03 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 September 2020
om 13:33 uur.
September 2 at 11:03 AM.
Last modified on September 7, 2020
at 13:33 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

2 September om 11:03 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 September 2020
om 13:33 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

September 2 at 11:03 AM.
Last modified on September 7, 2020
at 13:33 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

It’s no surprise that PhD students are having a tough time. But the results of a recent poll held by the PhD Network Netherlands (PNN) are still shocking. The PNN surveyed more than 1,600 PhD students at Dutch universities. 

47 percent run an increased risk of mental problems. International PhD students run an even greater risk, at 55 percent. Work stress is another issue, with 60 percent of PhDs saying it’s too high. They are also suffering from a constant risk of burnout: 39 percent are showing serious symptoms. 

On top of that, 41.6 percent of PhD say they’ve considered quitting. 6 percent even consider this regularly. PhD have doubts about academics in general as well as the circumstances of their work. Many also have issues with their supervisors. 

Corona

PNN president Lucille Mattijssen says the corona crisis has had an influence on how PhD students feel. The crisis started ten days after they started circulating their survey. ‘We asked the PhDs to not let corona influence their answers’, says Mattijssen. ‘But not all of them managed it.’

Nevertheless, the results are valid, she says. ‘This isn’t the first study to show that many PhDs are suffering from mental health issues and work stress. But this is the first one that shows the severity of the problem on a national level.’ 

Sobering

She says the report is ‘sobering’. The work stress is consistently high for all institutes and across all types of PhDs. ‘There are no discernible differences between men and women or between fields’, she says. There’s also no difference in the experiences of scholarship PhDs and employee PhDs. The only differences are between internationals and Dutch PhDs.

Mattijssen does not see this as a reason to retract her criticism of the scholarship PhD scheme. ‘We maintain that doing a PhD is a job and that people should have an employment contract’, she says. 

‘It’s now up to the universities, medical centres, and research institutes to improve their work environment. Otherwise, they’ll run the risk of PhD students leaving the academic world en masse.’

Physicists come up with portable detector for gravitational waves

Natuurkundige Steven Hoekstra: ‘Het is supermoeilijk en het zal zeker nog tientallen jaren duren.’ Foto Reyer Boxem

UG physicists come up with new idea:

A portable detector for gravitational waves

Groningen scientists have come up with a plan to create a gravitational-wave detector that’s four thousand times smaller than the current LIGO experiment.
7 July om 10:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 July 2020
om 10:29 uur.
July 7 at 10:29 AM.
Last modified on July 7, 2020
at 10:29 AM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

7 July om 10:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 July 2020
om 10:29 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

July 7 at 10:29 AM.
Last modified on July 7, 2020
at 10:29 AM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

It’s only been five years since the LIGO detectors measured the very first gravitational waves, an achievement that resulted in a Nobel Prize for its creators. Gravitational waves, ripples in spacetime that travel across the universe like waves in a pond, enable us to measure things in the universe that we were never able to measure before. It’s a new set of ‘eyes and ears’, so to speak.

The current detectors, however, are four kilometres long. They need to be this long because they measure gravitational waves by firing two laser beams at mirrors located in the arms of the detectors. Whenever a gravitational wave is passing by, one laser takes just a little longer to reach its target than the other one does.

Portable

Groningen scientists Steven Hoekstra and Anupam Mazumdar and their colleagues at the British University College of London say there’s a different way. In an article that will soon be published in the New Journal of Physics, they propose a ‘portable’ detector.

This kind of detector would be capable of measuring much lower frequencies than the current detectors’, says Hoekstra. ‘It’s much more sensitive to them. It would also allow us to set up a whole network of detectors, since it’s much smaller.’

To measure the waves, they want to use a minuscule diamond that they’ll put in a ‘quantum superposition’. They’ll be able to do that because it has a built-in imperfection: a single nitrogen atom among a sea of carbon atoms.

Next, they want to shoot photons, aka light, at this little diamond. This leads to a bizarre situation that’s par for the course in quantum mechanics: the photon is simultaneously absorbed and reflected by the electron in the nitrogen atom. This creates a superposition with two particles: one is sensitive to magnetic fields, while the other isn’t.

Gravitational wave

‘Using a magnetic field, we can separate these particles, leaving approximately a metre of space between them’, Hoekstra explains. ‘If we then reverse the field, the particles come back together.’

