Erik van der Giessen is one of the co-founders of HTRIC and an engineer and professor at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the UG. If you ask him how he ended up there, the answer might surprise you. Erik describes himself as a failed mechanical engineer. As an avid biker at what was formerly known as the Delft Institute of Technology, he started studying Mechanical Engineering. During his second year, however, he found out that Physics was actually a better match for his interests. Erik chose to specialise in traditional physics and continued to stay on this track during his PhD. Along the way, his research has moved more towards physical materials science. As he performed more and more research himself, he became a professor at a young age, after which he was sent to the United States for a sabbatical. Erik’s research continued its trend of focusing more on physics, and after a while a position became available at the University of Groningen.
In Groningen, Erik found himself in a completely different environment, one that greatly inspired him. He remembers that his colleagues in Delft were inclined to work on their own little islands, but in Groningen that was not the case at all. Erik felt welcome and his colleagues immediately started looking for ways to cooperate with him. This openness, connectedness and mutual eagerness for others to succeed enabled him to develop his interest in biophysical issues. In short: in Groningen, Erik came into his own.
Even though the research in his group was mostly sparked by curiosity, Erik likes to get inspired by questions from the fields of biology or medicine. What this kind of research leads back to? His roots as an engineer! A great example of this kind of research is looking into the possible applications of new insights in material properties and the natural environment of cells. Together with researchers from the Faculty of Science and Engineering and the UMCG, Erik got to work. Because of this, Erik grew increasingly close to the UMCG. These new insights about cooperation between the Faculty of Science and Engineering and the UMCG finally led him to become the driving force behind the new bachelor’s degree programme Biomedical Engineering.
“Getting to work for the sake of another, that is the soul of HTRIC.”
Erik is a special combination of a scientist and an engineer, which is not commonplace. A researcher works on the essence of a question, while an engineer works directly towards a solution. This fire that burns within engineers characterises Erik’s identity as a researcher. He mostly gets motivated by the issues of others, which is exactly how HTRIC plans for things to develop. This drive to find a solution for, amongst others, the people around him, is combined with his expert abilities for scientific thinking and developing solutions.
It is not a coincidence that we explicitly mention those around him. Erik’s research is also driven by a personal motivation to find solutions for people he knows with diseases that we cannot, as of yet, treat effectively. It is a very frustrating fact, Erik explains. How can it be that we are able to build nuclear power plants and launch rockets into space, but cannot cure the diseases that take lives around us every single day, and greatly limit people in their lives? It is a poignant question, but an important one to keep asking. How can it be, Erik wonders, that we spend money on these projects instead of spending money on the development of solutions for very real and very current problems? He pleads people not to perform research for the sake of their own egos, but for the people that are currently experiencing serious problems. With this, he touches upon the core of the values that HTRIC embodies. Getting to work for the sake of another, that is the soul of HTRIC, according to Erik.
“How can it be that we are able to build nuclear power plants and launch rockets into space, but cannot cure the diseases that take lives around us every single day, and greatly limit people in their lives?”
Getting to work for the sake of another is something that still needs to be made possible for young academics. Young researchers are judged upon far too many things. How many publications do you have? Have you gotten any awards or distinctions? These questions force young researchers to stay in their comfort zones in order to achieve the desired results. At HTRIC, this comfort zone is exactly the place we need to avoid. According to Erik, it is highly important to support young academics both financially and professionally, to prevent them from falling down a black hole if they venture outside their comfort zones to try and find solutions with a fresh perspective. Change is difficult for all of us, but some of us need to dare to be ahead of the curve. And those people need our support.
Erik’s dream for HTRIC in five years? An academic playground in which it is possible for everyone to get to work for the sake of another. A place where people happily allow others success, and a place that is accessible to all. Should this come true, the collective creativity of the various professionals can be used optimally, to come to better treating methods and medications. According to Erik, being a place like this is a prerequisite to HTRIC’s success. In the past, there have been many people with ideas similar to HTRIC. But now we have the chance to bring those ideas to life. And that is something we all need to work for.
Erik van der Giessen is a professor in Materials Science, Physics and Mechanics at the University of Groningen, as well as a co-founder of HTRIC. His other positions: