Guido Tans Guido Tans Hugo Thomassen

Guido Tans, ‘the son’

Written by  Jolien Linssen Wednesday, 20 January 2016 14:54

“Are you the son of Sjeng Tans?” This was a question Guido Tans was often asked when he arrived at Maastricht University (UM) in 1977, one year after its official opening. “Guilty”, he would say. Now, almost 40 years later, history is repeating itself. “Yet again, I’m ‘the son’,” he laughs.

 

The name of the politician Sjeng Tans (1912–1993) is inextricably linked with UM. Without his efforts, there probably would not have been a university here at all. Not only was he one of the founding fathers of what was then called the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, he was also its first president. As UM celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, a statue will be erected at the Tongersestraat in his memory. Guido Tans, the spitting image of his father, nevertheless remains down to earth.

“Until now, I hadn’t thought all that much about the anniversary”, he says. The reason is simple: “I wasn’t there at the time. When my father started working on developing the new university, I was studying in Groningen. That’s a long way away from Maastricht, and I came home only two or three times a year. I wasn’t much into local politics at the time, nor was I aware of the political manoeuvring. And perhaps my dad and I even avoided the topic in conversation. When you’re young, you’re not willing to compromise – whereas that’s what politics is all about.”

Life’s work

Today, at the same age as Sjeng Tans when the university was officially established and with his own academic career to look back on, Guido has no doubts about his father’s accomplishments. “The founding of the university was his great life’s work. Politics is bargaining, without letting go of your ideals. If you’re then able to create something you wholeheartedly approve of, as he did, what more could you wish for?”

Nonetheless, Guido warns against the creation of a “personality cult”, as he calls it. “Presenting my father as the one and only founder of Maastricht University, as sometimes happens, is historically inaccurate, and I’m sure he would have been averse to such claims. That’s not to say he wasn’t proud of his work. As an adherent of the philosopher Ivan Illich, he was passionate about lifelong learning and the improvement of education. The introduction of Problem-Based Learning, a novelty in the Netherlands, definitely filled him with pride.”

Research and education

Despite being educated in the more traditional system in Groningen, Guido got the opportunity soon enough to experience the innovation taking place down south. It happened more or less by accident. “After graduating as a physical chemist, I planned on a career in industry. I sent out a lot of application letters, yet jobs were scarce. Starting the PhD programme at the Maastricht Department of Biochemistry felt like a career switch to me, but I decided to give it a try.” It turned out to be the right decision; he never looked back.

Next Guido and his wife moved to California, where he spent two and a half years as a postdoc. Upon returning to Maastricht, he joined the staff of the Department of Biochemistry. “Whenever we talked about my research, my father would ask me when I would be done”, he recalls. “But one question inevitably leads to another, which puzzled him.”

Although scientific curiosity is his main motivator, over the years Guido’s focus has shifted from research to education. “I don’t really feel at home anymore within the current research structures, which are largely money driven and result oriented”, he explains. “So in the past 15 years I’ve devoted most of my time to teaching and working as a student adviser in the medicine programme. Dealing with young people has always given me a lot of satisfaction. At the moment, I’m looking at setting up a research project on the effects of study advising. It’s very different from biochemical research, yet exciting.”

Basset Fauve de Bretagne

Besides his work within the walls of the university founded by his father, there’s that other passion, which Guido shares with his wife Geja. It all started in 1994, when they expanded their family with a Basset Fauve de Bretagne, a short-legged hunting breed of dog. Now they have four of them. “Yes, the hobby got out of hand”, Guido laughs. “Our first Fauve, Jopie, was so nice and well behaved that we decided to breed a litter with her. But our second one had a different temperament: she’d go missing every day for hours.”

It was a wake-up call for Guido and Geja, who decided to learn more about the breed. “As the Basset Fauve de Bretagne is bred for hunting, these dogs have an incredible sense of smell”, he says. “They’re dictated by their noses. Still, they have to learn that they can follow a scent trail only when they’re allowed to, which requires constant training and attention.” For Guido and his wife, it has become a way of life. “Every two weeks we go out hunting. When the dogs find what they’re searching for, they make enough noise to raise to dead. For me, that’s music to my ears.”

 

Guido Tans (1952) studied physical chemistry at the University of Groningen and completed his PhD at Maastricht University. After working as a postdoc at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, he returned to UM in 1983. He has been an associate professor in biochemistry for the past 30 years and served as student adviser for medicine from 2000 to 2015.

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