But if a gravitational wave has passed in the meantime, causing the world to contract in one location and expand in another, one particle will take just a little bit longer to get back to its original position than the other, altering its wave pattern. That is something we can measure.

At least, in theory, Hoekstra adds. An experiment like this pushes the boundaries between quantum mechanics and the ‘real world’ to the extreme. ‘Putting, and keeping, a diamond in superposition is really difficult’, says Hoekstra.

This is due in part because the diamond is extremely sensitive; light or even the heat radiating from an object at room temperature could mess with the readings. Another problem is that the diamond is so big, at least for an experimental physicist, who is used to working with atoms. This means the experiment has to right not just once, but continuously. The experiment consists of constantly shooting photons at various diamonds.

Really difficult

The next challenge is to create a stable magnetic field. It’s also important for the diamond to all have the exact same mass.

Hoekstra says it’s all possible. ‘That’s what’s so great about this idea, where experimental physicists work together with theorists like Mazumdar’, he says.

‘It’s really difficult and it will certainly take decades before we succeed, but right now there’s no reason we can see why it wouldn’t work.’

FSE wants special funds for rejected proposals

FSE wants special funds for rejected proposals

The Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) wants to create a fund to finance research proposals that didn’t make the cut for national and European subsidies.
6 July om 12:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 July 2020
om 12:55 uur.
July 6 at 12:55 PM.
Last modified on July 6, 2020
at 12:55 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

6 July om 12:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 July 2020
om 12:55 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

July 6 at 12:55 PM.
Last modified on July 6, 2020
at 12:55 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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The idea is part of the conceptual 2021-2026 strategic plan the FSE faculty council discussed last week.

The fund is aimed at lightening the workload of academic staff. People who, as dean Jasper Knoester said, ‘feel like the whole thing’s a lottery’.

Consequences of the crisis

It’s not yet clear where the money for the fund will be coming from, especially since no one knows how the corona crisis will impact the university.

Which proposals would stand the best chance has also yet to be determined. But, said Knoester, the chance that proposals concerning the faculty’s core themes are prioritised is small.

Many researchers already feel the pressure to submit proposals that conform to a certain agenda. ‘On top of that, independent research suffers from a lack of funding.’

We’re one step closer to a brain computer

Mysteries of nickelate

We’re one step closer to a brain computer

Scientists of the University of Groningen made significant progress in their search for a material that they can use to mimic the neurons of a human brain. The discovery was published last week in Nature Communications.
25 June om 10:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 June 2020
om 11:55 uur.
June 25 at 10:00 AM.
Last modified on June 29, 2020
at 11:55 AM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

25 June om 10:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 June 2020
om 11:55 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

June 25 at 10:00 AM.
Last modified on June 29, 2020
at 11:55 AM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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The human brain can process huge amounts of data, despite its relatively small size. It’s also very energy-efficient. For years now, scientists have been searching for ways to build a computer that works just as well. That’s a difficult challenge.

‘The neurons in your brain have thousands of dendrites, like little legs, connecting to the dendrites of thousands of other neurons via synapses. This means that information can be transferred through many channels at the same time’, explains professor Beatriz Noheda of research centre CogniGron. ‘Whereas regular computers work with transistors that can only process information sequentially. One to one.’

Too much space

The reason that the brain is so energy-efficient is because storage and processing of information are done in the neurons, whereas regular computers use different locations to do that. And finally, the neuroplasticity of the brain makes it possible for the neurons to strengthen some connections and weaken others. ‘So when you work hard to learn something, for example, more energy flows through them. But you can lose memories too, when connections get lost.’

You can lose memories when connections get lost

Big companies like IBM or Intel already tried to mimic the brain, by making chips that arrange thousands of transistors to resemble one neuron. But even though power consumption went down significantly, the thousands of chips that would be needed before you have a ‘brain’ would simply take up way too much space.

Other researchers worked on so-called memristors – electrical devices that make it possible to adjust the level of resistance between them by allowing the movement of ions, like the brain does with the synapses between neurons. ‘However, that is not reproducible enough’, Noheda says.

Controllable

So Noheda and her team have been trying to develop a memristor mechanism without the electronics, but based on the transport of electrons. ‘So they are faster, but way more controllable’, she says. It’s deeply fundamental research that has only been going on for only a handful of years.

