‘From the tap to the lab’

The Royal Dutch Academy of Science (KNAW) has created a special ‘Akademie Assistenten’ programme that involves MSc students in scientific research, with an eye toward interesting them future scientific careers.

Instead of working typical student part-time jobs in shops or bars, student academy assistants are paid to conduct research at some of the country’s leading labs and institutions.

Students participating in this new programme work as a research assistants, and are called ‘Akademie Assistenten’ (or ‘Academy Assistants’ in English. All Dutch faculties can apply for this grant, which is subsidised by the Dutch Ministry of Education. Professor Rob Mudde, the director of education at the faculty of Applied Sciences (AS) from 2006-2010, applied on behalf of the AS faculty. Presently, 12 TNW MSc students are working as Academy Assistants.

“Professor Karel Luyben and I realized that this was a great opportunity to give talented students an extra challenge. They can really experience the deceptions and the euphory that are part of doing research,” Prof. Mudde explains. “Some students are hesitant to start a PhD because they think four years is a long time. In fact, a PhD is over in the blink of the eye. Other students doubt their capabilities. But any student graduating with good marks at TU Delft should be able to obtain a PhD degree. By working as an Academy Assistant students can experience all aspects of science and decide whether doing a PhD fits their interests.” 

But isn’t there plenty of time to consider doing a PhD during the master thesis project, the MEP? “It is better to decide whether you consider doing a PhD before starting a MEP,” Prof. Mudde continues. “When a student knows he or she has an interest in doing a PhD, the student and supervisor can take that into account when doing the MEP. Another advantage of working as an Academy Assistant is the opportunity to look around in more different research groups.”

Broader  view
International students, Matthew Pierotti (23, Applied Physics), and Sumit Sachdeva (24, Biochemical Engineering), are working together as Academy Assistants in the bionanoscience department of the Nynke Dekker lab. 

“We’ve been working there since September 2010. We’re tracking small particles in 3D,” Sachdeva says. Both students had their own reasons for applying for the Academy Assistants programme. Sachdeva: “This project isn’t exactly my field, which makes it interesting and gives me a broader view. Of course the money involved also made it attractive.” 

Pierotti realized that it was a chance to develop research skills that are not necessarily taught in classes: “I developed practical skills like calibration and applications of Matlab.” 

But why would a student apply for this programme and not for one of the other challenging programmes, like an honours track in the Bachelor’s programme? Prof. Mudde explains: “This project is special, because the students get paid. Instead of doing a job at the local supermarket students can earn money in a useful way.” 

Or, as the KNAW described it, students go from the tap (working in bars and pubs) to the lab. Gerwin Koolstra (21, Applied Physics) worked in the Nynke Dekker lab. He studied how the structural properties of DNA change when small molecules bind to it. Koolstra would have applied even when the job wasn’t paid: “But only if there would be another form of reward, like credit points, because doing research takes a lot of time.”

Prof. Mudde explains that the honours tracks and the programme for Academy Assistants have a common goal. “We want to encourage students to get the most out of their education,” he says. “With these programmes we hope to change the current academic culture at TU Delft. Students spend a lot of time on committees and other activities outside their education. We want to encourage students to spend more time on their education.” 

In 2009, when the first group of Academy Assistants applied, Prof. Mudde noticed that there were much more international students than Dutch students interested in this job. He believes this discrepancy is culture related. “I think that international students tend to improve their CV by doing activities related to education, while Dutch students improve their CV by doing activities outside their education.” 

Before receiving a grant from the KNAW each interested faculty had to write a proposal. “There was much competition with other universities,” Prof. Mudde explains. “Therefore we wanted to write an exclusive proposal. We decided that the Academy Assistants had to work in groups in a multidisciplinary environment. The students should be forced to work outside their own discipline.” He smiles: “The Committee Akademie-Assistenten was very enthusiastic about our plan.”

But that first group of students immediately encountered the difficulties of the plan, he adds, because students had to devote lots of time to understanding the subject, which was not their own discipline. Consequently, progress slowed. “This made the motivation of both supervisors and students go down, Prof. Mudde admits. “So this year students are working on disciplines more related to their studies.”

According to Sachdeva, this year’s programme was still challenging. “Especially the physics part was difficult, because I had no experience working with optics,” Sachdeva says, but adds that it was enjoyable working in a group. “It was very useful to work together. When one of us was busy studying, the other could continue working on the project”. Koolstra also appreciated the group work: “It’s nice to exchange ideas.”    

Part of the Academy Assistants programme involved a workshop held in September, focusing on working in multicultural environments. “This workshop was redundant, though” Pierotti says, “since we already had such workshops during the Introduction Week for international students. The good part of this meeting and the project was to meet fellow students from all over the world in a professional light, related to my studies. The best way of learning how to work in an international environment is being exposed to it.” 

Prof. Mudde doesn’t agree that the workshop was redundant, however. “International students have to adapt to a new culture,” he says. “The best way to learn this is to repeat and practice. I experienced how difficult it is to adapt to a different culture when I was working in Japan.” 

What will happen to the Academy Assistants programme in the coming years? “For next year we have several new research subjects and supervisors,” Prof Mudde says. “Dr Martin Rohde (RRR/Physics of Nuclear Reactors) will take my place as the organiser of the project. It’s good for me to stop before organising this becomes a routine. The grant is finished by August 2012. After that the KNAW hopes that each faculty will continue the project on its own budget.”

The Academy Assistants of this year are about to finalize their projects. Pierotti and Sachdeva are now attending meetings to discuss the conclusions on their report. They both say that they certainly hope to continue doing scientific research.

Volgens de jury is de finalist er met een beperkt budget in geslaagd ‘een gebouw in een gebouw te maken met een krachtige identiteit. Een eenvoudige ingreep brengt een groot effect teweeg, waarbij zowel de binnenzijde als de buitenkant kunnen worden gebruikt.’

De finalisten zijn door vakgenoten geselecteerd uit meer dan zevenhonderd projecten en strijden om in totaal zeventien awards. De winnaars worden door een internationale jury gekozen en op 23 oktober bekendgemaakt.

De ontwerpen van alle finalisten en winnaars worden aansluitend één week geëxposeerd in de Brainport Greenhouse tijdens de Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven. De prijzen bestaan uit de wedstrijd, de internationaal reizende tentoonstelling en de productie van het Dutch Design Jaarboek 2010.

Eerder kregen MVRDV en productontwerper Richard Hutten voor The Why Factory ‘De Lensvelt de Architect interieurprijs 2009′. Het was toen ‘het meest vernieuwende interieurproject’ uit 84 inzendingen en leverde twaalfduizend euro op.

The Why Factory is een kolossale trap die kan dienen als tribune met daarbinnen ruimtes voor presentaties en onderzoek.

Redacteur Redactie

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