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Where there used to be shelves piled high with jars of formaldehyde full of unusual animals, we now see tourists coming and going, well wrapped up against the cold and pulling their suitcases behind them. Among all the holidaymakers, two people stand out: they are carefully studying an old classroom illustration of dividing cells. They are evolutionary biologist Hans Breeuwer and biology student Zilva van Rossum.

Photography: Liesbeth Dingemans

Text: Edda Heinsman. Photography: Liesbeth Dingemans

If there is one place that clearly demonstrates what has changed in twenty years of the Faculty of Science, it is this place: the former zoological university museum, now a hotel. Breeuwer laughs when the door to the old auditorium opens. 'Ha, a few things have changed here!' Still, he admits that there is a lot to recognise. Breeuwer sits in his familiar place in front of the blackboard, which nowadays serves as a menu. A beer tap is attached to the desk. Meanwhile, Van Rossum is testing out the old-fashioned college benches. Various details – such as conical flasks used as lamps – hark back to the former purpose of the building.

A great subject

Breeuwer spent a lot of hours in this lecture room. However, it is not where his passion for teaching began. With both parents in the education sector, he initially wasn't interested in teaching at all. 'But biology is just such a great subject,' says Breeuwer. 'And people have a lot of questions about it. At parties, I found myself constantly talking about it. That's how I found out that I really enjoy talking about biology and I fell into it as a profession.' Van Rossum also notices that she gets asked a wide variety of questions since she started studying biology. 'My bees suffer from parasites, what should I do?' she gives as an example, laughing. 'But I also get asked much more serious questions, for example about the Dutch nitrogen policy or the impact of climate change on nature. I like the fact that biology also tackles big questions like that. It's why I chose this field of study. I want to contribute to making well-informed decisions in this area.' Breeuwer: 'That’s one of the big differences from twenty years ago, right there: the students are much more engaged these days, more socially involved than they used to be. They are also better at communicating – making posters, giving talks. A presentation? That kind of thing comes easy to them!'

Zilva van Rossum (20) briefly studied medicine before switching to biology. She is now in the second year of her Bachelor's programme and was mainly attracted by the social relevance of biology.

Uncomfortable bench

Time for a photo. 'Ah, I don't miss that!' says Breeuwer as he bends himself double to sit next to Van Rossum on the uncomfortable bench. 'This metal edge on the desk, which is supposed to be handy for holding your pen, tends to cut into your forearm when you lean on it. And the table is also far too small for proper note-taking. You can’t even fit a sheet of A4 on there.'

Furniture isn’t the only thing that has changed over time; so has the way information is collected. This is particularly evident in the old library. We go up the stately stairs with Breeuwer leading the way, he knows where he’s going. The library – a space now used for yoga classes – at first glance still resembles the old one. With one big difference: all the books have been replaced with fake orange copies. 'I used to spend a day here every week,' says Breeuwer. 'You could relax here and consult the professional literature. There was a whole system of cards with keywords. It was a way of really taking things in. It allowed you to build up your own archive.' So it was quite tough when the researchers had to exchange their metres of filing cabinet space for just one metre of shelf space per person with the move to the Science Park. 'What a pity!' says Van Rossum. On the other hand, she admits that most articles can also be found online at the touch of a button.

Programme director Hans Breeuwer studied biology in Groningen. Since his postdoc in 1993, he has been affiliated with the UvA. He became an assistant professor in 1998 and is now an associate professor. Breeuwer has a passion for education and teaches on a wide range of subjects, from Genetics & Evolution to Forensic Entomology.

Contact hours

Breeuwer points to an old biology print. 'Very trendy!' says Van Rossum. 'Many students have a copy of it at home.' And although the copying practicals may be a little less detailed today than it was 20 years ago – after all, you no longer need pencils of 5 different thicknesses – it still exists. The idea is that you learn to observe better by drawing than by taking a photo. All these practical exercises make biology one of the most expensive degree programmes. But Breeuwer most enjoys giving these classes. ‘I hope we continue to let students conduct practical research, so that they can learn and experience how you collect the facts that will help you solve the complicated questions.’  The practicals are also a favourite part of the programme for Van Rossum. 'The high number of contact hours and practicals in small groups is great. Very different from medical school', she says. 'You do most of the work at the university; you put in long days, but it's also fun with other students and it means you don't have so much to do at home.'

Back we go through the building. 'That’s where the printer was. We wasted a lot of time printing dictations there, I had quite a fight with it', laughs Breeuwer. 'And during lectures you had to wrestle with an overhead projector.' 'Is that the thing with the transparent sheets?' asks Van Rossum. And then, by way of apology: 'I’ve only been around for twenty years myself...'

DNA sequencing

That’s enough about the past: what will biology look like 20 years from now? Van Rossum: 'More and more data is being collected, huge data sets are being created and are also being shared. Big data is becoming increasingly important as a result.' Breeuwer adds: 'This is partly due to the huge advances in DNA sequencing. When we first started mapping a DNA profile, that could keep you busy for a couple of weeks. But the work itself is quite routine.' Van Rossum: 'We don't even learn how to sequence ourselves these days, it's a process you outsource to a company.'

As programme director, how does Breeuwer see the future? 'Hopefully, there will be even more cooperation between the various disciplines. Interdisciplinary studies already exist, but they often don’t go deep enough. I think it would be a good idea for the various disciplines to work together more closely on the major issues, for example in the area of sustainability, each with their own knowledge. To really tackle these kinds of challenges as a multidisciplinary team.

Major societal challenges such as sustainability are so complex, they require a multi-disciplinary approach, bundling the expertise from different disciplines. I think it would be great for the various disciplines to work together more closely on the major issues, each from their own expertise, for example in the area of sustainability. To this end, the modern facilities at Science Park, where everyone is on the same site, are ideal.'

Also read

Read more information about the Bachelor’s programme Biology and the Master’s programme Biological Sciences.

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