And last week, she and her PhD Qikai Guo published an important discovery in Nature Communications on the way to a material that could realize just that. 

The two had high hopes for neodymium nickel oxide (NdNiO3), a material that can go through a metal-insulator phase transition. That means it can be very conductive at one time, but has insulating properties at another, which is essential for a device in which you want to adjust the resistance. 

Usually materials like that are manipulated through temperature. This stuff turned out to be more mysterious than they had realized, though. Some researchers claimed it was a normal metal, meaning it was conducting like copper. The conductivity could be explained by electrons interacting with vibrating atoms. ‘But others believed something more exotic was going on. They believed the electrons were interacting among themselves’, Noheda says. Both sides had the experiments to prove their point.

Argument

Guo and Noheda set to work to settle the argument once and for all. But when they did, they discovered that no matter how carefully they tested, their readings changed every time. ‘We found we could get literally any value, even values nobody had found before.’

What if the cause is not the strain itself, but something caused by it

For quite some time, neither researcher knew how to explain their results. They did know, however, that the conductivity of the material was not only related to temperature, but also to the material they ‘grew’ their nickelate on. ‘We created extremely thin films of material, thousands of times thinner even than a human hair. But we did that on a crystal substrate with a slightly different structure’, Noheda says.

The atoms in the substrate were slightly further apart or closer together than those in nickelate. But by making evaporated nickelate settle on it, they forced the atoms of the nickelate into the same position. ‘The crystal was working as a template.’

Rearrange

Noheda and Guo discovered that the more strained their nickelate was, the higher the conductivity. But the effects they found were too big for the strain alone to explain the results. ‘So what if the cause is not the strain itself, but something that is caused by the strain?’

Further experiments showed that the strain in the nickelate films caused the nickelate to lose oxygen. Normally the metal will have one atom of nickel, a neodymium atom and three oxygen atoms forming a crystal. ‘But we found that from time to time an Oxygen atom would be missing. That would cause the other atoms to slightly rearrange themselves’, Noheda says. And that explains the difference in conductivity.

It means the researchers have done two very important things. They added to fundamental knowledge of nickelates, but they also put an important step towards the dream of a brainlike computer. ‘We now have this control over the material’, she says. ‘We have a turning knob now, we never knew we had.’

Absenteeism at FSE keeps rising, cause unknown

Cause is difficult to pinpoint

Absenteeism at FSE keeps rising

The long-term absenteeism at the Faculty of Science and Engineering keeps rising, the recently published Health, Safety and Environment Report states. But the cause is hard to pinpoint.
22 June om 16:53 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 June 2020
om 16:53 uur.
June 22 at 16:53 PM.
Last modified on June 22, 2020
at 16:53 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

22 June om 16:53 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 June 2020
om 16:53 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

June 22 at 16:53 PM.
Last modified on June 22, 2020
at 16:53 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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Absenteeism among staff at the science faculty has doubled over the course of the past six years. In 2014, staff members were absent 0.9 percent of the time, while now, that number is 1.8. Among women, absenteeism has risen from 1.2 percent to 2.9. Among PhD candidates, the increase is even larger: it went from 0.9 to 2.6 percent.

Support and managerial employees call in sick most often: their percentage rose from 3.5 to 5.7. Once again, the number is much higher among female employees.

Frustrating

Theodora Tiemersma with the FSE faculty service acknowledges the problem. ‘We’ve spoken about it with our medical officer. The board is also worried. But it’s frustrating, since we can’t figure out what’s causing it.’

Obviously, work stress is playing a role. Tiemersma has also noticed that especially young researchers call in sick a lot. That’s not just PhD candidates, but also postdocs.

‘Academics in the early stages of their careers’, she says. ‘Everything is happening at once to them. They’re stressed because they have to present their work, but they’re also starting a family at the same time. It’s a lot to keep up with.’

Solution

Finding a solution isn’t easy. Over the past few years, the faculty has come up with various programmes, like ‘efficient working’ or ‘how to lead’. ‘But not a lot of people show up to those courses.’ Tiemersma also wonders if the people who do show up to courses like that are the ones that need them the most.

Absenteeism at the UG in general has not gone up as fast as at the faculty. The absenteeism rate has remained the same among academic personnel. But among administrative and support staff, absenteeism has gone up from 4.2 percent in 2014 to 6.4 percent now.

