Yes, says Perez-Gavilan, it was indeed a transition from the US metropolis of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) to South Limburg in early 2012. “The culture is different, the language of course, and the small scale”, says the Mexico native now responsible for the chemistry curriculum of the Maastricht Science Programme. “But the main difference is the work itself. In Philadelphia I worked as a teaching assistant during my PhD. The lecture halls would be packed with over 150 students all listening to the professor. I barely knew any of them. Here I give courses for a maximum of 60 students, which we split up into groups of 12. The lines of communication are very short; within a few weeks you know everyone by name. We look for solutions together, work on cases. And I have great freedom to come up with lectures based on my own knowledge of the field.”
AdventureIn 2011, Erkens traded in his job as an evolutionary biology lecturer at Utrecht University for an adventure in the south. “Yes, you could call it that. Helping to launch a new bachelor’s programme, coming up with the curriculum yourself – that’s a great challenge. In a new setting like this you get the chance to change things and implement your own ideas. This is a unique programme with enormous freedom of choice. In addition to their compulsory courses, students can choose from around 80 different courses. The programme is so small scale that chemistry, biology, physics and maths constantly come into contact. Boundaries between fields fade; crossovers and new insights emerge. This interdisciplinarity really appeals to me. We find things out here – and for a researcher that’s fantastic.”
The move to Maastricht was not an obvious one, even for a born-and-bred Maastrichtenaar like Erkens. “No, I wasn’t planning an immediate return to my roots”, laughs the now 37-year-old father of two toddlers. He studied biology in Utrecht, and quickly forged a career for himself there. “I got the chance to do some tutoring during the last phase of my studies. That turned into a job I was able combine with my PhD research. After that things moved quickly: I had my own lab, all the freedom you could ask for and plenty of opportunities for further development. But, like Ariane, I missed the personal element. The lecture halls were stuffed with as many as 300 undergraduates. Some students I didn’t speak to once during the entire year. I also found the departments too monodisciplinary – which is understandable, as that’s how it works in established universities. But I believe in collaboration. In Utrecht almost everything is focused on biomedicine. Here at Chemelot, where we deliver the practical part of the programme, it’s different. Science is rooted in practice; the different disciplines all come together here.”
BordersPerez-Gavilan, too, sees the breaking down of borders as a key advantage of the Maastricht Science Programme. “I’m a pure chemist”, says the 29-year-old lecturer. “So in the more traditional university system, I had little to do with physicists or biologists. Here at Chemelot that’s definitely different: on the one hand because the students can choose from a broad package of courses, and on the other because practice is up for grabs here. We have very well-equipped training labs and as of this third year I’ll have more time for research. Which is important, because here we’re also pursuing research-based learning.”
This is not a place for traditional teaching, Erkens confirms. “It’s all very innovative. You can even see this in the applications we get from students. They come from all over the world – at the moment we have students of 40 different nationalities. All people who are looking for this special combination of different science subjects. And the number of Dutch students is gradually growing too. In the first year we had 11; now there are more than 20. That really says something, because UM is not traditionally a science university.”
CrossoversThe Maastricht Science Programme has a core group of eight tutors/researchers. For many of the courses, experts from diverse fields are invited to give lectures and collaborate on projects. “Expertise is very close by”, says Perez-Gavilan. “Just look at RWTH Aachen University, or the universities of Hasselt and Leuven. We also get entrepreneurs who are looking for students to do research and later to take up jobs. As a result all sorts of crossovers arise. Next year I’ll be doing a research project on plants with Roy. I’ll be there as the chemist, Roy as the biologist.”
The Maastricht Science Programme is set to expand in the coming years, including with two master’s programmes. Erkens: “If all goes well, we’ll be able to launch those in 2014. That’s important not just for our further development, but also for the future of the region. With its chemical and manufacturing industry, South Limburg needs this knowledge to keep people here and to remain economically attractive.”
Ariane Perez-Gavilan (1984) graduated cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 2006, and obtained her PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Philadelphia in 2012. She has lived in Maastricht since early 2012.
Roy Erkens (1976) studied biology at Utrecht University and obtained his PhD in 2006. He won Utrecht’s Young Teacher Award in 2003, and in 2009 was awarded a Veni grant for his research on biodiversity in tropical rainforests.