Rob Reneman Rob Reneman Philip Driessen

"Losing is not my thing"

In Body
Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 10 June 2015 14:09

You could be forgiven for thinking time has no impact on Professor Rob Reneman. In August, when the Amsterdam native turns 80, he’ll probably still be working at Maastricht University three days a week. Founder of the cardiovascular research institute CARIM and former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), he is busy working on his final publications. "But I’m going to call it a day once I’m done with these. Time is starting to catch up with me; physically, things are not what they once were. Getting up early is becoming harder and harder, and now that I’m less busy painful memories seem to surface more often. But every day my brain keeps working is a gift."

Reneman’s knowledge and character are widely renowned, as is his remarkable ability to bring together different research disciplines. Despite having never written an application letter, his CV is impressive. On one occasion he was asked if he was interested in becoming Minister of Education and Science, "but it wouldn’t have suited me, because I always say what I think." Another time he was offered the post of rector magnificus at UM, "but I didn't have the time; I was busy running CARIM." Over the years he has sat on all sorts of committees, from the Dutch Heart Foundation and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to the  general board of the KNAW and later the supervisory board of Leiden University. "I realised that for a young, small university, it was very important to have a good network. That’s one of the ways I was able to put CARIM on the map."

Of course, CARIM also garnered international attention for its excellent research. That, in turn, was possible because in those days researchers still had the time for new scientific initiatives. "There was no one tapping their stopwatch, waiting for your next publication. We were given years to build up a decent infrastructure, and the funds to attract outstanding people who were keen to get involved with a collaborative research programme."

Today universities are focused on getting returns, including from scientific research. In Reneman’s view, this is a symptom of a business model gone wild. "I don't think universities lend themselves to an output model in terms of valorisation. How do you define the potential value of research? Look at the great scientific breakthroughs; typically, a lot of time passes between their discovery and their application in practice. The full value of Landsteiner's discovery of blood groups in 1901 wasn't realised until World War Two, when blood transfusions were needed.  “Clearly,   it’s impossible to measure the social relevance of research”.

Power struggles
Reneman has witnessed many calls for greater democracy in universities over the years. "Together with other professors I sat on the faculty council in the 1970s. In hindsight, I wonder if we ever really had much say. The students and staff shirked their responsibilities, and there were all sorts of power struggles; it was more politics than logic. In the 1990s, when universities gained more power to make their own decisions, one actually opted for a business model with more professional directors, supervisory boards and management layers. This now leads to dissatisfaction, because there’s very little contact between the management and the people on the work floor."

One reason for this dissatisfaction, he says, is the lack of information trickling down to the work floor. "The rationale behind decisions is rarely given. The budget for research and education is shrinking; meanwhile, there’s zero insight into the costs of management and real estate."

On stepping down as president of the KNAW, Reneman was praised for his ability to have open discussions about his plans – after which his own vision would inevitably be realised. "I lead people in a friendly way. You have to make decisions based on deliberation and conviction. And I was always happy to change my view if others raised valid points."

Red ink
When he became emeritus professor in 2000, his former PhD students gave him a book they made themselves. Many of them included a page from one of their own manuscripts, which they had received back from the professor covered in red ink. He would work late into the night to check their work meticulously; nothing was left to chance. "That said, you should be open to the unexpected when doing research. Trust your intuition, and if you get an unexpected result, don’t think: ‘it doesn’t fit the concept’. Instead, try to figure out what caused it."

Asked about the research achievement he is most proud of, he lists the names of colleagues who have brought the projects he started in Maastricht to fruition. "They’re the reason we became a leading international institute in fatty acid metabolism of the heart, cardiac mechanics and the flow behaviour of blood cells in the microcirculation. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I don’t mind saying it was me who got all this research going."

Personally, Reneman is proud of what he and Arnold Hoeks have achieved in the field of vascular ultrasound. They developed a non-invasive technique that made it possible to identify the properties of the artery wall in patients and volunteers for the first time. "That was pioneering work. In many studies in Maastricht and in collaboration with centres in the Netherlands and abroad, we were able to figure out the importance of artery wall stiffening in patients and what this means for the functioning of the heart. We were also able to clarify the role of blood flow behaviour in arteries in the development of atherosclerosis.” 

Reneman is also proud that researchers within CARIM were given the chance to excel in one particular area, such as atrial fibrillation or thrombin generation. He is an organiser and a team player – partly because he doesn't have the patience to devote his entire life to a single topic. "I’d rather encourage others who are specialists in the field."

Working as a cardiovascular anaesthesiologist in Utrecht in the 1960s, he was sometimes bored when an operation by a surgeon in training would take hours. After doing a postdoc in 1970 in Seattle, then the Valhalla of ultrasound research, he realised he wasn’t keen to return to the clinic. "I worked hard in the US, but I had weekends off and during the week I was home for dinner. I wasn't used to that at all! It was one of the best times of our family life."

Next he was asked to head the Life Sciences department of Janssen Pharmaceuticals in Belgium, running a group of about 60 collaborators. Once they had finished their tasks in product development, they had plenty of time left over for basic research. Reneman enjoyed his time there. But in 1974, he was invited for an interview at UM. "The challenge of establishing something completely new has always been a draw card for me. And at Janssen, I wasn’t able to further develop my fascination for vascular ultrasound. I’d been the first to kick this off in the Netherlands in the 1960s, and it's not easy to just let that go."

He was appointed professor of Physiology in Maastricht, where he was the founder of CARIM. In 1999, he was asked to become president of the KNAW. "It was a great honour." During his tenure, the academy’s tasks were laid down in law and several international academic organisations were established in Amsterdam. Reneman also initiated the Academy Professor programme. He finally returned to Maastricht in 2002 at the age of 67, taking up an emeritus post to continue with what he calls his hobby: scientific research.

While his wife, Wijnanda, was largely responsible for raising the children, he has a great relationship with all of them. Those who know him well call him a ‘family man’; both on the home front and at work. ‘A Sunday child’, he calls himself, despite the fact that their first daughter died after only two days and their second son passed away at the age of 31. "Now I'm less busy, I lose more sleep over that. To me, this is one of the biggest drawbacks of getting older. But at the same time I think: if our first child had lived, we might never have known our two younger daughters. And I wouldn't have missed them for the world.

“I turn losses into gains because I don't want to lose. Say I’m having a conflict with a telephone provider; I get all riled up because I’m having to deal with people who won't acknowledge their own incompetence. It never bothered me to just admit it if I didn't know something."

Losing at sports was never his thing either. He played basketball in the first division for over five years before he started his medical internships, and later played with a team in Maastricht until he was 50. "You play to win and try to learn from your mistakes. One mistake that sometimes haunts me now I'm older is a patient who died in intensive care when I was the responsible anaesthesiologist. I’d used a new procedure, one a renowned institute had published on. That experience taught me never to blindly trust the literature."

But in general, he looks back with satisfaction at his scientific findings, and enjoys the accompanying recognition. "When you get asked to sit on three foreign scientific academies, and the Academia Europaea even asked me a year before the Dutch one did, it occurs to you that people do actually notice your work."

Rob Reneman (1935) is Professor Emeritus of Physiology and the founding father of CARIM. He has had an illustrious career in science and administration, and received many awards and distinctions.


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