UG nabs both Spinoza and Stevin prizes

Photo Reyer Boxem/UG

UG nabs both Spinoza and Stevin prizes

The UG has nabbed two of the most prestigious science prizes this year. Philosopher Pauline Kleingeld has won a Spinoza Prize, also known as the Dutch Nobel Prize. Environmental psychologist Linda Steg has been awarded a Stevin Prize.
19 June om 8:05 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 23 June 2020
om 9:47 uur.
June 19 at 8:05 AM.
Last modified on June 23, 2020
at 9:47 AM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

19 June om 8:05 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 23 June 2020
om 9:47 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

June 19 at 8:05 AM.
Last modified on June 23, 2020
at 9:47 AM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

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After research financier NWO called her with the news that she’d been awarded a Stevin Prize of 2.5 million euros, Linda Steg was quiet on the phone for a while. ‘What?’, she eventually managed. ‘I have to let this sink in.’

She wasn’t allowed to tell anyone else. Only her partner could know, and the people in the university communication department and journalists, as long as they kept to the embargo.

Pauline Kleingeld was also overwhelmed. She has been awarded one of four Spinoza Prizes, which is also worth 2.5 million euros. She hadn’t seen it coming. ‘There are so many people out there doing great research.’

Excellent

Both prizes are to reward the work of excellent researchers. But while the Spinoza Prize mainly focuses on fundamental scientific research, the Stevin is more concerned with social impact.

Steg is being given the prize for her work in environmental psychology. The jury said she is one of the most influential and innovative pioneers in the field. She wants to know why some people display environmentally friendly behaviour, and why others don’t.

She also wants to find out why people prioritise the greater good over their own personal comfort. Her most important discovery is that it’s not just about ‘rational’ facts or a cost-benefit assessment; moral and environmental considerations also play a large role.

She wrote an influential climate report for the UN and featured on Thomas Reuters’ ‘world’s most influential scientific minds’ list no fewer than five times.

Innovative views

Philosopher Kleingeld has been awarded the prize for her innovative views on the works of eighteenth-century philosopher Kant. She not only shows how Kant’s racist and sexist ideas come through in his work, but she’s also using her vision of Kant’s ethics to reach new insights in moral universalism and free will.

Because of the corona crisis, the researchers will have to miss the celebration at Bessensap, the annual conference for science communication where their wins will be announced.

They’re both okay with this, although Steg regrets she won’t be able to see her colleagues when they hear the news. ‘Last year when I got a Royal Decoration, everyone else knew when I didn’t. Now it’s the other way around, but I won’t be able to see their faces.’

Prize money

Both researchers already know what they want to do with their prize money. Kleingeld wants to figure out whether her interpretation of Kant’s ethics can contribute to modern discussions about moral universalism. ‘I’m kind of going against the tide, since we’re living in the days of relativism and scepticism’, she says.

Steg wants to try and integrate her social-scientific research in climate models. ‘In the end, those models are all about human beings and human behaviour.’

Other winners

In addition to Pauline Kleingeld, biophysicist Nynke Dekker at TU Delft, bio-organic chemist Jan van Hest at TU Eindhoven, and immunologist Sjaak Neefjes with the Leiden University Medical Centre have also been awarded Spinoza Prizes.

Cancer researcher Ton Schumacher at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital has been awarded the other Stevin Prize.

Steg’s Stevin Prize is the first of its kind for the UG since the prize was created in 2018. Spinoza Prizes have been around for much longer. Previous winners at the UG were physicist George Sawatsky (1996), medical biologist Dirkje Postma (2000), and chemist Ben Feringa (2004), who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

After the UG not winning anything for a decade, migratory bird expert Theunis Piersma was awarded the prize in 2014, and geneticist and current rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga won it in 2015. In 2016, philosopher Lodi Nauta and engineering physicist Bart van Wees were awarded the prize. In 2019, astronomer Amina Helmi won.

UKrant interviewed Pauline Kleingeld en Linda Steg:

The quest for a just world

Does the world have a set of universal values? Principles that apply to every single human being? UG philosopher Pauline Kleingeld is using the money from her Spinoza Prize to find out. ‘A lot of people nowadays don’t think they exist. But I want to try anyway.’ Read the interview here.

Environmental researcher, not an activist

She was already one of the most influential psychologists in the world, but now environmental psychologist Linda Steg has been awarded the Stevin Prize (of 2.5 million euros) for her research into environmentally aware behaviour. ‘I can’t be an activist. Not if I want to be a scientist.’ Read the interview here.

Experts in carbon dating solve centuries-old mystery

Aerial view of Por-Bazhyn, seen from the west. Photo: Andrei Panin

Experts in carbon dating solve centuries-old mystery

No one knew why the mysterious fortress of Por-Bazhyn had been built or why it had never been used. But this week, UG scientists presented the solution to the mystery, thanks to a new method of carbon dating.

10 June om 9:19 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 10 June 2020
om 9:22 uur.
June 10 at 9:19 AM.
Last modified on June 10, 2020
at 9:22 AM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

10 June om 9:19 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 10 June 2020
om 9:22 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

June 10 at 9:19 AM.
Last modified on June 10, 2020
at 9:22 AM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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The island fortress of Por-Bazhyn, deep in Siberia’s permafrost, is almost as mysterious as Machu Picchu. It may not be as well-known as its Peruvian twin, but scientists have been fascinated by this eighth-century clay building surrounded by twelve-metre high walls for decades. Who built it? Was it a palace? A fortress? A monastery? Why doesn’t it have any fireplaces? Why doesn’t it look like anyone ever lived there?

In an article published in PNAS this week, UG scientists provide the definitive answer: they’ve determined the building was constructed in the summer of 777. They used a new method, looking for carbon-14 isotope peaks in tree rings.  These peaks were caused by rare solar flares, once of which occurred in 775 and another in 994. 

Uyghur ruler

‘This study is a perfect example of how this new method can be used to date archaeological findings’, says the article’s first author, Margot Kuitems. ‘We found the peak in the penultimate ring in a beam from the building. The last ring consisted of only spring wood. That means the tree was cut down in the summer of 777.’

This exact dating allowed the scientists to identify the Uyghur ruler Tengri Bögü Khan as the architect of the complex. Since the archaeologists had previously found out that construction took about two years, their discovery also provided a plausible answer to other questions they had about the building.

‘Bögü Khan had converted to Manichaeism’, says Kuitems. This Christian movement said that good and evil were equal. The Roman Catholic church considered its followers heretics. ‘But in 779, Bögü Khan was murdered during an anti-Manichaeistic uprising.’

Monastery

It’s likely, therefore, that Por-Bazhyn was meant to be a monastery. But because Bögü Khan’s rule came to an end, the complex was never put to use.

Kuitems is ecstatic about the find, since this means solar flare dating can be used to solve archaeological mysteries. And to think, they came very close to not solving anything at all. ‘We didn’t find the peak in an earlier wood sample’, she says. ‘We were really disappointed. But then it turned out that particular sample was missing its last tree rings.’

They hit pay dirt in the second sample, since that did contain the rings. ‘It was a close shave. We were really lucky.’

App to automatically register presence in FSE buildings

Photo by Reyer Boxem

App to automatically register presence in FSE buildings

The Faculty of Science and Engineering wants to automatically register staff members’ presence in its buildings using Eduroam. This means the existing app FSE Presence will have to be adjusted.

3 June om 9:54 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 June 2020
om 13:59 uur.
June 3 at 9:54 AM.
Last modified on June 3, 2020
at 13:59 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

3 June om 9:54 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 June 2020
om 13:59 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

June 3 at 9:54 AM.
Last modified on June 3, 2020
at 13:59 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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Faculty of Science and Engineering staff members who are still in buildings like Nijenborgh 4 or the Linnaeusborg, buildings which both have large laboratories, have to register their presence through a website or the app FSE Presence. This is to ensure that emergency workers know where people are if something happens. In reality, however, people rarely register. 

‘The system isn’t working properly. It’s really people-dependent’, says biochemist and faculty council member Andy Thunissen. ‘I have the app on my phone’, says faculty council chair and astronomer Mariano Mendez. ‘But almost no one uses it.’ 

The faculty is now working on a new version that will use Eduroam checkpoints. Employees will only have to log on to the WiFi network once; after that, the system will automatically register their presence. The CIT also hopes to use the information to determine where in a building everyone is. 

Respect privacy

The faculty council said the idea in and of itself was a pretty good one. ‘In terms of safety, it’s important to know where people are in the building’, says Thunissen. ‘But it’s important to respect the users’ privacy.’

He doesn’t need to worry about that, according to FSE security expert Theodora Tiemersma-Wegman. ‘You can’t make an app without taking those privacy concerns into account.’ This means the app will not use any personal information while detecting the presence of staff members. The data collected will not be saved anywhere and will only be made available to the people who really need it. ‘On top of that, the app only works in FSE buildings. It won’t detect anyone logging on to the Eduroam network in, say, Rome.’

That still doesn’t mean that everyone will be using the app all the time. ‘Some people just object to it on principle’, says Thunissen. ‘We emphasised how important it is to get this right.’ Besides, says Thunissen, the app should be the only system. ‘It’s important that people have the ability to opt out.’ 

Principled objections

Tiemersma-Wegman can’t say yet whether using the new app will be mandatory. ‘We haven’t quite figured that out yet.’ She is aware that there will be people who forget their phone, people who don’t even own a smartphone, or people who object to being registered on principle. ‘No system is airtight’, she emphasises. ‘But this would be such a step forward that we want to develop it.’

Right now, they’re doing a test in the FSE buildings to determine whether the Wi-Fi network covers every nook and cranny. Tiemersma-Wegman hopes to be able to implement the app as soon as possible. Especially in these times of corona, it’s important to know how many people are in the buildings and where they are. She can’t name an exact date for the implementation. ‘But we’re trying for October.’

UG psychologist forces NWO to pay him damages

Stephan Schleim. Photo Elsbeth Hoekstra

25,000 for delayed research

UG psychologist forces NWO to pay him damages

Research financier NWO has to pay UG theoretical psychologist Stephan Schleim 25,000 euros in damages, the Dutch Council of State has ruled. It marks the end of an eight-year battle for a VENI grant.
6 May om 9:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 May 2020
om 12:45 uur.
May 6 at 9:32 AM.
Last modified on May 6, 2020
at 12:45 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

6 May om 9:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 May 2020
om 12:45 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

May 6 at 9:32 AM.
Last modified on May 6, 2020
at 12:45 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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‘It was an emotional moment’, Stephan Schleim admits, referring to when he read the Council of State’s judgement. It’s been eight years since he started his battle with research financier NWO, and there were times when he doubted there was any due process in the Netherlands.

But now it’s over: he not only received the 250,000 euro VENI grant he applied for in 2012 and which, it later turned out, he had been denied unjustly, but he’s also been awarded damages since his research, which didn’t get started until 2017, will cost more money because of the delay.  

It all started in 2011, when the German Schleim, who’d only just started his career at the UG, applied for a VENI grant. He wanted to study the role of individuals in neuroscientific research, which usually tries to make statements about groups of people.

But his application was denied. He feels the grounds for the rejection were wrong. Initially, he didn’t let it bother him, and submitted an improved application in 2012. ‘But that one was denied as well, and it was so clear that they’d made mistakes in the process that I decided to lodge a complaint’, he says.

Third place

The first time his application was evaluated, Schleim received the highest possible grade from the NWO referents, an A+. He was in third place out of 59 applicants and was through to the second interview round. Then, he suddenly dropped to nineteenth place, which meant he missed out on the grant.

‘The explanation was three short paragraphs containing incorrect information’, he says. It said that Schleim hadn’t properly explained how his research contributed to society. ‘But that had been a point of focus in my application’, he says. ‘It’s just that we didn’t talk about it in the interview.’

He suspects that his decision to do the interview in Dutch is what led to his rejection, when all he wanted to do was show he was committed to the Netherlands. ‘That was my mistake; my Dutch wasn’t good enough yet.’

On top of that, his interviewers were a geneticist, for whom psychology was not an area of expertise, and a social psychologist. ‘The latter said she didn’t understand my research.’ He thinks the motivation for his rejection was ‘a matter of copy and paste’. 

Legitimate objection

His objection was judged to be legitimate, but then NWO came up with another reason why they’d rejected his application. ‘The second time, they said I was too advanced in my career, and the third time they claimed I wasn’t helping them find a solution.’ 

In 2014, Schleim went to administrative court. ‘Then they came up with the rule that if your application had been unjustly denied, you had to submit a new one. I refused to accept that, but I know of other researchers who did that, and they all lost.’

In the end, the administrative court said he had a right to the grant. Nevertheless, Schleim appealed. ‘I wanted the judge to issue a substantive response to the grant rejection and how NWO had done things.’

The appeal worked out in his favour, but he still lacked a substantive response. In 2016, he went to court for damages, since the delay to his research meant his budget had now exceeded 250,000 euros. The Council of State awarded him 25,000 euros. 

Shocked

He never regretted his battle with NWO. ‘Looking back, it took so much time and effort. But it was also a great way to learn Dutch’, he says matter-of-factly. ‘I enjoy writing and I’ve tried to keep a positive attitude.’

Nevertheless, he’s shocked at the way the research financier deals with scientists and how it distributes grants. ‘Other researchers have told me the motivation for their rejections were incorrect, too’, he says. ‘They usually don’t kick up a fuss, since they’re afraid of being blacklisted.’

Too advanced

As for Schleim, the NWO hasn’t asked him to evaluate any grant applications since his appeal, something they used to do before 2012. He’s also no longer eligible for a VIDI, the follow-up grant for experienced researchers. ‘You’re not allowed to apply for a VIDI if you’re still working on a subsidised study’, he says. Since his VENI research was delayed by four years, he’s now too far advanced in his career for a VIDI.

In a response, NWO stated that they and Schleim disagree about the causal connection between the grant and the earlier rejection. ‘The court had initially ruled in favour of NWO. We’ve taken note of the Council of State’s ruling and will implement it.’

Why does corona affect people differently?

Lude Frank thinks it’s in the genes

Why does corona affect people differently?

Why do some people get incredibly sick from the coronavirus while others don’t notice a thing? Geneticist Lude Franke thinks it might have something to do with their genes. Franke is heading up a large-scale Lifelines study into corona symptoms that’s set to start this week.
1 April om 10:16 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 1 April 2020
om 10:16 uur.
April 1 at 10:16 AM.
Last modified on April 1, 2020
at 10:16 AM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

1 April om 10:16 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 1 April 2020
om 10:16 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

April 1 at 10:16 AM.
Last modified on April 1, 2020
at 10:16 AM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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That was fast! Doesn’t it usually take a little longer to set up a study like this?

‘Correct. We read all the news about how some people got sick from the virus while others didn’t. We suspected genetics played an important role in this. Through the biobank of Lifelines, we have access to the genetic information of 135,000 people in the north of the Netherlands. Approximately two weeks ago, we figured we might be able to use that.

We started making the switch. I hit pause on everything and collected a large team to focus on this. Everyone was like, this is exactly what we’re supposed to do. We’re not doing it alone, obviously.

We’re collaborating with UG Lifelines and the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health. We had to work really hard and coordinate a lot, but we’re ready to get going.’

The people who participated in Lifelines live in the north of the Netherlands, which fortunately hasn’t been hit as hard as the rest of the country. Is the data collected here even useful?

‘First, we’ll study people suffering from flu-like symptoms. We’ll ask them if they have any symptoms and what they are exactly. It could just be the flu, but it could also be a corona infection.

We’ll then look at locations in the DNA that could explain those symptoms. Once we’ve found those, we’ll need people who’ve been proven to have corona. Then we’re going to compare the effects in the large group to the much smaller group of confirmed corona patients to see if the latter has them as well.

I hit pause on everything and collected a large team to focus on this

In this two-step process, we only need to study a limited number of confirmed COVID-19 patients for the study to be statistically significant.’

Do you have any idea where to look for the genetic deviation? 

‘There’s a location on chromosome 6 which is known to cause a lot of autoimmune diseases. We suspect that people who have such a strong immune response to the virus might have a deviation on that chromosome. We’re looking at the HLA area on chromosome 6 and the KIR gene cluster on chromosome 19. First, though, we need to have all our data in order. Only then can we start studying it.’

Will we have to wait for another two years before you figure everything out?

‘No, not at all! We wanted to get started so quickly to make sure we could contribute. As soon as we collect the information from the Lifelines participants’ questionnaires, we’ll start our first round of analysis. We won’t be doing that alone, by the way; we’re working together with other large biobanks, like the one in Rotterdam and the Dutch Twin Register. I hope it’s just a matter of weeks before we have the first results.’

Will hospitals be able to test their patients for this specific gene profile?

‘Well… We’ll probably find something in the DNA pretty quickly, but I don’t think we’ll have a test ready on the short term or prevent people from getting sick. But once we’ve found those locations, we can figure out what it is they do. Which genes are they impacting, and which cells? Which biological processes were being disrupted?

We have no idea why the immune system goes berserk

Right now, we have no idea why the immune system goes berserk and why people’s lungs fill with fluid. Once we understand that, we’ll have information for the drug developers, so they know what to aim for.’

You also want to study how the virus spread. How does that work? How do you know who really has corona?

‘Everyone is waiting for what’s known as the serological test. The current COVID-19 test determines whether someone has the disease, but once they’re cured, the virus is gone. If we can find the antibodies that protect people from getting infected again, we can determine whether someone had it before. That allows us to look at the population and make a much more precise estimation of how deadly this virus is.

What we need right now is a lot of international funding to expand this research. We’re paying for everything ourselves right now; we were given money by the UG, the UMCG, and Lifelines.

We’ll need more if we want to do those serological tests later on. That would enable us to understand what really happened. The questionnaires from the study could be of great value if we know exactly who’s had the disease and who hasn’t.’

Surely it can’t be that difficult? 

‘You’d hope so, because this is of great importance to the whole country. Two days ago, Harvard virologist Jaap Goudsmit was a guest on the news programme Buitenhof, where he said that we have to systematically record this disease using biobanks like the Rotterdam study and Lifelines. He didn’t know that we would be announcing our study the next day.

What we now need is a lot of international funding to expand this research

Look, this biobank study is extremely important, but it’s difficult to convince policy makers of that. But this is the moment to tell them that research like this is essential to understanding how people’s health and bodies work.

This pandemic is having a colossal impact on the economy. Spend some money on research! It will most likely lead to better insights and more knowledge. If more governments used their biobanks like this, I definitely think it will yield a profit.’

Uncertainty around exams remains

Uncertainty around exams remains

Almost two weeks after the university cancelled all physical classes, there is still much uncertainty about what to do with the exams. Students are inundating their lecturers with e-mailed questions. But they don’t know what to tell them.
25 March om 12:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 25 March 2020
om 12:30 uur.
March 25 at 12:09 PM.
Last modified on March 25, 2020
at 12:30 PM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

25 March om 12:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 25 March 2020
om 12:30 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

March 25 at 12:09 PM.
Last modified on March 25, 2020
at 12:30 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

On Monday, the option to administer exams online became available. Lecturers can use Blackboard Collaborate for oral exams and presentations. Another option is an online written exam. But none of the options are really ideal. ‘Exams have to abide by certain rules and that’s harder to do online’, says UG spokesperson Gernant Deekens. ‘It’s up to the faculty exam committees and the faculties themselves.’

Exams have to meet the right requirements. They should test students’ knowledge of the material properly and cover all the relevant learning objectives, like expertise or analytical skills. Large multiple-choice exams are out, however, and making students do an assignment instead often means too much work for the lecturers. Then there’s the matter of making sure students don’t look up the answers online.

Open-book exams

‘I think we’ll be seeing a lot of open-book exams’, says health law professor Brigit Toebes. ‘We’re discussing the option, anyway.’ She thinks it might be a pretty good solution. ‘In the end, it’s much more like reality than a regular exam. We’re always looking stuff up in our work’, she says.

Pharmaceutical professor Eelko Hak spends most of his time on e-mail correspondence with the exam committee, he says. ‘Teaching online is going pretty well, but I’m mainly worried about the exams. Can we trust the students to do it themselves? Are their laptops and internet connections up to the task? How can I formulate the right questions to test for the learning goals?’

Student pledge

To prevent fraud, the university has included a student pledge in the online testing environment. Students pledge to take the exams by themselves and only use the materials that are allowed. They’re also reminded that fraud and plagiarism are serious offences and will be reported to the exam committee.

Finally, lecturers are advised to randomly contact students through video conferencing and ask them extra questions or ask them to provide additional information. 

Exams in june

No one is talking about rescheduling the exams, however. ‘We haven’t heard anything about that’, says business administration lecturer Derk-Jan Heslinga. He attended a webinar on online testing, but no one has provided any clarity on the issue. 

He argues that all exams should be postponed until June. ‘I think it would be best to schedule one big exam period in June and July, of six or seven weeks. That way, the lecturers have the opportunity to prepare and the ESI will have time to roll out the online options. An exam isn’t something you can just have a stab at. You have to get it right straight away.’